Egypt, Turkey and the Middle East. Then and now


This article seeks to contrast Egypt’s leadership role in the Middle East after the Second World War with the one Turkey is currently aiming for, while emphasizing the fundamental changes that occurred in Middle East countries during the second half of the 20th century.

After the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, the Middle East was a fragmented entity. Most countries were under western rule or protection, while others were in a state of self-governance (as was Egypt from 1922). After the Second World War, Arab states gradually reached independence and soon the Middle East began to look for an emerging country that would take the lead.

Egypt was one of the first autonomous countries to reach independence under the British Empire. By the beginning of the 1950s, it had come to a point where Egypt was able to overthrow all western influence and was on the path of becoming a self-sufficient country. Although the Suez crisis in October 1956 ended in military defeat against Israel, it was nonetheless a diplomatic victory for Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser[i], who soon became the leading figure for the Arab states in the region. From that moment on, Egypt became the one Middle Eastern country who would challenge, not bow down to, western wishes and instructions and who had the support – but was not under the control of the USSR[ii]. Furthermore, in 1961, Egypt – along with India and Yugoslavia – was one of the founding and leading countries of the Non-Alignment Movement. Its purpose was to provide a middle ground for countries who did not wish to adhere to the USA-led camp or to the USSR-led one. Egypt’s strength and status was unparalleled at the time and positioned it to be the ideal leader of an Arab world that consisted, at the time, of several newly created countries (such as Syria and Jordan) unable to come together and create a unified front. Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat – who succeeded the former after his death in 1970 – maintained Egypt as the de facto leader of the Arab World and of the fight against Israel until 1973, when peace negotiations with Israel began and concluded with the Camp David Peace Treaty in 1979[iii]. Egypt maintained its ties with Arab countries, mainly due to economic necessities on their part, but was considered from that instant a traitor to the cause of liberating Palestine, one who would not be forgiven for its sins.

It goes without saying, that Israel and the liberation of Palestine were one of the main connecting tissues between Arab countries[iv].

Turkey succeeded to the Ottoman Empire after its partition in 1923 (Lausanne Treaty of July 24th, 1923). The Kemalist State struggled with its dual identity[v] for the second half of the 20th century while having to balance its relations with the Arab countries and the western world. Turkey had to deal with the following dichotomy: it was a Muslim-populated country with a political system and institutions built on western values. Ankara fought to maintain its economic, political and strategic connections with the western world (NATO membership, European Union candidacy negotiations) and even upgraded its association with Israel after the end of the Cold War[vi]. Israel and Turkey became allies on a strategic level. It was deemed a necessity because of both countries’ needs to refocus their peripheral economic and military strategy in their sphere of influence[vii]. This partnership led to even stronger economic ties and technology exchange[viii]. Its downside was that it accentuated the Arab countries’ disdain for Turkey as a Muslim-populated country that recognized Israel[ix].

The Arab countries never looked up to Turkey, because of its status as a direct successor of the Ottomans[x]. They did not, and never will cherish the time they spent under Ottoman rule and therefore do not accept the fact that Turkey, nowadays, is aiming to recapture the former Ottoman glory days and establishing itself as the figurehead of the Middle East[xi]. The casual observer can plainly see that this is the main reason why Ankara, in the last few years, and mainly since the Marmara Incident in 2010[xii], has meticulously disassociated itself from Israel[xiii] and no longer keeps a low profile about its ambitions to provide a reliable and steady model of what a Muslim-populated country should look and act like[xiv]. Turkey considers the Middle East to be within its sphere of influence – as emphasized by current Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in his book “Strategic Depth” – due to the its common history, culture and geographic position[xv]. The Kemalist state would not, in this case, be a bridge between the West and Islam but a central power with a reach that extends beyond its borders.

