By Dr. Shady Abdelwhab Mansour
Since the unfolding of the Arab Spring in 2011, Turkey has gradually become the regional hub for the Muslim Brotherhood’s international organization. This includes the Egyptian and Syrian branches – Turkey hosted many of the Muslim Brotherhood’s leaders after the June 30, 2013 revolution in Egypt() and the eruption of the Syrian civil conflict in 2011.
The paper will shed light on some indicators that might suggest that Ankara is reconsidering its relations with the Muslim Brotherhood, notably in the deportation of Mohamed Abdelhafiz from Ankara to Cairo on January 17, 2019 and the recent understanding between Turkey and Syria. The article will also present the factors that may have pushed Ankara to reconsider its ties with the Brotherhood.
The End of an Alliance
The Turkish president Erdogan has always been an advocate of the Muslim Brotherhood. In Egypt, Turkish advisers have guided the Brotherhood on how to handle the political process, from their early participation in the parliamentary and presidential elections in 2011 and 2012, respectively, up to the popular uprising against Mohamed Morsi’s rule in 2013(). After the June 30, 2013 revolution in Egypt, Turkey hosted several Brotherhood meetings that focused on what measures should be taken to oust the elected government of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi().
Likewise, Erdogan asked Bashar al-Assad to legalize the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and allow its participation in the political process before the 2011 civil war in Syria. When the war began, Erdogan assured al-Assad that Turkey would turn a blind eye to his regime’s suppression of the opposition in return for giving the banned members of the Muslim Brotherhood a quarter of the ministerial posts in the cabinet. As the war unfolded, Ankara worked to support the group and organize them both politically and militarily().
However, several indicators arguably suggest that Turkey is changing its policy towards the Muslim Brotherhood:
Abdel Hafiz’s deportation: Turkey deported Mohamed Abdel Hafiz to Cairo on January 17, 2019, after he reportedly sought asylum upon his arrival to Istanbul’s Ataturk airport last month. Abdel Hafiz was sentenced to death in absentia in July 2017 on charges of participating in a plot to murder Egypt’s former Attorney-General Hisham Barakat().
On February 5, Turkey announced that it had suspended eight Turkish police officers involved in deporting Hafiz(). This could be interpreted as a move aimed mainly at defusing Muslim Brotherhood frustrations and fears about his deportation.
It should be taken into consideration that this development came after the Egyptian authorities arrested 54 members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood group in January 2019. They were accused of plotting to instigate chaos and carry out terrorist attacks on the anniversary of Egypt’s 2011 Arab Spring uprising. Furthermore, the Egyptian authorities revealed that the group was directed by a Muslim Brotherhood leader based in Turkey(), which suggests that Ankara is implicated in the Muslim Brotherhood’s attempt to stir up unrest in Egypt. However, the subsequent deportation of Abdel Hafiz might imply that Ankara came to realize that supporting the Brotherhood is not yielding welcome results anymore, and this may open the way to changing its policy of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.
Turkish – Syrian rapprochement: after supporting armed rebels against the Assad regime for years, Ankara signaled a major change in its policy towards the Syrian conflict when the Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu indicated in December 2018 that Ankara would consider working with Assad if he won a democratic election. He also claimed that Ankara was in indirect contact with Damascus via Russia and Iran. However, in early February, Erdogan confessed that his intelligence services had direct contacts with their Syrian counterparts().
These statements coincided with another development on January 26, 2019, when the Syrian foreign ministry urged Turkey to withdraw its troops from Syria’s northern territories and end support for armed opposition groups in return for the revival of the “Adana Protocol”, which was signed in October 1998.
This protocol managed to end the tensions between the two countries, as Damascus prevented the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which was classified as a terrorist organization in Turkey, from using its territory as a base to mount attacks against the latter.
In return, Erdogan responded positively on the same day, asserting that he is committed to the Adana Protocol().
That development represents a clear indication that Turkey is willing to consider severing its ties with terrorist organizations, such as al-Qaeda and ISIS, as well as curtailing the activities of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in its territories.
In return, Damascus will move on to control the Syrian territories held by the “People’s Protection Units” (YPG), which is considered by Turkey to be the Syrian affiliate of the PKK. Thus, Ankara is willing to consider the option of cutting ties with terrorist organizations in return for Damascus’s control over the YPG.
Two factors could explain the recent shift in the Turkish policy:
Turkey’s failed bets: Ankara adopted a regional foreign policy in the aftermath of the Arab Spring that was supportive of Muslim Brotherhood groupings across the region, most notably in Egypt and Syria(), in an attempt to achieve regional hegemony.
However, Ankara’s efforts in this regard failed miserably in both countries, as the terrorist groups affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood, such as the Hasm movement and the Liwaa el-Thawra group, were weakened by the Egyptian security forces. Furthermore, both the US and Britain added the two groups to their own list of terrorist organizations(), thus implicitly supporting Egypt’s crackdown on terrorists affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.
In addition, Cairo managed to wage successful military operations against ISIS in Sinai. As a result, the security situation improved dramatically, opening the way for the recovery of tourism in Egypt, with revenues expected to reach $8bn in 2018().
On the other hand, the Assad regime managed, with Russian and Iranian support, to regain control of over 60% of the Syrian territory(). The US and many European countries no longer demand Bashar al-Assad’s removal from power, while many Arab countries have restored diplomatic relations with Damascus(). President Donald Trump’s recent announcement of the withdrawal of American troops from northern Syria further consolidates Assad’s control over the country(). These developments send a clear signal to Ankara that its policy in both countries is not fruitful and should be changed.
Lingering economic crisis: Turkey suffers from economic fragility, as can be seen with high inflation and the lira’s 40% collapse in 2018(). In addition, the economy has seen a decrease in consumption and a lack of investor confidence. Furthermore, Turkish companies are carrying high debts, with about $200 billion denominated in dollars and euros due to be repaid in 2019().
Turkey’s own costs for its foreign policy of sponsoring Muslim Brotherhood factions, supporting Syrian armed rebels for several years, and sheltering 3.6 million Syrians at an estimated cost of about €25 billion also played a role in the current economic crisis.
The economic burden of the refugees further frustrated the Turkish people, who increasingly perceive the Syrians negatively, as they compete with Turkish nationals for public services and employment().
These two factors have already negatively impacted Erdogan’s popularity – his approval rating fell from 53.1% in July 2018 to 39.8% in October(). This might impact the AKP’s performance in the upcoming provincial elections, scheduled for March 2019.
The change in Turkish policy towards the Muslim Brotherhood might alarm the leadership of the group, as the exiled Egyptian and Syrian leaders may find it risky to continue to reside in the country, which could use them as a bargaining chip with Cairo and Damascus. However, it should be noted that Turkey’s dissociation with the Muslim Brotherhood will be gradual and contingent on the improvement of relations between Turkey on one side and Egypt and Syria on the other.
) Bulut Gurpinar, Turkey and The Muslim Brotherhood: Crossing Roads in Syria, Eurasian Journal of Social Sciences, Vol. 3, no. 4, 2015, p. 29.
) Bulut Gurpinar, op.cit., p. 29.
) Emily Hawthorne, Counting the Cost of Potential U.S. Action Against Turkey, Stratfor, February 4, 2019.