Islamists of the Middle East, omnium-gatherum, are the group mostly offended by the recent handshake between the Egyptian and Turkish presidents in Doha last month. Meanwhile, some regional propagandists, who feel threatened by the potential of rapprochement between Turkey and Egypt, are trying to portray this handshake as a victory for political Islamists. Remaining in this vicious cycle for too long is not productive and may get the wheel of reconciliation stuck, once again.
The Muslim Brotherhood group has been one of the main factors that broke the rift between Qatar and Turkey on one side and Egypt, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain on the other side, following the Arab Spring revolutions. A decade ago, the Turkish state chose to support the then-populous political Islamist organization at the expense of having normal and stable relationships with the new Egyptian state and the Arab Gulf monarchies that took on themselves the mission to eliminate the Muslim Brotherhood from the region.
However, time and experience have proven to the Turkish leadership that they made the wrong bet, especially as the Muslim Brotherhood group smashed on the edge of internal divisions among the leaders and between the leadership and the bases.
At least, since November 2020, Turkish President Erdogan and his senior officials have been exceptionally active in correcting the course of Turkey’s foreign policy in the region. Over the past two years, Turkey successfully restored its relationship with Arab Gulf countries, including the UAE which had a fatal rivalry with Turkey in Libya. In parallel, Egypt’s relationship with Qatar has been progressing to unprecedented levels of understanding and coordination. This set the stage for the long-awaited reconciliation between the Turkish and Egyptian states.
The historic handshake between President Erdogan and his Egyptian counterpart, El-Sisi, has not magically resolved the conflicting perceptions of both countries towards the political Islamists, in general, and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular. Yet, it showed evidence that both leaders are willing to ease their strong stances on this sensitive issue.
The issue of the Muslim Brotherhood is not as big and multifaceted as the issue of Libya or the conflicts over maritime zones in the Mediterranean, which Turkey and Egypt stand on opposite sides regarding them. Yet, the Muslim Brotherhood issue is somehow tied to the political ideologies that each of the two states embraces.
In other words, President Erdogan’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood was initially motivated by his belief, as a successful Islamist politician himself, that the Egyptian Islamist organization was a copy of his own Justice and Development Party (AKP). Retreating from supporting the group, later, is making the Turkish president appear like he is abandoning the Islamist ideology as a whole, contrary to the truth.
On the flip side, President El-Sisi’s fight against the Muslim Brotherhood was mainly motivated by his military ideology which encompasses the political ideology of prioritizing and protecting the nation-state at all other expenses. Approaching the Turkish and Qatari leadership in a friendly way, given their history of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, makes president El-Sisi appear like he is abandoning the military-dictated nation-state ideology altogether, contrary to the truth.
Perceptions are everything in this game. Backstage, the Egyptian and Turkish presidents have been dealing with a strong backlash from their supporting citizens and parties. The Islamist sympathizers who represent the majority of Erdogan’s constituency in Turkey are angry at him for shaking hands with El-Sisi. Likewise, the Coptic Christians and women who represent the majority of El-Sisi’s electoral constituency are frowning at El-Sisi’s smiles and friendliness with Erdogan.
In that sense, for the reconciliation between Egypt and Turkey to succeed, the leaders in both countries need to re-adjust the public perception to accept the change. They need to draw a clear line between what each of the two states perceives as a strategy and what it embraces as part of its political ideology. That is particularly true when it comes to discussing the future positions of each of the two leaders regarding the Muslim Brotherhood.