The key difference between the time that Egypt was the head of the Arab world and today is that the Arab countries had eight decades, since the end of World War I, to work out some of their differences, to develop their economy while maintaining political relations with each other as well as the rest of the international community (oil, strategic coalitions). Although Israel and Palestine still remain a difficult issue with the western world, during the last few decades the issue has morphed into a matter that should be dealt with from within, with the assistance and mediation of the United Nations (UN). There is no clear leader of the Arab world anymore, even though willing contenders consistently rear their heads[xvi]. The Arab Spring reinforced the Arab countries’ resolve to be autonomous and to make their own policy regardless of the rest of the world’s view of what an Arab country should be like. The emergence, in the last few years, of the Muslim Brotherhood[xvii] seemed to designate it as the next frontrunner of pan-arabism. However, its rise has slowly come to a stop and its influence is now heavily criticized inwards[xviii] and its party even banned from politics in Egypt[xix].

[i] The Suez Crisis An Affair to Remember, The Economist, July 27, 2006.

[ii] Trudy J. Kuehner, The U.S. and Egypt since the Suez Crisis, The Newsletter of FPRI’s Wachman Center, Vol 14, No 23, July, 2009.

[iii] Bernard Gwertzman, Egypt and Israel sign formal treaty, ending a state of war after 30 years; Sadat and Begin praise Carter’s role, The New York Times, March 26, 1979.

[iv] Steven J. Rosen, Erdogan and the Israel Card, Wall Street Journal, June 10, 2010.

[v] Bernard Lewis; Why Turkey is the only Muslim Democracy, The Middle East Quarterly, March, 1994.

[vi] Meliha Altunisk, The Turkish-Israeli rapprochement in the post-Cold War era, Middle Eastern Studies, December 6, 2006.

[vii] Neill Lochery, Israel and Turkey: Deepening ties and strategic implications, 1995-1998, Israel Affairs, April 11, 2007.

[viii] Amikam Nachmani, The Remarkable Turkish-Israeli Tie, Middle East Quarterly, June, 1998.

[ix] O. Bengio & G. Ozcan, Old Grievances, New Fears: Arab Perceptions of Turkey and its alignment with Israel, Middle Eastern Studies, September 8, 2010.

[x] Soner Cagaptay, Why Turkey can’t be a Model for the Future of the Arab Spring, the Atlantic Monthly, December, 2012.

[xi] Türkceo Kuyun, Turkey seeks Ottoman Sphere of Influence, Al Monitor, April 3, 2013.

[xii] In May 2010, the Turkish Passenger Vessel Mavi Marmara was captured on international waters by Israeli forces along with five other ships that were delivering humanitarian aid to Gaza. A confrontation ensued on the Turkish ship that resulted in the death of eight Turks. This incident created a strong rift between the two countries.

[xiii] Hasan Kosebalaban, The Crisis in Turkish-Israeli Relations: What is its Strategic Significance?, Middle East Policy Council, 2012.

[xiv] Stephen Larrabee, Turkey Rediscovers the Middle East, Foreign Affairs, July/August, 2007.

[xv] Ioannis Grigoriadis, The Davutoglu Doctrine and Turkish Foreign Policy, Bilkent University/ELIAMEP, Middle East Studies Programme, Working Paper 8/2010.

[xvi] Henri J. Barkey, Turkey emerges a Middle East Leader, CNN, June 3, 2010.

[xvii] Liad Porat, The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and its True Intentions Towards Israel, BESA Center Perspectives Paper No 192, December 10, 2012.

[xviii] Oliver Roy, Democracy and Political Islam after the Arab revolutions, European Council on Foreign Relations, December 14, 2012.

[xix] Shadia Nasralla, Egyptian court bans Muslim Brotherhood, Reuters, September 23, 2013.

About Author

Stavros I. Drakoularakos

Stavros I. Drakoularakos is a contributor at the International Security Observer (ISO). Stavros is a PhD Candidate at the Panteion University of Athens, where he is currently writing his thesis on Turkey, Israel and the Arab World. He holds a BA from the National University of Athens and a Masters in International and European Relations from the University Paris I – Panthéon – Sorbonne. He worked as a Research Expert for the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) and is a Research Associate at the Centre for Mediterranean, Middle East and Islamic Studies (CEMMIS). He is a Greek, French and English native speaker and has a working knowledge of German.

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