It’s almost one hundred years since the Great Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire. Spurred on by a promise of recognition from Britain and France, Arab leaders sought independence for a unified Arab state. They ended up with divided and weak Arab states. In Constantinople, the revolt left a bitter taste of betrayal. Today, with the military toppling of Egypt’s president Mohamed Morsi supported by some regional states, the spectre of treachery has resurfaced.
The immediate causes of Turkey’s current anguish are not hard to find. Under the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), the country has witnessed a striking revival of its deep-rooted Islamic culture. Its leaders regard themselves as an integral part of a wider renaissance that may bring stability, prosperity and true democracy to the region. Thus, the military overthrow of Morsi was totally unconscionable.
The strength of feeling, as reported by Abdel Bari Atwan in a recent article, was conveyed in a telephone conversation between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Saud Al-Faisal:
“How can you claim,” asked Erdogan, “that your state is ruled by the Islamic shari’ah, that you support Islam and Muslims, and you back the overthrow of an Islamist president, who was elected in free and fair elections?”
MEMO sources in the Gulf and Turkey confirm that the exchange did take place. Al-Faisal called Erdogan after the coup to pass a message from King Abdullah to induce the Turks to abandon Morsi and endorse the military intervention. Massive financial grants from Saudi and the UAE for the military-backed “interim government” in Cairo confirm that their rulers are very much on the side of the coup plotters.
From a Turkish perspective, the Gulf States were not alone in their apparent double-dealing. Since the coup d’état, Ankara has been scathing in its public criticism of what it described as western duplicity. With regard to Washington, the sense of betrayal was all the more painful because Erdogan had met with President Barack Obama in May. According to MEMO sources they had lengthy private discussions regarding Egypt and Syria. Erdogan was left with the impression that Obama would support the democratic legitimacy and change in Egypt despite the difficulties. They also agreed to cooperate extensively to end the crisis in Syria. As it turned out, the US knew of the imminent coup and did nothing to prevent it; instead, it was actively involved in its planning and execution.
For Erdogan, this seemed a rerun of what occurred in 2008 with his Israeli counterpart, Ehud Olmert. Just three or four days before the attack on Gaza, Olmert visited Ankara as Erdogan tried to broker an agreement between the Israelis and Syrians. After positive meetings, Olmert left Turkey without informing Erdogan that he was going to launch a war.
That there were huge demonstrations across Turkey in support of President Morsi is a measure of how Turks feel. Many regard it as part of a vicious campaign against Islamists. The Takseem Square riots, they believe, were part of this.
The pain was especially excruciating because Turkey had given huge support for democratic change in Syria. Toward this end Ankara worked hard with its allies in the Gulf and the West. Regrettably, while Turkey was focusing all its efforts to end the crisis in Syria, it transpired that its allies’ efforts were directed covertly to topple the elected president of Egypt, with whom the Turks enjoyed close ties and shared much in common. Hence they still regard Morsi as the legitimate president of Egypt.
Still from a Turkish point view, the issue is one of principle and not Machiavellian instincts or policies. Military intervention in politics is rejected across the Turkish political spectrum. Today, there is an almost national consensus that military rule is not only backward but destructive. Moreover, the Turks contrast how their country stagnated under military rule for years with how it progressed to become one of the fastest growing economies in the world under the democratically-elected government.
Ultimately, two scenarios can emerge from Egypt. Either Mohamed Morsi will be reinstated or the situation will deteriorate further, with all the security and political implications that holds for the region.
Despite the similarities between their experiences, Egypt is fundamentally different from Algeria, where the military was able to contain the consequences of its coup within the country, albeit at a huge cost in lives and material resources. It is not out of the woods yet.
However, in Egypt there is no guarantee that the situation can be controlled similarly. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is the mother of all of the region’s Islamic movements; as such, it is very likely that there will be a spill over in countries where it has a presence. On this occasion everything suggests that the Islamists will not accept the theft of their revolution or the ruin of their democratic experiment.
In addition, the Muslim Brotherhood is much more sophisticated and deeply rooted than the Algerian FIS ever was. After their proscription they spent decades mastering the art of working underground. A recent remark by the Supreme Guide, Dr Muhammad Badie, that they “knew prisons before we knew power”, is a poignant reminder to all concerned.
Pushing the Muslim Brotherhood underground may result in a repeat of what happened in Iran in the early fifties. Although it took the Iranians two decades to regain their freedom, when they finally did it was through a revolution, with disastrous consequences for the external powers that plotted the overthrow of Mossadegh in 1953. From the onset, the 1979 Iranian revolution regarded the USA as the primary enemy of the nation. That outlook has since become a pillar of Iranian state policy, something unheard of two decades earlier.
For now, Turkey may seem isolated and out on its own; but as our sources state, “history is on its side”. Once people have tasted freedom and realised the power of their collective will, no power, military or otherwise, will be able to deny or subdue them. The Egyptians are no exception. When this gamble backfires, as it certainly will, the plotters and financiers will return to Turkey begging for help. They will only be welcomed if they are prepared to show genuine respect for the will of the people not only in Egypt but in their own countries.