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The Muslim Brotherhood and Turkey: Intertwining interests

The Egyptians’ revolution against the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) rule on 30 June 2013 was the moment of exposure for the group in the state where it originated. Violence and fights to acquire power are the original goals of the MB. The ideology of the group shows the intertwining of religion, political power and violence. This was apparent since Hassan Al-Banna founded the group in 1928. He established it as an Islamic political organization that aims at applying Islamic law in daily life and restoring Islamic rule based on his views and thesis in understanding contemporary Islam, where he said: “Islam is a doctrine and worship, nation and nationality, religion and state, spirituality, and Quran and the sword”. Therefore, the scope of the group’s movement was always ambiguous, and they declare that they represent the borderline between daawa and politics, but their history proves that they use daawa to practice politics and assume power.

Since the exposure of the group in Egypt, a new chapter in a historically repeated strategy that combines apparent vulnerability and underground conspiracy has started. The removal of the Brotherhood from power and the declaration of their group as a “terrorist” group marked the beginning of a major phase of fracture. Its impact was doubled by the relative success of the Egyptian state’s efforts in striking many of the Brotherhood’s network veins in Egypt and, which affected its basic structure.

Consequently, the group tended to show weakness and claim it is a daawa group and has nothing to do with politics, while at the same time it has become a basic participant in the Egyptian state counter-axis, headed by Turkey, in an attempt to besiege Egypt with crises, conflicts, practicing psychological warfare against its people aiming at undermining the state and its regime and destabilizing it, until there is a new opportunity for the group and its sympathizers to jump into the political scene once again.

Turkey’s motives to target Egypt

It is possible to understand the Brotherhood’s hostility to the Egyptian state (regime and people) after their ouster from power in 2013. The people’s rejection of them till now is apparent in the absence of response to their calls for demonstrations against the regime. But understanding Turkey’s targeting of Egypt raises questions, and understanding this targeting requires going back to 2002, when the Justice and Development Party (AKP) assumed power in Turkey. This was when it was a parliamentary system and Recep Tayyip Erdogan was the head of government. This government had a regional project, which is to extend Turkey’s influence in the Arab region, taking advantage of the regional leadership vacuum and the Arab countries’ involvement in their domestic issues and intra-regional conflicts. 

The Turkish project aims at enhancing Turkey’s status for the United States and the European countries by expanding its influence in the region, as the region represented an expanding, open and limited competitive market for Turkey with its strong and diversified economy at that time.

Turkey’s project is based on three pillars: Its economic strength that depends on the centrality of its role in energy projects run by major countries to transport gas from the Arab region or from the Caspian region via Turkey, which means that Turkey was planning to be the regional center of gas transport to Europe, in addition to its strategic importance both regionally and internationally. The historical relations that made Turkey (the former Ottoman Empire) bear some features of Arab identity, albeit more arrogant, is the ideological framework based on the rule of political Islam, although this framework did not appear clearly in the early years of Erdogan’s rule, but was confirmed after the June 2013 revolution.

This project went through two phases concerning the policies that Turkey relied on to implement it. The First Phase (2002-2013): During this phase, Turkey followed new internal and external policies; a new reformative economic policy to revive the Turkish economic conditions, reorganization of localities and trade and students unions and restructuring state institutions until it finishes with the military institution. Externally, the principle of the Turkish policy was to have “zero conflicts” regionally and start a new phase with all countries in the region based on cooperation and peace, with a serious tendency to join the European Union. Along these policies the Turkish soft power had a role in promoting the Turkish model in the region. The Turkish media and drama – with their contents that do not all agree with Arab values ​​and traditions – were widespread on Arab screens.

This policy helped Turkey achieve internal empowerment (according to the Brotherhood’s ideology), and regional influence. With the events and changes witnessed in the region, known as the “Arab Spring Revolutions,” the Turkish regime’s chances of implementing its regional project increased. Conflicts spread in several Arab countries, and the Brotherhood came to power in the biggest Arab country in 2012 and Egypt came close to containing them. The Brotherhood accept the Turkish ruler to be a caliphate to the Muslims, and the indications of his caliphate to the Muslims and his Brotherhood trends appeared in his visit to Cairo in 2011, where he called on Egypt to follow the Turkish secularist model. The Muslim Brotherhood called on him in the same meeting to become the caliph. Two official meetings were held between him and former President Mohamed Morsi in the year in which Morsi ruled, during which he concluded 27 agreements with Egypt, most of which were not of common or equal interests for the two countries.

