"Now it is not good for the Christian's healthTo hustle the Aryan brown,For the Christian riles and the Aryan smiles,And it weareth the Christian down.And the end of the fightIs a tombstone whiteWith the name of the late deceasedAnd the epitaph drear: "A fool lies herewho tried to hustle the East."
Turkey's foreign policy hits a dead end...and a brick wall of Arab Nationalism...
By Mahan Abedin
As Turkey intensifies its efforts to influence the trajectory of the Arab Spring, the sharp rebuke by the leaders of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood to suggestions by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that Egypt adopt a "secular state", is a carefully calculated statement and may well mark the limits of Turkish influence in the Arab world.
In keeping with the tenets of its so-called "neo-Ottoman" foreign policy, which is closely associated to the scholarly persona of Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey has exerted maximum rhetorical energy in support of the Arab Spring with a view to influencing the outcome to the greatest extent possible.
But Turkey's endeavor to offer an interpretation of the Arab Spring different to the ones espoused by the West and Iran is beset by a number of problems, not least the inconvenient fact that in comparison to the West and Iran, Turkey's new foreign policy lacks sufficient conceptual clarity and ideological authenticity.
Even if the reaction by Muslim Brotherhood leaders to Erdogan's statement is in part motivated by internal Brotherhood politics, the effect is still the same; Turkey cannot expect to be a decisive influence on the Arab world's Islamists.
Neo-Ottomanism on steroids
In recent weeks, Turkey has been the most active state on the Arab political scene, with its leaders pontificating aloud on the potential of their country's power to reshape a region rocked by revolutions and civil wars. This frenetic activity was reflected most boldly by Davutoglu before his departure to the United Nations, where he told the press that Turkey was "right at the center of everything".
Beyond the headlines, the key questions for analysts are to what extent Turkey is over-reaching and could this arrogant posturing bode ill for the future of Ankara's admittedly promising new foreign policy.
Since coming to power in November 2002, Turkey's Islamic-centered Justice and Development Party (AKP) has scored major foreign policy successes, the most notable of which is the policy of "zero problems" with immediate neighbors. A brief glance at Turkey's immediate neighborhood reveals the extent of the transformation. Barely a decade ago, Turkey's relations with its neighbors were beset by complex disputes, misunderstandings and mutual recriminations; whereas now there is extensive and deepening engagement.
For their part, regional powers ranging from Iran to the key Arab states, have welcomed Turkey's pro-active role, viewing Turkey's shift toward the Arab and broader Muslim world as a long-delayed corrective to decades of westward orientation at the expense of Turkey's essential Islamic identity and its deep historical ties to the Muslim world.
Regional hopes of a growing Turkish presence on the strategic chessboard of the Middle East received a shot in the arm following the apparently steady deterioration of Turkish-Israeli ties, culminating in the Israeli attack on the Gaza freedom flotilla and the killing of nine Turkish pro-Palestinian activists on board the MV Mavi Marmara in May 2010.
The repercussions of that incident are still unfolding. Israel's refusal to apologize for killing Turkish activists on the high seas, following the publication of the United Nations Palmer Report calling for "an appropriate statement of regret", sparked an angry response from Ankara and the quick expulsion of the Israeli ambassador. Turkey also announced an increase of its naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean to accompany aid ships.
However, despite the headline-grabbing noise surrounding this apparent Turkish-Israeli fallout, it is important to note that deep bilateral commercial and defense ties have not been adversely affected. Turkey's public falling out with Israel and its attempt to pressure the Jewish state to treat the Palestinians more humanely may in part be genuine, but the reality is that Turkey is a very long way from adopting a serious anti-Israeli policy, let alone engaging in an Iranian-style proxy war with the latter.
More broadly, Turkey's attempt to stake out an original position on the Arab Spring must contend with two major challenges. The first relates to Turkey's strategic profile, the most outstanding feature of which is the country's full and deep integration into the Western global security architecture, as exemplified by Turkish membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization since 1952.
The second relates to the essence of Turkey's so-called "neo-Ottoman" foreign policy, whose genesis, precise ideational and ideological content and ultimate goals are still subject to considerable debate. In short, Turkish foreign policy, while remarkably pro-active and undoubtedly successful at many levels, is bereft of the type of deep conceptual clarity that is required of an original strategic narrative.
This places Turkey at a disadvantage vis-a-vis key Western powers and Iran, both of which espouse an original ideological and strategic discourse underpinned by deep-seated values. While the West is keen to present the Arab Spring as a quest for liberal democracy, Iran is anxious to frame the same as an Islamic awakening. In the midst of this fierce ideological clash, it is not clear if Turkey's implicit middle way can have any claims to authenticity.
Enter the Muslim Brotherhood
The seriousness of the Muslim Brotherhood's rebuke of Erdogan is underscored by the fact that it was issued, among others, by Essam al-Arian, a widely respected senior Brotherhood figure and the deputy leader of the Brotherhood-sponsored Freedom and Justice Party. Founded in late April 2011, the party is the Brotherhood's most strategic asset in the parliamentary elections slated for November 2011.
The rebuke may be viewed as in part a reaction to fierce internal debates inside the Brotherhood, some of which were brought into sharper focus by Erdogan's visit to Cairo in mid-September. Following his arrival in the Egyptian capital, Erdogan was thronged at the airport by thousands of young Egyptians, some of whom represented the younger generation of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.
The strident and dashing figure of the Turkish prime minister, reinforced by his perceived Islamic credentials (Erdogan originally hails from a Turkish Islamic movement with deep ties to Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood), is an attractive proposition to many younger members of the Brotherhood.
To some in the younger generation of the Brotherhood, the ruling Turkish AKP is the model to emulate in view of its successful mix of Islamic ethics with modern and dynamic governance.
But ultimately it is a mistake to interpret the Brotherhood's rebuke of the Turkish prime minister as primarily a reflection of inter-generational party politics. It is also a mistake to interpret it as an assertion of Egyptian nationalism in the face of brazen intellectual and political arrogance by the leader of a former imperial power.
As far as this incident is concerned, the center of gravity revolves around the identity and character of the Muslim Brotherhood and the anxiety to safeguard it in the face of apparently friendly competition.
Despite admiration for Erdogan and his party, the bulk of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood rejects the AKP's vision of religious-friendly secularism, which is viewed as a distinctly Turkish product.
Despite internal divisions, there is widespread expectation among Brotherhood members and sympathizers in Egypt and outside that the movement can yet deliver an authentic form of Islamic governance. On that basis alone, Brotherhood leaders are loath to be lectured by foreigners on what type of vision and approach to adopt in their quest for political power.
Mahan Abedin is an analyst of Middle East politics.