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Erdogan's overtures to Egypt will cost him Muslim Brotherhood

Updated: Feb 18, 2022

Turkey's strong support for the Muslim Brotherhood has created a robust diaspora of its members in Turkey, but it is fast becoming a burden on Turkish foreign policy.

Egypt's highest court ruled June 14 to uphold death sentences for 12 top Muslim Brotherhood leaders prosecuted for organizing the 2013 sit-in protests.

In March, as talks between the foreign ministers and intelligence agencies of Egypt and Turkey became public, Turkish officials said they were optimistic about Cairo’s treatment of the Brotherhood members. Their hopes have been dashed.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan took the 2013 coup against former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi to heart. He supported Brotherhood demonstrations against the government and championed the suffering of Brotherhood leaders and members at his rallies.

Erdogan’s Rabia sign (four fingers shown with thumb folded in) became a unifying symbol for his followers. Erdogan’s quixotic disapproval and loud criticism against current President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi continued even after Morsi’s death.

Since 2013 Turkey, with financial support from Qatar, has gone to extremes to support the Brotherhood. Istanbul became a hub for Brotherhood members in exile. A retired Egyptian general speaking on condition of anonymity told Al-Monitor, “Turkey not only harbors at least 25,000 terrorists with families but also provides them support to propagandize against us through the media. They support guerrilla warfare in Sinai and deploy mercenaries into Libya right on our border for the fatuous dream of [Brotherhood] rule.”

Despite his public efforts to reach an understanding with Cairo, Erdogan still employs the Rabia salute at his rallies.

After the court decision was announced several human rights organizations condemned it. Islamic scholars called on Muslim leaders, particularly Erdogan, to stand up against it and save those on death row.

Mehmet Gormez, former head of the Turkish Religious Affairs Directorate, sent a letter to the sheikh of Al-Azhar, Ahmed Al-Tayeb, and the Grand Mufti of Egypt, Shawki Allam, calling on them to influence decision-makers in Cairo.

In Turkey, several small pro-Brotherhood groups protested the decision and were not stopped or attacked by the police, a sign of tacit government approval. However, Erdogan and government officials are still silent on the issue.

A diplomatic source from Ankara told Al-Monitor, “We do not like the death penalties, but we know that if we speak up it will not help save those lives. Erdogan will not sit at the table with Sisi, but that does not mean normalization cannot happen. [If] we see Egyptian media outlets curbing their anti-Turkish rhetoric, we will meet them halfway.”

Erdogan’s silence on the news has fueled fear among Brotherhood members in Turkey. A senior member who recently left Istanbul told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “I never thought I would leave Turkey while Erdogan was alive and in power. He became like the new [former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel] Nasser." Nasser had the Brotherhood's support before coming to power but then cracked down on the movement.

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