Turkey’s prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is to travel to Egypt today, as Ankara and Cairo move towards creating a powerful regional alliance, diplomats and analysts say.
The fighting in Syria and Gaza is likely to top the agenda but the scope of the two-day talks will include trade ties, governance and the question of curbing Iranian influence in the region.
Mr Erdogan visited Cairo last year and said that the Turkish system of a western-style secular republic with a market economy was the best model for Egypt and other nations that have shaken off authoritarian rulers during the Arab Spring.
Despite the successes of the Turkish framework, Ankara cannot take a regional leadership role for granted. A recent poll suggested that Turkey had lost some of its shine as a model state in the eyes of the Middle East.
Egyptian officials say their country has much to learn from Turkey’s achievements, but that does not mean that Cairo wants to import Ankara’s model entirely. As heir of the Ottoman Empire that ruled the Middle East for centuries, Turkey also has to deal with a degree of mistrust in the region.
“Arabs do not accept leadership by Turkey, so it is important for Turkey to find partners like Egypt,” Serdar Erdurmaz, an analyst at the Turkish Centre for International Relations and Strategic Analysis (Turksam), a think tank in Ankara, said this week.
A poll published this month by the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (Tesev), an Istanbul-based policy institute, said that support in Middle Eastern countries for Turkey as a model for the region had dropped from 61 per cent last year to 53 per cent this year.
Support for Turkey in Egypt fell from 78 per cent to 67 per cent, Gokce Percinoglu, a Tesev researcher, said yesterday.
Still, both sides attach high importance to the Erdogan visit. Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, said last week that 12 Turkish cabinet ministers would travel to the Egyptian capital, and Abdelrahman Salaheldin, Egypt’s ambassador to Turkey, said Mr Erdogan’s visit would be important for the whole region.
“Every day, we discover new similarities between us and see how many joint values and interests we have,” Mr Salaheldin told the BBC’s Turkish service this week.
Egypt’s president Mohammed Morsi visited Ankara in September during which he attended a party congress of Mr Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
During the visit, Turkey gave the green light for a loan of US$1 billion (Dh3.67bn) to Egypt. Some of the money is to be used for projects to improve Egypt’s battered infrastructure, and Turkish companies could win some of the expected tenders, news reports have said. About 200 Turkish businessmen will accompany Mr Erdogan to Cairo.
Mr Morsi said in Ankara that trade between Turkey and Egypt, which amounted to just $3.2bn (Dh11.75b) last year, would be boosted significantly in the coming years, in a way that would “make other countries jealous”.
Military ties are flourishing too. Last month, Turkey and Egypt held joint naval exercises in the eastern Mediterranean.
Mr Salaheldin said Egypt could learn from Mr Erdogan’s party, which came to power in an election in 2002 and has won two more general elections since.
“The AKP has experience in adopting a social agenda that is a good model for all countries in the region,” the ambassador told the English-language Hurriyet Daily News. Both Mr Erdogan and Mr Morsi are Sunni politicians with roots in political Islam, and both have to confront secularist critics who are concerned that they want an Islamist state.
But the question of how much of a model Turkey could or should be was likely to remain in the background in Cairo, as both countries had more pressing issues, said Mr Erdurmaz.
Both countries were in need of allies in region, he said: Egypt was looking for help to fix its devastated economy, and Turkey was keen to shore up regional support for its policies on Israel and Syria. Ankara was also trying to build a counterweight against Shiite Iran in the region.
“Turkey needs alliances in the region, and Egypt needs partners, too,” Mr Erdurmaz said. “Erdogan is trying to create balances against Israel and Iran”, he added. “Turkey and Egypt are trying to build those balances.”
Egypt’s dire economic situation meant that there could not be any serious competition between Cairo and Ankara for regional leadership at the moment, Mr Erdurmaz said. “Egypt is not in a position to be a leader.”
Any Egyptian-Turkish rivalry would have to wait, he said. “Competition may be possible in the future if Egypt becomes more powerful.”