Turkey’s foreign policy should be based on national interests, not pro-Muslim Brotherhood ambitions

 27.6.2020

In recent years, the foreign policy of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been defined by promoting a pro-Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan) position rather than by national interests. This ideological attitude has been stubbornly maintained, despite the cost of confrontation with neighbouring countries.

Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Syria turned hostile because of Ankara’s pro-Ikhwan policy. Similar ideological stances damaged relations with Israel. And now these states have moved to align themselves with Greece and Greek Cyprus to counter Ankara through moves in the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East.

The Muslim Brotherhood is one of countless political Islamist organisations in the Muslim world. Founded in Egypt in 1928, the organisation has affiliations in many countries in the region.

Political Islam could be described as an ideology that aims to take over the state and then re-shape state and society according to its own image of religion.

But is the AKP an Ikhwan-affiliated party?

Since the end of the 1960s, major works of Ikhwan authors were translated into Turkish. Among such writers one could note the movement’s charismatic leader Hassan al-Banna, as well as the authors Sayyid Qutb and Muhammad Qutb.

Ikhwan texts had a huge influence on the forerunners of the AKP. But neither those forerunners nor the present day Islamists around the AKP have been able to make any authentic intellectual contribution to the Ikhwan ideology. They have never had such a capacity.

Intellectual contributions aside, AKP circles are not even well acquainted with the current discourse employed by the Brotherhood. The statements made during a top-level AKP officials’ visit to Cairo 2011 laid bare the lack of awareness of the meaning attributed to some key terms such as ‘secularism’ or ‘civilian state’ in Egypt.

But now AKP has taken on the role as the major guardian of the Brotherhood. It is internationally perceived as the flagship of the Ikhwan.

The AKP is not an Ikhwan-affiliated party. It has not internalised the Ikhwan ideology. It is merely a ‘wannabe,’ an Ikhwan imitator. However, it nurtures the dream of attaining supremacy in the Islamic world via the Brotherhood.

A group of Egyptian nationalist officers instigated a coup d’état in 1952 under the leadership of lieutenant colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser. The Brotherhood was initially in cooperation with the coup makers and backed them. As disagreements soon came up, the organisation was banned and forced to go underground.

The Ikhwan could carry legal political activities again only after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak in 2011. The Brotherhood’s presidential candidate Mohammed Morsi won the 2012 elections and could remain in office only about 12 months until being toppled by a coup led by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in 2013.

Ever since that event the AKP government has followed a harsh anti-Egypt policy and became the protagonist of the Ikhwan’s anti-Cairo struggle. It obviously believes it is also helping the Ikhwan in that way.

However, from the perspective of Cairo, the Brotherhood has come under the patronage of a foreign entity for the first time in its history. That may give Cairo extra reasons for trying to marginalise it for good through even more rigorous persecution than anything it faced under Nasser, Anwar Sadat or Mubarak’s rule.

Egypt is the largest country in the Middle East, North Africa and the Arab world. To be against the coup d’état does not mean that relations with Egypt should be severed, nor does it necessitate a perpetual conflict. There is no other country that takes such a militant stance.

In addition, the AKP’s anti-Egypt posture is not convincing. In Sudan, colonel Omar al-Bashir grabbed power through a coup, and he was deposed by another coup following protests last year. Until his last day Bashir remained one of the AKP’s most favoured buddies.

I’ve repeatedly asked AKP people, including in the Turkish parliament, why they backed Bashir if they are so anti-coup. They fumbled over their words and could never come up with a plausible response. However, the truth is clear – Bashir is pro Ikhwan while el-Sisi toppled it.

Another Ankara blunder has been to jump head first into the conflict among Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar. Of the various reasons for the conflict, the first and foremost is that Saudis and the UAE consider the Brotherhood, which is supported by Qatar, as a threat to their regimes.

Putting aside who is right and who is wrong, what does partisan support of Qatar in a conflict among three countries in the Arabian Peninsula have to do with Turkish national interests?

Global powers such as the United States and Russia chose not to be partisans in this conflict. Even neighbouring countries such as Kuwait and Oman are acting with discretion.

Turkey, with historical roots to the region, should have spent efforts to mitigate the conflict instead of rushing into the fight. This is what our national interests call for.

The gross domestic products (GDP) of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar are $780 billion, $400 billion, and $190 billion respectively. The AKP turned its back on the two countries with economies six times greater than that of Qatar – and for ideological fixations.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait are young states all established in the 20th century. Their way of life is certainly by their own traditions, like every other country.

Alexei Vassiliev, the Russian historian who wrote one of the brightest works on Arabian history underlines: “The Arab tribes are in a state of almost perpetual war against each other… yet the war between two tribes is scarcely ever of long duration; peace is easily made, but again broken upon the slightest pretence. The Arab warfare is that of partisans; general battles are rarely fought.”  

This fight is not our fight. And what will Turkey do when those who fight today make peace tomorrow?

A major reason behind Ankara’s regime change policy in Syria was the dream of a new government in Damascus, again with a strong Ikhwan representation replacing that of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

In war-torn Libya, the AKP government from the beginning has supported the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli because Ikhwan-linked organisations are behind this internationally recognised government.

Just a short while ago, Turkey signed a maritime agreement with the Tripoli government, which was certainly in line with our interests. But one must see the full picture in Libya.

As a legacy of Ottoman times there are extraordinarily warm feelings towards Turkey in Libya. Turkey has almost the optimum qualities to be the honest arbiter of the conflict this country has been dragged into. Regardless of who comes to power at the end of the day, Turkey would easily have been one of the leading countries establishing good relations with Libya – without taking undue risks like it is doing now.

Because of the AKP’s Ikhwan-based policies, Turkey today faces isolation of unprecedented proportions in the history of the republic. The AKP administration could feel obliged to adopt initiatives of other powers as a way out. It may, for example, become a tool in service of the interests of the U.S. or other big powers in the region.

An Ikhwan-based foreign policy is not sustainable. Turkey should resume a new posture based on the priority of its national interests. It should abandon hostility against Egypt and build friendly relations with Cairo. It should stop acting like a partisan in Arab conflicts.

We need friends not enemies.


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