Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan cut short his summer holiday last Thursday and returned to Ankara to follow events in Egypt, which were rattling the nerves of the cabinet and Çankaya Villa (the presidential palace in Ankara). A day or two before that, Erdogan had been on the phone with US President Barack Obama, urging him to support Mohamed Morsi so that the Arab Spring would not suffer a serious setback. He also cautioned Obama that failure to support Morsi would encourage extremist nationalists and leftists who were opposed to US policies in the Middle East and known for their chronic animosity towards Israel to seize power in Egypt.
What an irony, cried voices from the Turkish left. The Islamist pundit who heads the executive authority in Anatolia is using arguments like this to persuade the largest power in the world to oppose the will of millions of Egyptians who long for a civil democratic government founded on the principle of the separation between religion and the state.
Clearly the leader of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) was in panic mode. To a large extent this had to do with domestic considerations. Relative calm had been restored in Turkey after several weeks of the Gezi Park protests that had spread throughout the country. Egypt’s Tamarod (Rebel) campaign was inspiring segments of Turkish youth to resume their protests, but for the most part the movement and the response it was generating in the Egyptian street was deliberately ignored by the Turkish media. Nevertheless, as the build-up to 30 June continued, Turkish media had no choice but to cast some light on a campaign that reflected the mounting discontent and anger in Egypt, although media footage and press reports were rarely accompanied by commentary. Then the Egyptian people hit the streets, amassing in city squares throughout the country in numbers far in excess of the demonstrations that launched the revolution in 25 January 2011.
Decision-makers were stunned and, as nightmarish visions of how Egypt’s mass demonstrations might reverberate at home flashed through their minds, they moved to send out a concerted message: what was happening on the other side of the Mediterranean was not a revolution but a coup. The line was taken up by pro-government newspapers, most Islamist in orientation. Nor did these dailies forget to draw a comparison with the Gezi Park demonstrations in Istanbul’s Taksim square, which they now claimed were aimed at toppling the Erdogan government but were outwitted and thwarted by this government’s brilliance and democratic strength.
Headlines of some of these newspapers read: “Morsi steadfast in the face of tanks” (Yeni Safak), “Blow to democracy in Egypt” (Zaman), and “Egyptian army overthrows popularly elected president” (Star). Sabah volunteered a comparison with the “28 February coup” of 1997 that precipitated the overthrow of the government of Necmettin Erbakan, head of the Welfare Party and one of the godfathers of political Islam in its Anatolian version. Yani Akit concluded the obsequies with the lament, “It is a black day in the history of Egypt.”
Over the following days, talk shows aired over Turkish satellite television stations — especially those supervised by the state — hosted a stream of experts. All concluded, without exception, that what happened in Egypt was a military coup that delivered a painful blow to democracy and that would have serious political and economic repercussions. This was not just a blow against Egypt, but against Syria, Gaza and Turkey, while Israel is the only beneficiary, they said. They added that all military coups are doomed to dismal failure. If Morsi is rescued from this crisis, he will strengthen democracy. If not, they warned, this will propel Egypt towards civil war.
On the other side of the political spectrum, Turkish newspapers labelled as “secularist”, such as Cumhuriyet, Radikal, Yeniças, Sözcÿ and Aydõnlõk, signalled their support for the military’s action in Egypt. They interpreted the 30 June demonstrations and their support by the military as the culmination of the failure of political Islam and especially of politicians bent on exploiting religion for political gain. What happened in Egypt proved that people cannot be deceived by Islamist politicians’ demagoguery.
Aydõnlõk noted that Erdogan had given his full support to the grassroots movement in Tahrir Square against Hosni Mubarak, which was also resolved by the army. Now he is standing against the overwhelming will of the Egyptian people, in that same square, who are demanding the fall of President Morsi who did nothing but use his position to advance the interests of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. The newspaper went on to describe Erdogan’s justification of his position on the grounds of his rejection of the “conspiracy” on the part of foreign powers that “pressed the button” to bring down the legitimate Morsi government, which had come to power through the ballot box, as a self-serving argument. “Quite simply, he is afraid that 30 June will become a model that will end his own 10-year long hold on power, which he hopes to extend by becoming president next year.”
Some newspapers remarked on the regional/international dimension of the demise of the Morsi regime. The Watan newspaper observed that Morsi fell because he linked the fate of his country to Turkey and Erdogan through his stance against the Bashar Al-Assad regime in Syria and because of his growing relationship with Israel and the US.
Officially, at least, it appears that Ankara is determined to continue to support the “constitutional legitimacy” that brought Morsi to power. Therefore, in its lexicon, “30 June” will only mean the removal of a democratically elected president by the army. Interestingly, however, on the very day (Sunday) when Erdogan was voicing his concerns over mounting violence in Egypt to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, water cannons and streams of tear gas were assailing thousands of young men and women who had simply wanted to assemble peacefully in Taksim Square.