AKP and the Muslim Brotherhood: faithful companions?

In an irony of fate, from coming to power in 2012 to the 2013 post-coup crackdown, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (MB) arguably underwent both the highest and lowest moments of its history in less than a year. Exiled and disempowered, the movement today is trying to revive itself in Istanbul among a few other places, with Turkey being its largest supporter in the world. Many observers explain the Turkish support by pointing to the similar ideological roots of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and MB. However, such ideological readings overlook the bumpy trajectory of relations between the two.

The Brotherhood leaders initially did not welcome the foundation of AKP in 2001 as a breakaway from the Islamist  Milli Görüş (National View) movement and its then political formation Felicity Party. The MB faced a similar experience in 1996, when some of its defectors founded the Wasat Party, which it criticized for dividing the Islamic movement.

A second reason for the dislike was ideological. In its early years, the AKP was making moves to improve relations with regional countries, including Israel. The party leaders were also constantly expressing the party’s commitment to secularism, with the most notable example of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who stressed in a 2011 visit to Egypt that he was a Muslim prime minister for a secular country and hoped for a secular Egypt.

Obviously, such declarations were in direct contrast to the MB’s founding ideology, while its leaders were not even accepting the AKP as Islamist, but secular. Finally, the AKP learned its lesson from the fate of the National View parties, which were closed by the Constitutional Court for being a hub for anti-secular activities. Hence, the party leaders, trying hard to convince the state elite about the lack of a hidden Islamist agenda, were cautious enough not to get in overtly close relations with other Islamist actors at home and abroad.

The 2011 Tahrir Revolution, and the Arab Uprisings more broadly marked a new phase in bilateral relations. Unlike former portrayals of AKP as a splinter movement embracing Western secularism, the MB began using the ‘Turkish model’ as an instrument for its own political legitimization against the widespread terrorism charges. Now framing the AKP as a successful fusion of Islam and democracy, the MB could place itself as a rightful actor in pursuit of such a viable pro-Western project in Egypt. This new-found love was not unrequited.

As an aspiring middle power, Turkey wanted to get the best out of the post-2011 power vacuum in the Middle East and rapprochement with the Brotherhood could help the Turkish government gain new local partners and political leverage in the field. In particular, the popular anti-Morsi rebellion and the following coup in 2013 not only moved the MB closer to Turkey, but also led to the increasingly Islamist and authoritarian leanings of Erdoğan, who became afraid of a similar ending after the concurrent Gezi Protests and used the Egyptian case to consolidate his base.

Especially after 2016, the rapprochement was gradually replaced by an embedded relationship, in which the MB’s future became increasingly dependent on AKP. After unceasing domestic and transnational repression, the Brotherhood has weakened considerably in both organizational and financial terms and turned into a diaspora movement in exile. 

In addition, it also suffered from internal fissures at both the elite and base levels in 2014 and 2015 till the old guard took control of the organization. In April 2016, the MB leaders from all over the world gathered in Istanbul for an event titled, “Thank you, Turkey” declaring their gratitude and allegiance to the Turkish leader – the hope for the Islamic Umma. Along with the ongoing diasporization of the movement, Istanbul has become the new hub hosting the MB’s several foundations, organizations, and TV channels. In return, the movement has become increasingly involved in Turkish foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa, including collaborations in hot zones such as Yemen and Libya. Such a close relationship has been essential for Erdoğan, who strived for the Sunni leadership in the region.

Recently, the Turkish government has been making overtures for rapprochement with Egypt to break its regional isolation. Will Turkey’s aim to ease tensions lead to another phase in its approach to the MB? Ankara still relies on local MB actors in its Middle East policy. Moreover, the wholesale extradition of MB supporters in Turkey will harm Erdoğan’s image as the Muslim leader both at home and in the region. Nevertheless, the Turkish authorities’ recent demand from the Brotherhood’s TV Channels to tone down their criticisms of Egypt and lay low indicates that the MB diaspora may not enjoy the same level of favour from the Turkish government as it did previously.

While the mutual dependency between AKP and the Brotherhood helped them save the day in the region, the current outcome harmed both in terms of their international standing. The trajectory laid out here shows that nothing should be taken for granted. Yet, breaking apart does not seem to be likely, or even possible, without a profound structural change.