Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s handshake with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who was sworn in as Egypt’s president in 2014 after a military coup, at the opening ceremony of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar raised eyebrows among those who remember Erdoğan’s previous scathing comments about el-Sisi as a “murderer” and a “coup plotter.” However, Turkey’s economic woes and its isolation in the eastern Mediterranean have forced Erdoğan, in advance of presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for May, to attempt to mend ties with the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Israel, countries with which Turkey has had problematic relations. Erdoğan’s handshake with el-Sisi in Qatar was the result of his efforts to normalize relations with Egypt.
Egypt and Turkey are two pivotal nations in the Islamic world, and events in both countries may have far-reaching implications in the region. However, for Erdoğan, Egypt has special significance. The overthrow of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood with close ties to Erdoğan, who was elected in 2012 and later overthrown in a military coup, serves as a cautionary tale for Erdoğan. He sees Morsi’s story as a valuable lesson to avoid a similar fate.
Erdoğan, the president of a NATO member country, established close ties with Russia and procured the Russian S-400 long-range air defense system despite objections from Turkey’s Western allies. Additionally, Erdoğan’s authoritarian rule and crackdown on civil society have led to concerns about Turkey’s democratic norms and human rights record and caused Turkey to drift from Western democratic standards. Despite these criticisms, elections were held regularly in Turkey, the most significant sign of a democratic government. Erdoğan has maintained popular support in Turkey, winning elections with solid majorities. Despite his anti-democratic practices and questionable closeness to Russian President Vladimir Putin, being an elected leader gives him legitimacy in the eyes of NATO and the EU. Therefore, Erdoğan feels he must win the 2023 election to avoid the same fate as Morsi.
Arab Spring and the election of Morsi as president
The Arab Spring, sparked by a desire for greater political participation, economic opportunity and social justice in the Middle East and North Africa region, was a series of pro-democracy uprisings and protests that swept the area in 2010 and 2011. The movement began in Tunisia, where popular demonstrations against corruption and economic inequality led to the overthrow of longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Following Tunisia, the protests then quickly spread to five other countries: Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain.
Following a wave of mass protests triggered by the Arab Spring in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, the country’s longtime dictator, was forced to step down and paved the way for the holding of democratic and fair elections in Egypt. Morsi, a prominent figure in the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization long banned in Egypt, ran as the Brotherhood’s candidate and campaigned for democratic reforms and social justice, positioning himself as a champion of the Arab Spring’s aspirations for greater political participation and economic opportunity. The protests and political mobilization of the Arab Spring created an environment where democratic change was possible, setting the stage for Morsi’s historic victory in the 2012 election.
However, his presidency was short-lived, as he was toppled in a military coup led by his defense minister, el-Sisi, just a year later. The coup was widely seen as a reaction to Morsi’s perceived overreach and attempt to consolidate power and his government’s inability to address the country’s economic and social challenges. The military coup that overthrew President Morsi in Egypt received a mixed response from the public. Some Egyptians supported the intervention, while others staged protests against it in the streets. Clashes between supporters of the ousted president and the military resumed in Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the 2011 Arab Spring protests that had toppled Morsi’s predecessor. After a violent crackdown in which many people were killed, the Egyptian army took complete control of the country. The coup marked a dramatic shift in the country’s politics, with the military again playing a dominant role in shaping Egypt’s future.
During the Arab Spring uprisings, Turkey was seen as a potential model for political and economic development in the Middle East and North Africa region. The country’s democratic governance and economic progress had made it an essential partner for the EU and the United States in promoting regional stability. This reputation had helped attract significant foreign investment and spurred Turkey’s rapid economic growth. After 2010, however, under President Erdoğan, Turkey’s democratic institutions came under increasing pressure. The government’s authoritarian tendencies have undermined its reputation as a regional leader and resulted in a lack of foreign investment flowing into Turkey. This and widespread corruption have led to an economic crisis.
Two powerful earthquakes that hit Turkey on Feb. 6 will likely exacerbate the country’s existing economic crisis, with potential implications for Erdoğan’s re-election prospects. Many people in Turkey blame the Erdoğan government’s profit-based economic model, which relies heavily on the construction sector, for the high death toll of more than 45,000 people resulting from the earthquake. The government’s slow response to the disaster has further damaged Erdoğan’s reputation as a strong leader at home and abroad.
Although Erdoğan has been a dominant force in past elections, his victory in the upcoming election is not guaranteed. Given the high stakes, he is unlikely to take risks that could lead to defeat, which is simply out of the question for him. In previous elections he has resorted to interfering with the electoral process. He may believe he can use the same method to achieve a victory in the election slated for May.
There is growing anger toward Erdoğan among a certain segment of society. If he were to win, the opposition would likely take to the streets and protest, as in the Arab Spring. This is a significant concern for Erdoğan since he fears that the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) could side with the opposition, as the Egyptian army did against Morsi in Egypt. Erdoğan wants to maintain control over “street movements” and the TSK to prevent a “Turkish Spring.” He fears that the masses of people who oppose him may overthrow him when democratic options are exhausted, as was the case with Morsi. It is worth noting that el-Sisi, the current leader of Egypt, was a general appointed by Morsi. Erdoğan does not want to share Morsi’s fate.
* Fatih Yurtsever is a former naval officer in the Turkish Armed Forces. He is using a pseudonym out of security concerns.