The Second Phase (June 2013-present): The repercussions of the June Revolution, that extended to the efforts of the reconstruction of the national state and increasing its capabilities, were not welcomed by the Turkish state. The repercussions didn’t only affect Egypt’s domestic affairs, but extended to hinder the progress of the previously mentioned Turkish project. 

The June Revolution hit the three pillars of the Turkish project, which made the Turkish regime reveal its true intentions and its extreme ideological nature. Thus, it changed its policies to achieve the Turkish project in the region, which had a negative impact on all of Erdogan’s ambitions and his Western and Arab aspirations. The goal of the Turkish regime is to weaken Egypt and destroy its national project, so that the opportunity will once again arise to implement Turkey’s project.

Egypt an obstacle before the Turkish project in the Arab region

What took place in Egypt after 2013, in terms of reform, development, realizing stability, increasing citizens’ sense of security, and the successful fight against terrorism, shows Egypt’s determination to regain its regional position, which makes it the objective equal to Turkey, but a more acceptable option to be the most influential power regionally and perhaps internationally at a later stage. The Turkish regime considered this situation a defeat for the Turkish project of regional hegemony and a blow to its pillars. On the ideological level (the rule of political Islam), the rule of the Brotherhood – the source of extremist ideology – in Egypt meant the continuation of the Turkish project under the caliphate of Erdogan as a caliph of Muslims accepted by the group, and the revival of the Ottoman Caliphate, as a summoning of the historical dimension in relations between Arabs and Turks. Consequently, the defeat of the Brotherhood in their stronghold and home of origin, Egypt, and then the pursuit of them in other Arab countries was a defeat for the ideological principle of the Erdogan project.

On the historical level, Egypt’s restoration of its power enables it to regain its leadership in the region and the difficulty to contain it, whether alone or with an alliance of effective and influential Arab countries in the region as well. This undoubtedly contradicts with the dream of the new Ottoman caliphate, and perhaps the historical memory of Turkey does not forget its military defeat by Egypt during the rule of Mohamed Ali Pasha with the forces of the Ottoman Sultan Mahmoud II in the first wars of the Levant (1831-1833), during which the Egyptian forces reached eastern Anatolia, and almost took control of Astana had it not been for European intervention to preserve the sick man of Europe. With the building of the modern Egyptian state during the rule of Mohamed Ali, it was strongly believed in Turkey and other countries that the Egyptian state, if strengthened, would threaten the interests and influence of the greedy ones.

On the economic level, the continuation of regional conflicts in the region and their various developments hinder the stability of economic conditions and the completion of projects to supply Europe with gas. This, in addition to other factors, limits the openness of Arab markets to Turkey and forces it to search for alternative markets in Africa and Asia on one hand. On the other hand, the gas discoveries in the Eastern Mediterranean region, and the relatively stable security and economic conditions in Egypt, increase its chances of being a regional center for liquefying natural gas and supplying it to Europe, in conjunction with the reservations of Eastern Mediterranean and European countries on Turkish military harassment in Cyprus, and its efforts to impose its presence as an actor in this region to benefit from these discoveries.

The Brotherhood leads political Islam groups for the interest of the joint project with Turkey

To achieve its goals in Egypt after 2013, Turkey relied on two basic methods. The First Method is access to the Egyptian vital sphere, especially in Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean, but it was unable to achieve its goals in this area easily, and Egypt made no concessions before Turkey. The Egyptian deterrence was completely successful in curbing Turkish ambitions in Libya, and the Egyptian diplomacy with international actors – especially the Europeans – succeeded in pushing for a settlement, whether in Libya or in the Eastern Mediterranean, which shows the efforts made to curb Turkey’s ambitions that are at the expense of the countries in the region and their interests. The Second Method is the Brotherhood. Turkey used the group to revive the idea of ​​the “caliphate” and lead political Islam groups in the region, either to gain power or participate in it. By all means, the Brotherhood is an extension of Turkish influence in regional countries.

