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Playing to an empty gallery
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 02 - 10 - 2014

There are no signs the “deep wound” — as the Turkish daily Aydinlik put it — in Turkish-Egyptian relations will heal any time soon. Any glimmer of hope that followed former Turkish President Abdullah Gül's congratulations to Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi on his victory in the presidential elections was dashed by Recep Tayyip Erdogan's remarks at the inauguration of the 69th session of the UN General Assembly.
Egyptian officials returned Erdogan's fire, cancelling a meeting between the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukri scheduled in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. There was a chorus of anti-Erdogan censure from across the political spectrum in Egypt, with some demanding the expulsion of all Turkish diplomats from Cairo.
The Turkish media picked up on what former ambassador, and current vice-chairman of the Republican People's Party (CHP), Osman Faruk Logoglu described as the “overwhelming anger that has swept not just Egypt but also some decision-makers in Turkey”.
Many in Turkey sympathised with Cairo's furious reaction. Members of the Turkish parliament's foreign relations committee expressed their dismay at Erdogan further souring relations between Cairo and Ankara, denouncing Erdogan's offence to the legitimate president of one of the most important countries in the region as inappropriate and wrong.
Left-leaning Turkish newspapers described Erdogan's speech as a disaster. Zaman, which is owned by Islamic preacher Fathullah Gulen, went one further. The office of the presidency in Turkey had denied reports of any meeting between the Turkish and Egyptian delegations at the UN. Zaman published the Egyptian Foreign Ministry's statement cancelling the meeting in full, together with the official memorandum from Ankara, sent in advance of the General Assembly session, requesting a meeting to discuss regional and international issues and bilateral relations. The newspaper noted that Cairo “had more than enough reason” to refuse the initial invitation “but acted on good faith and agreed to a direct meeting to discuss issues pending between the two capitals”.
Erdogan's behaviour at the UN provoked a frenzy of comments among Turkish users of social media. Pictures of the General Assembly hall, nearly empty when Erdogan spoke and almost entirely full when Al-Sisi spoke, were posted side-by-side young Turkish bloggers. Some commentators added speech bubbles containing the angry thoughts passing through Erdogan's head as his words sailed over empty seats; others added puffs of steam and other devices to emphasise his pent up fury as he watched the man he describes as a “coup-maker” being met with resounding applause.
While many from the Turkish left have described events in Egypt from 30 June on as a coup they are not without sympathy for the millions of Egyptians who took to the streets to reject political Islam and its manifestation in the form of Muslim Brotherhood rule. Their understanding of what happened in Egypt has grown as they have followed news of the spike in terrorist attacks obviously meant to exact revenge against the Egyptian people for turning out in their millions on 30 June. And the more they have understood what is happening in Egypt the more they resent Erdogan for his crude and single-minded support of Mohamed Morsi, a man the vast majority of Egyptians had come to reject.
Cumhuriyet was among those Turkish newspapers that picked up on the theme of Erdogan's “fit of jealousy”, though it ascribed it to the Turkish president's pique that he had been replaced by Al-Sisi in US President Barack Obama's calculations.
“In Obama's programme there is Al-Sisi and no Erdogan,” it wrote. “The US president has abandoned Erdogan and replaced him by his Egyptian counterpart, Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, whom the Turkish president and the ruling AKP have declared their enemy.”
Political party leaders were equally scathing. CHP leader Kemal Kiliçdaroglu harshly criticised the content of the Turkish president's speech which, he noted, was delivered to an empty room. On the substance of the speech, he said: “Finally the president admits to the ‘quagmire' of the Middle East, which term Ahmet Davutoglu rejected in the days when he was foreign minister. What is Davutoglu to do now? He should scold his boss. But how can he after that boss has just appointed him as prime minister?”
In spite of the diplomatic strains it appears economic cooperation between Egypt and Turkey will escape the fallout. Commentators believe the worst that will happen is for Turkish-Egyptian relations to follow the pattern of those between Turkey and Israel: a diplomatic chill accompanied by trade exchanges that continue more vigorously than ever. Certainly it appears Turkish-Egyptian economic exchange is forging ahead. Already two private Turkish airline companies have announced the opening of new routes next month to Sharm El-Sheikh and Hurghada.


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