The seesawing relations between the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (MB) demonstrate how ideological linkages can clash with geopolitical priorities in an unstable neighborhood. Between 2007 and 2013, the AKP capitalized on its ideological kinship with the MB to foster closer relations with the movement and to increase its weight in the region. Relations turned sour with the coup in Egypt and Turkey’s fear that links with the MB would lead to retaliation from both the new Egyptian government and the Gulf states (with the exception of Qatar). The once warm relationship between the AKP and the MB has measurably cooled as geopolitical realities have shifted, especially since the most recent presidential elections in Egypt.

Historical Background

The ideological kinship between the MB and the AKP has roots in the historical development of the AKP. Since its inception in the 1960s, the National Outlook movement, the Turkish political Islamist movement from which the AKP emerged, saw itself as part of a larger network of Islamist movements. This was most evident in the case of the Welfare Party, which was established in 1983 and governed in 1996 and 1997 as the dominant coalition partner—and first Islamist-led government of Turkey—until the Constitutional Court overthrew it on the basis of anti-secular activities in the “post-modern coup” of February 1997. The Welfare Party’s congresses in 1993 and 1996 included MB representatives from both Egypt and Tunisia, and the party even tried to mediate between the MB and the Mubarak regime in 1996. Such political overtures were largely backed by the party’s foreign policy vision, within which Turkey was viewed as a political leader of the larger Muslim world.

The AKP’s relationship with the MB has vacillated depending on context since its inception, however. When the AKP came to power in 2002, as a splinter party of the former Welfare Party, it initially downplayed its close relationship and affinity with the MB in order to appear as a centrist political force in the eyes of the electorate and the secularist establishment, especially the judiciary and the military. In its first term in government, the AKP’s foreign policy line was very much focused on Turkey’s EU accession process, foreign policy alignment with the United States, and the country’s further integration into the global economy—as these steps were seen as useful to the party’s struggle against the country’s secularist forces and need to ensure its political survival.  

The Embrace

The pendulum swung the other way following the 2007 general elections—when the AKP gained a much stronger mandate, the party moved closer to the MB. In fact, as the Middle East increasingly became a main reference point in Turkish foreign policy, relations with the MB started to occupy a central role in Turkey’s outreach to the wider region. Various factors drove this stance, such as the AKP’s desire to establish Turkey as a regional power in the Middle East and to expand Turkish export markets in the region. It was bolstered by a long-standing ideology, sometimes referred to as neo-Ottomanism, that construed the Middle East as being historically, culturally, and religiously connected to Turkey due to the common Ottoman heritage. According to this vision, the previously dominant Kemalist foreign policy line was one-dimensional, with an excessive focus on the West at the expense of the Middle East. The post-2007 domestic environment of AKP triumphalism was receptive to this need for Turkey to reconnect with its Ottoman heritage.

The AKP also no longer feared the military opposition (with many prominent military officials being put on trial or imprisoned for alleged coup attempts) or the judicial establishment (given its major steps to limit the judiciary through a constitutional referendum in 2010). The external context, in which Turkey’s relations with the EU were souring following disagreements over Cyprus in 2006, also contributed to this shift in foreign policy priorities toward the Middle East and bolstered the connection with the MB.  

The crucial turning point in the AKP embrace of the MB, though, came with the Israeli war in Gaza in 2008–2009. Following the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip, the AKP adopted an increasingly anti-Israeli discourse and moved even closer toward the MB and Hamas. Its main goal was to compensate for the relative inaction of the secular authoritarian regimes in the region on the Palestinian issue and demonstrate its leadership role in the wider region. This line also served an important domestic purpose in the run-up to the 2011 general elections, with the AKP using the Palestinian issue to accuse the opposition of being pro-Israeli, especially in domestic debates on the deadly May 2010 raid of a Turkish aid flotilla that had been attempting to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza.         

The AKP leadership initially saw the Arab uprisings of 2011 as an opportunity to advance this strategy of furthering its own regional and domestic influence, particularly since the newly flourishing Egyptian MB openly pointed to the AKP as a potential role model. Following the fall of Mubarak, Turkey quickly stepped in to provide political, financial, and technical assistance to the country. Turkey committed to providing development aid worth $2 billion to Egypt. It also provided technical equipment (150 garbage trucks) to solve problems relating to municipal services. The trade volume between the two countries reached a high point of $5 billion in 2012. Turkish President Abdullah Gül was the first head of state to visit Egypt after the Tahrir Square uprising of 2011, and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was greeted by thousands of enthusiastic Egyptians expressing their support when he visited in September 2011. Upon Erdoğan’s visit, the two countries signed 27 bilateral agreements in the areas of trade, transport, and police cooperation.

In the run-up to the 2012 presidential elections, Erdoğan saw in the MB’s Mohamed Morsi a potential strategic partner who could help him increase his influence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further his goal to become a regional leader. The AKP sent its election campaign experts and advisers to assist Morsi and the MB in the Egyptian elections, and the AKP greeted Morsi’s election in 2012 with enthusiasm and as a foreign policy success.

Both Morsi and Hamas leader Khaled Mashal had attended the AKP party congress in 2012, where Morsi also delivered a speech thanking the Turkish government for its support during the Tahrir Square uprising. This open demonstration of the relationship between the AKP and the MB was in sharp contrast to the secret reception the Turkish government had given Mashal after the Palestinian elections in 2006 (only to be exposed by the media), demonstrating the clear shift of strategy in the Middle East and in the AKP’s relations with the MB. With his visit to Egypt in February 2013, Gül became the first foreign leader to visit the Morsi government.