The common interests and visions between the Brotherhood and the ruling regime in Turkey towards Egypt were the basis of confirming the correlation between the two parties, and the dimensions of this relationship appear in several aspects, most notably:

The ideological dimension: It shows the intellectual background of Erdogan and his affiliation with the political Islam movement, influenced by his upbringing in the schools of imams and preachers, and his apprenticeship at the hands of Najmuddin Erbakan. His acceptance of the Brotherhood was announced on 17 February 2017 during a speech in which he said, “The Muslim Brotherhood is not considered a terrorist organization, because it is not an armed organization, but rather an intellectual organization.” He was working to improve the group’s image and gathering its leaders in the region to start a new path to achieve clear and specific goals under his leadership.

Utilitarian dimension: There is one goal agreed upon by the two parties; the group found in Erdogan a leader who could help it in its project to establish an Islamic caliphate and “mastering the world” as Hassan Al-Banna said, and Erdogan wants to restore the “Ottoman Caliphate” project through the Islamic project. 

The widespread popular protests that took place in several Arab countries in 2011 provided the opportunity to achieve this goal, from the Turkish-Brotherhood point of view. But with the group’s frustrations regarding the collapse of the project to escalate political Islam to power, Turkey sought to expand its influence in the region, taking advantage of the Brotherhood, its popular bases, spurred branches, and wide capabilities.

On the other hand, Erdogan’s use of the group to realize the expansionist dream of the caliphate meets the Brotherhood’s benefit. The Brotherhood realizes Turkey’s regional and international position and its symbolism related to the group’s historic project for the leadership of the modern Islamic caliphate, and they see in Turkey the way to their ultimate goal – power. 

Therefore, the Brotherhood’s association with the various circles of power in Turkey is a fundamental goal of the group, and Erdogan provides the Brotherhood with this opportunity, to the extent that he is described as the executor of the Islamization process for the Turkish regime. The MB is a group that desires the state and not a relationship with the leader. This has always been the case, according to Arab experiences. The Islamization and consolidation of the religious model in Turkey is the Brotherhood’s bet, not Erdogan.

The future of interdependence between Turkey and the Brotherhood:

The previous dimensions show that the relationship between the Brotherhood and the Turkish regime is based on interdependence. There are several manifestations of this, including:

1. Erdogan is using the spurred branches of the Brotherhood in the region to implement his expansionist policy in the Middle East and make tangible achievements that he builds on domestically in light of the decline of his popularity and the deteriorating Turkish economy. Erdogan backs the Brotherhood to allow them to play the roles assigned to them that help achieve Turkey’s interests. The relationship between Erdogan and the Brotherhood’s branches to achieve Turkish interests is manifested in several examples, such as in Libya, where the Government of National Accord allows Turkey to explore for gas and the military cooperation between the two sides. Another example is Rachid Ghannouchi, head of the Tunisian parliament. The Brotherhood also has some influential roles in other countries such as using the Reform Party in Yemen to negatively influence the work of the Arab coalition to support legitimacy in Yemen, and their role as communication channels between Turkey and various terrorist organizations in Syria, Libya and Asia.

2. The danger of the Brotherhood in Turkey is increasing for its attachment to the head of the regime, opine observers who monitor the Brotherhood’s penetration into and growing influence in Turkish society, to the extent where some Turkish officials fear that the group threatens the secular democratic system in Turkey, given the presence of many aspects of Islamization along with the regime’s oppression, suppression of freedoms, and persecution of the opposition. These aspects are in line with the desired Brotherhood ruling model. Some Turkish opposition parties believe that Erdogan is gifting the Brotherhood with a polarized and divided nation and social vacuum that is being charged with extremist ideology, in addition to undermining the prestige of the military institution. This enables the organization to take advantage of state institutions in a way that is difficult to get rid of.

