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Erdogan's Egyptian dilemma

The ousting of Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi by the military has left western politicians and commentators unsure of how to react. They oppose military dictatorships, yet were deeply suspicious of Morsi's Islamist policies. The US and the EU have stopped short of calling events in Egypt a "coup" and have not cut military aid; while British Foreign Secretary William Hague said that there was no question the UK would stop dealing with Egypt.

The response from Turkey, one of the main regional powers, has been somewhat stronger. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan condemned the equivocal response from his western allies: "I am surprised by the west. They can't say this was a coup. What happened to their democratic ideals? This is a test of sincerity…The [Egyptian] revolution is being killed."

He added that: "There cannot be such a thing as a democratic coup. It is as much a paradox as the living dead." He went on to call the interim government Egypt's "so-called" leaders, and said that this was an "unacceptable coup". This statement – the strongest response from any international leader – has led Egypt's administration to summon the Turkish ambassador to Cairo.

There are several explanations for Erdogan's strong response. Many have suggested that it may have more to do with Turkey's domestic problems than with Egypt itself. The overthrow of Morsi came immediately after a wave of protests and unrest spread across Turkey. The demonstrations, which began with a local grievance about a park being knocked down to build a shopping mall, quickly expanded to an indictment of Erdogan's style of leadership. The prime minister branded it a foreign plot and an attempt by a minority to impose its will on the majority. Tellingly, he has used very similar language when talking about Egypt. In employing strong rhetoric about events over in Egypt, Erdogan could well be trying to deflect attention from his own problems at home.

In addition to this simple political explanation, there is also the fact that military coups are part of Turkey's recent political history. In the last 50 years, there have been three, the last of which took place in 1997, and saw an Islamist-led government, headed by Erdogan's mentor, overthrown. While many commentators have pointed to Turkey as an example of when a military coup goes right, it is a worrying moment for Erdogan, fearing for his own political future, to see an ally ousted.

Finally, Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood was a strategic ally for Turkey. Erdogan's government shares an Islamist ideology with Morsi's party and was playing an increasing role in the country. The two countries shared an agenda on Palestine and Israel, and on supporting the overthrow of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Indeed, Turkey has not stopped at condemning the overthrow of a democratic government, but has gone so far as to express support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which some in Egypt have seen as an inappropriate intrusion into domestic affairs.

Turkey's strong reaction to the situation in Egypt, therefore, is understandable on many levels. But given the importance of links between Turkey and Egypt, Erdogan may soon find that he has to find a way of working with the military regime.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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