Embracing the MB also implied cooperation with Qatar, a key ally in the region that shared a positive view of the MB. The Turkish and Qatari governments met several times during and after the Arab uprisings in 2011 and called for intensified political, military, and economic relations as “members of a common culture and civilization.”1 The bilateral visits intensified in 2012, and the political relationship, in the words of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, “reached its highest level” on issues that covered not only the MB, but also the Syrian crisis.2  

Reacting to Defeat

Given its pro-Morsi line, it was not surprising that the Turkish government reacted very negatively to the 2013 military coup in Egypt. The ouster of President Morsi signified a loss of a major ally and a foreign policy failure on the part of Turkey, particularly painful at a time when Turkey’s Syria policy was already faltering. Erdoğan harshly criticized the members of the UN Security Council for not strongly reacting to the coup. The AKP even organized domestic demonstrations in support of Morsi and the MB, started a campaign for the release of Morsi, and promoted the Rabaa sign as a symbol of Turkish support.

As with the Gaza conflict, this issue also gained domestic significance as a tool for discrediting the opposition and polarizing Turkish society (through parallels drawn to the AKP’s own past struggle with the Turkish military). Those who criticized Morsi and the MB were quickly branded as undemocratic coup supporters or supporters of Israel, which was suspected of engineering the coup. Despite its strongly critical line, however, Turkey did not take any concrete measures against Egypt, and its opposition thus remained largely rhetorical. Turkey initially withdrew its ambassador to Egypt but later sent him back, presumably to keep some lines of communication open.

The AKP’s public and vocal outrage at the Egyptian coup lasted until November 2013. Since then, the government has been notably silent with regard to developments in Egypt, for two main reasons. First, the new Egyptian government retaliated against the Turkish government for its support of the previous regime by declaring the Turkish ambassador to Egypt persona non grata and expelling him in November 2013. Second, Turkey has feared economic retaliation from the Gulf states, in particular from Saudi Arabia. In March 2014, Saudi Arabia declared the MB a terrorist organization and, in response to Qatar’s active support for the MB, removed its ambassador from Doha in the same month. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain followed suit immediately. Recently leaked tapes of Erdoğan’s conversations have revealed the government’s fear of Saudi pressure, particularly in view of the fact that the Turkish economy, with its large current account deficit, is highly dependent on Gulf money.

These two developments signified that Turkey’s strong support for the MB would no longer go unpunished by the Egyptian military leadership and its allies in the wider region, prompting the AKP to perceive its close relationship with the MB as unsustainable. The Turkish government has therefore toned down its rhetoric on Egypt and the MB, even refraining from loudly condemning the Egyptian courts’ April 2014 decision to sentence over 500 MB members to death.

The subdued reaction of the Turkish government to Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s landslide victory in the May 2014 presidential elections further indicated that the Turkish government has decided to follow a more cautious discourse on the developments in Egypt, even if it has not explicitly renounced its earlier support for the Brotherhood. The tension in this approach can be seen in recent comments by government officials. For instance, Davutoğlu, in a recent interview, stated, “there is a perception that Turkey is supporting a certain political movement in Egypt. No. Turkey would stand by whoever was elected as a result of legitimate elections,” and in June, Gül congratulated Sisi on his election victory. Following Gül’s statement, however, Erdoğan was quoted as saying to a group of EU ambassadors, “I must be honest, this congratulations to me holds no meaning, because it is not possible to offer congratulations to a coup leader.” Erdoğan’s criticism was largely interpreted as a message to his domestic constituency that his views on this matter had not radically changed.

With the exception of such occasional mild, pragmatic comments, though, the government continues its relative silence in the aftermath of the Egyptian presidential elections. In fact, a chargé d’affaires from the Turkish embassy, the currently highest ranked representative of the Turkish government in Cairo, was reported to have attended Sisi’s inauguration ceremony held in June.

These developments suggest that geopolitical realities have trumped ideological kinship in the AKP leadership’s approach to the party’s relationship with the MB, despite occasional contrary messages to its conservative domestic constituency. The seesaw has tipped yet again, and the AKP has significantly detached itself from the MB in Egypt. 

Senem Aydın-Düzgit is an associate professor and Jean Monnet Chair in the Department of International Relations at Istanbul Bilgi University. The author would like to thank Professor Gencer Özcan for his invaluable feedback and input in the preparation of this article.

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace gratefully acknowledges support from the Robert Bosch Stiftung, the Ford Foundation, and the UK Department for International Development that helped make this publication possible. The author alone is responsible for the views expressed.

Notes

1 Muhittin Ataman and Gülşah Neslihan Demir, “Türkiye’nin Körfez Ülkeleri ve Ürdün Politikası 2011” (Turkey’s Policies Toward the Gulf Countries and Jordan 2011), in Türk Dış Politikası Yıllığı (Annals of Turkish Foreign Policy), ed. Burhanettin Duran, Kemal İnat, and Ali Resul Usul (Ankara: SETA, 2012), 290–91.

2 Muhittin Ataman and Gülşah Neslihan Demir, “Türkiye’nin Körfez Ülkeleri ve Ürdün Politikası 2012” (Turkey’s Policies Toward the Gulf Countries and Jordan 2012), in Türk Dış Politikası Yıllığı (Annals of Turkish Foreign Policy), ed. Burhanettin Duran, Kemal İnat, and Ali Resul Usul (Ankara: SETA, 2013), 147.