Notice to Egypt: Don’t Listen to Turkey, Iran, or Israel

By BARIN KAYAOĞLU

February 8, 2011

Opinion-makers and political leaders in Turkey and Iran are suggesting that Egypt should somehow be inspired by their regimes and foreign policies for its new political order. Turkey appears to be a successful case of a secular democracy in a Muslim-majority country. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has called upon Egyptian President Mubarak to heed the voice of his people. The subtext: Egypt should join in Ankara’s promotion of open borders and free trade in the Middle East, coupled with a new foreign policy free from Western influence.

Meanwhile, the Islamic Republic of Iran, celebrating its Revolution this week, hints at the same idea with a twist: The new regime in Egypt should stop acting like a “puppet” of the West, heed the voice of its people, and take a firm stand against Israel as it had during the Cold War. Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran has done just that. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei argues that the “Islamic movement” in Egypt may be following Iran’s revolution. Egypt is joining in, or so the idea.

Looking at the situation, the Israeli government is concerned that a government hostile to Israel might come out of the current turmoil. Jerusalem almost sounds as if it prefers everything in Egypt to stay as it is.

The new Egyptian government, to be formed once President Mubarak steps down, is well-advised to be extremely careful about the Turkish, Iranian, and Israeli positions.

For one thing, it would be extremely hard to replicate Turkey’s secularism or Iran’s religious guardianship. And the bigger problem with Turkey and Iran these days is the two governments’ prevalent authoritarianism. It’s a much bigger problem in Iran since the controversial presidential elections of 2009.

Of course, Turkey is not doing substantially better. Mr. Erdoğan takes a “holier-than-thou” attitude but his recent policies aren’t that impressive. For one thing, Mr. Erdoğan is doing his best to secure the support of religiously conservative Turks by deepening the religious-secular divide in Turkey. Furthermore, the Prime Minister has turned to be just as incompetent as any previous Turkish leader when it comes to solving the Kurdish question. Why would Egyptians want to replace one political regime producing an incompetent autocrat for other regimes that produce incompetent autocrats?

As for Israeli concerns, while Egyptian mediation between the Jewish state and HAMAS is a noble undertaking, the new government in Cairo should stop acting like an enabler for Israel’s excesses in Palestine. This is not to suggest (unlike Mr. Khamenei) that Egypt should start saber-rattling with Israel at the earliest convenience. On the contrary, doing the Arab and Muslim world’s bidding against Israel during the Cold War was just as futile as doing Israel’s bidding in the Arab and Muslim world today. Egypt has no use for either alternative.

In the final analysis, in transitioning to a new political order, Egyptian leaders should take nothing into consideration except their country’s advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, the motor of Egypt’s current transition is a non-violent populace. Furthermore, the opposition boasts internationally respected figures such as Amr Mousa and Mohammed El-Baradei. Finally, the increase in foreign direct investment in the past few years (it almost reached $10 billion last year) means that international entrepreneurs consider Egypt to be a good place to do business.

Unfortunately, Egypt’s structural weaknesses far outweigh its strengths: state control over the economy; a corrupt bureaucracy (a natural result of the previous problem); lack of upward social mobility (Presidents Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak had all come from humble backgrounds and had risen in society through education – no Egyptian born to modest circumstances has similar prospects today); 60 years of authoritarian government and lack of experience in democracy.

Addressing these problems should be at the top of the new Egyptian government’s agenda. Not the concerns of Turkey, Iran, or Israel. If Ankara, Tehran, and Jerusalem want to help Egypt, they can do so by minding their own business.

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can also follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).

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