Egypt’s Transition Two Years Later: A Turkish Perspective

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

I was probably the only one wearing a tie in the Tahrir Square on January 25, 2013—the anniversary of the revolution. Different groups were gathering in the late afternoon while I was giving an interview to TRT (Turkey’s public TV) about my observations of post-revolution Egypt during my 11-day stay in Cairo. I had the opportunity to conduct interviews with 20 Egyptian politicians, activists, and scholars. I asked them questions around three main subjects: 1) How do you explain the revolution, why 2011 and why not before? 2) Are you satisfied with the aftermath of the revolution? and 3) What do you think about the future alliance between Egypt and Turkey in terms of having a shared policy toward the Middle East?

There was a near consensus on the first question. My interviewees emphasized similar clusters of reasons: the Tunisian revolution set an example; the Mubarak regime was 30 years old (or in fact the “regime” was 60 years old) and the Egyptian people (who are normally very patient) were fed up with corruption and failed policies; Mubarak alienated not only the wider public but also the military by preparing his son Gamal as his successor; social media equipped young people with new opportunities to get organized (by the way, I do not know the cost during the revolution but cell phone services are now quite cheap in Egypt); the demonstrations in Tahrir Square were at first led by diffuse groups with no hierarchy, but three days later the Muslim Brotherhood joined and substantially increased the number of protesters; and Al-Jazeera played a major role by its nearly nonstop broadcasting of the demonstrations.

As someone who had heard some Turkish leftists depict the Arab Spring as an “American conspiracy,” it was surprising how the role of the United States was so negligible and inconsistent during the Egyptian revolution, according to my interviewees.

The answers to the second question (on the aftermath of the revolution) were much more diverse. It would be wrong to categorize them into two groups—the opposition to and supporters of President Mohamed Morsi. Many of my interviewees were critical of Morsi but their reasons diverged considerably. For some, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood constitute an Islamist threat to Egypt. A professor warned me that “the Muslim Brothers are not like the AKP [Turkey’s pro-Islamic Justice and Development Party]” but “they are like Erbakan’s parties.” He also reminded me how Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan was welcomed in Egypt as a hero in his September 2011 visit, but after he asked Egypt to embrace a secular state, his popularity among Islamists quickly dissipated.

Beyond the issue of Islamism, some who had positions in the old regime criticized the Brotherhood for being radical in terms of the speed of change (e.g., pushing the Constitution too quickly without even consulting with the Vice President). Others, however, criticized the Brotherhood for being too slow and compromising toward the old regime, having secret agreements with the military, and letting the old regime survive financially.

The role of the military figured prominently in my conversations. A formerly senior member of the Brotherhood told me with pride: “It took you [Turks] twenty years to solve the problem of civil-military relations, but we did it in two years.” By contrast, many opposition figures noted that this would be a naïve claim; the military still has the power to interfere in politics and continues to play a substantial role in the Egyptian economy.

Besides these specific criticisms, one major argument of the opposition was that Morsi lacked projects and initiatives for solving Egypt’s social and economic problems. They also point out that the Muslim Brotherhood is full of medical doctors and engineers; but includes very few lawyers and social scientists. Yet even the critics admit that the opposition parties do not have such projects or initiatives either.

Even on the issue of democracy, it was unclear to me whether some opposition figures were all that much better than the Brotherhood politicians. For me, the dissolution of an elected parliament by a politicized court decision is nothing but a “judicial coup d’état.” Turkey was saved from such a coup in 2008 and Egypt experienced it in 2012. Yet some opposition members seem to whole-heartedly support the court decision.

In debates about Egypt’s domestic politics, Salafis appear to have a puzzling position. On the one hand, they are blamed for pushing the Brotherhood to be more radical (e.g., inserting Al-Azhar into the constitution as a consultative body on the matter of Sharia and rejecting a female quota in parliamentary elections). On the other hand, they are perceived to be divided and changeable. Several interviewees stressed that it was good to see Salafis in Egyptian party politics for the sake of normalization, in comparison to Tunisian Salafis who largely remain outside of the political system and prone to violence.

My third and last question was on foreign relations, especially those with Turkey. In general, the Egyptian elite seems to be focusing on internal problems and willing to restrain its regional ambitions. Regarding Turkey, nearly everyone I spoke to expressed a desire to have better relations with Turkey than during the time of Mubarak. They would like Turkey to support Egypt domestically, in the economic realm for instance, rather than pursuing joint initiatives in the broader region. This is one reason why the Egyptian elite seems hesitant to take a more pro-active stand against the Assad regime in Syria. Another reason is that there is still a tendency to put Israel at the center of foreign policy issues and they regard Assad as, at least historically, part of the anti-Israel bloc.

I also realized the extent to which Egyptian elites continues to have some misperceptions about Turkey. As an example, several of them tried to convince me in vain that Erdoğan is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Turkey branch.