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The Brotherhood’s Big Brother?

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

By Sean Daly

In early February, Ashraf Abdel Ghaffar, a prominent leader of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, took refuge in Turkey, where he declared he would remain until the demonstrations succeeded in removing Hosni Mubarak from power. Speaking in Istanbul on February 8, he praised Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Erdoğan, and his Islamic ruling party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP). He went on to say that “there might be dialogue” between the Muslim Brotherhood and the AKP, and that his organization considers Turkey to be a model for a future Egypt.

Similarly, when Rachid Ghanouchi, the head of Tunisia’s Muslim Brotherhood, returned to Tunis after two decades of exile, he assigned himself the same affiliation. “Why do people want to compare me to bin Laden or Khomeini,” he asked, “when I am closer to Erdoğan?”

While Western governments have awkwardly offered tepid support for both the protestors and the autocrats of the Middle East, Ankara has emerged as a silent broker in the post-Jasmine Arab World. Turkey’s involvement will be of particular importance in post-revolution Egypt.

On March 3, Turkish President Abdullah Gül arrived in Cairo, the first head of state to visit Egypt in the post-Mubarak era. In a series of well-publicized meetings, he consulted with members of the transitional leadership, with the head of Egypt’s armed forces, and with Mohamed Badie, the head of the Muslim Brotherhood.

At one event, Gül said that when watching the Cairo protests on television in January, he had been reminded of his own student days as an activist. He described how the Turkish military coup in 1980 had wrecked the first month of his marriage. "My honeymoon was spent in a military prison,” he said.

Most of the AKP’s leadership started their political careers in parties similar to the Muslim Brotherhood—the Islamist Welfare Party during the 1990s and the more radical National Salvation Party during the 1970s. But the AKP was the first Sunni Islamist party to “break through” and rule. This achievement now affords the AKP great authority among Islamists across the region—particularly in Egypt, particularly at a time when the Muslim Brotherhood there is seeking a path to full legitimacy. Its experience offers a model of a socially conservative, Islamist party rising up and sharing power with a long dominant party tied to the military.

Even some members of the military transitional government in Egypt seem to look favorably at Turkey’s path. Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who heads the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces—the military body currently governing Egypt—met with Gül during his visit, and reportedly remarked that “the Turkish experience is the closest to us. It’s an example we can really benefit from.”

Turkey’s opportunity to increase its influence in Egyptian domestic politics mirrors a recent shift in its overall foreign-policy strategy, as it increasingly “looks East” in an effort to position itself as a regional hegemon. The question now is whether the AKP will overplay its hand. Turkey’s challenge will be to figure out how to raise its profile as a Middle Eastern powerbroker without jeopardizing its historical role as a trusted diplomatic interlocutor between East and West.

Sean Daly is associate director of global strategy at Alpha Creative Capital, a New York-based investment advisory group. More of his writing can be found here.

Photo courtesy of flickr user poniblog

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