3. In previous years, Turkish authorities allowed the establishment of multiple Brotherhood associations and institutions in Turkey, the most prominent of which are: The Social Weaving Association, which is led and managed by Turkish preacher Nur Al-Din Yildiz, known as the Mufti of Erdogan, and the Al-Hikma Association, headed by the Egyptian member of the Brotherhood Abdul-Aziz Ibrahim, one of the leaders of the Education Committee in the group, whose goal is to recruit Turkish and Arab youth, especially the refugees in Turkey and job seekers. 

Turkey also established the Union of Islamic Civil Organizations, which includes more than 350 Brotherhood-affiliated organizations in the world, and is entrusted with receiving relief funds, donations and zakat. The union is the link between Brotherhood institutions to move the group’s funds in the Middle East and the Islamic world. The union also partners with the Federation of Islamic Organizations in Europe, the Federation of Islamic Organizations in France, and other international institutions affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood in the West. 

These Brotherhood institutions have a dual role. They consolidate the presence of the Brotherhood in Turkey, deepen their penetration into Turkish society, and pave the way for a Turkish foreign policy to access Arab societies and countries through Brotherhood branches already located in these countries and have their own grassroots in.

The future of the Brotherhood in Turkey

Despite Turkey’s embrace of Brotherhood members who fled Egypt and the group’s media platforms in Turkey that uses Brotherhood elements against the Egyptian state, this safe haven faces many challenges that may threaten the future of the Brotherhood in Turkey. The most significant challenges are:

  1. The increasing strength of the domestic opposition against Erdogan. Turkey’s opposition forces agree on the need for Erdogan to relinquish power for Turkey to return to a parliamentary system with a strong economy, because Erdogan works to concentrate power in his hand by placing his relatives and family members in leading positions. Erdogan is facing rifts among the ranks of the Justice and Development Party in objection to his administration. 

Turkey’s economic deterioration was exacerbated by Erdogan’s irrational management of the Covid-19 pandemic crisis, which made the Turkish economy vulnerable to the repercussions of the pandemic, particularly because the Turkish economy depends on the tourism and transport sectors, which were dealt a deafening blow by the crisis, according to a European Commission report. The regime’s relationship with the Brotherhood and their harm to Turkish relations with Egypt and other Arab countries are key files for the opposition, especially with their penetration in the Turkish institutions, as previously stated.

2. International opposition against Turkey’s hostile and provocative policies is taking shape. France is leading a European trend to curtail Turkey, Egypt is working to distance Turkey from Libya, and recently tensions between Turkey and Russia have been renewed due to its stance towards the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, as it is almost out of American control. Erdogan has relied heavily on his hostile foreign policy – towards the Arab region and the Eastern Mediterranean – to make an achievement that raises his popularity or solves Turkey’s internal problems, without making a clear achievement that reaps quick results. He damaged the Turkish image and foreign relations to the extent that he may resort to make compromises to settle its tense regional relations, the Brotherhood being one of them, especially in relation to Egypt.

3. The Brotherhood realizes that staying in Turkey is not a permanent alternative. Therefore the group adopts two methods to overcome this dilemma. The First Method: Searching for alternative places for the group where they have influence or friends, such as South Korea, where some of the group’s youth moved due to the presence of some of the group’s investments in the country, which gives them relative freedom of movement. The Second Method: It is the serious work to integrate into Turkish society, and the race to obtain Turkish citizenship, for fear of deportation in the future or Turkish rapprochement with the Egyptian regime which may result in their extradition.

In sum, the Brotherhood’s continued attempts to harm the Egyptian state would not have continued throughout the past seven years without their relationship with Turkey, and the Turkish project towards the Arab region could not have materialized without its relations with the Brotherhood and their penetration into Arab societies. This means that the consequences of these correlations still exist. They did not, and will not, disappear except with a change in the Turkish regime or its orientations and policy tools towards the Arab region. But the most important aspect is the existence of a strong public awareness that supports the state’s efforts to confront this counter-axis and its destructive policies and undermines its efforts to harm Egypt.

Dr. Dalal Mahmoud
Director of defence and security program

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