Has Erdoğan given up on the Muslim Brotherhood?

As Turkey’s efforts to reconcile its relationships across the Middle East have steamed forward, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appears determined to convince his former rivals that his bellicose ways are in the past. With a normalisation agenda at work with Egypt and Saudi Arabia as well as a surprising turn-around in his relationship with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Erdoğan is making progress.

But as Erdoğan’s neighbours begin to warm to his overtures, does that mean he is turning a new page with the Muslim Brotherhood?

After the Arab Spring began in 2011, Erdoğan readily embraced political Islamist groups tied to the Brotherhood as a means to bolster Turkey’s role as a leader in the Middle East and the wider Islamic world. He readily backed the government of Mohammed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) elected President of Egypt after former President Hosni Mubarak relinquished power in 2011. Together with Qatar, another supporter of the group, Turkey-backed MB-aligned figures across the region with diplomatic and financial support.

This rankled the Gulf monarchs in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who perceive the MB as a threat to their own stability, a view seemingly validated as they watched the Middle East implode with instability after the Arab Spring. This contributed to the emergence of a mini-Cold War between Turkey and Qatar on one end and Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt after Morsi’s ouster by now President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi on the other. The two sides clashed heavily in Libya’s civil war and over the blockade of Qatar by its Gulf neighbours from May 2017 to December 2020.

But the Middle East has changed significantly from the early days of the Arab Spring and Turkey has changed along with it.

For one, Erdoğan appears less formidable than he was a decade ago. Mustafa Gurbuz, who teaches at the American University's Arab World Studies program in Washington D.C, said that Erdoğan’s embrace of the MB came at a time when he was stronger at home in his political standing and that allowed him to wield support for the Brotherhood more effectively in the region.

"Erdoğan used the Muslim Brotherhood support as a card to rally support around his regime, but such rhetoric does not offer the same value anymore,” Gurbuz told Ahval News.

Indeed, just before the Arab Spring Erdoğan was in many ways at the peak of his power. The military and judicial “deep state” that previously undid Islamist-leaning governments in Turkish history were neutered by purges and trials that allowed Erdoğan room for manoeuvre. The Turkish economy continued to be strong and despite resistance from more secular Turks, Erdoğan secured a parliamentary majority that remained intact until losing ground to his opposition in 2015.

That was then but today Erdoğan is saddled with sagging approval ratings and a Turkish economy wracked with high inflation, high unemployment and a diminished Turkish lira. With his political position insecure, Erdoğan has been forced to seek ways to break out of his geopolitical isolation and that included making amends with powers hostile to his embrace of the MB.

The Brotherhood too has been battered in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Across the region, MB-aligned governments have fallen one by one from Tunisia to Sudan, pushed out by strongmen or military juntas with ties to the Gulf monarchies.

The Brotherhood itself has also been wracked by internal feuds between older members who continue to adhere to its rigidly hierarchical form of decision-making and excess secrecy, and a younger cadre of members who are disillusioned with their leaders. Many of its leaders remain in exile across Turkey, Europe and Qatar, thus remain distant from the on-the-ground reality experienced by its newer generations.

With its decline in the last decade, the threat emanating from the MB that galvanised Erdoğan’s rivals against him has waned. Through this, Turkey and its regional counterparts like Egypt and the UAE have found room for negotiation to melt some of the ice that surrounds their relationship.

For Erdoğan, as much a pragmatist as he is a politician cut from the political Islamist cloth, continuing to support the MB in its diminished state may be losing the value he once saw in it. Already, his government has shown that it is willing to at least limit the MB if it means taking advantage of opportunities for rapprochement that can benefit it geopolitically.

When Turkey began advancing in its diplomacy to normalise ties with Egypt, Turkish officials ordered media channels affiliated with the Egyptian arm of the MB to tone down their criticisms of Sisi, a move welcomed in Cairo. Another example of this is the warming of Turkey-UAE ties, a development made possible in part by the MB’s deterioration as a political force in the region.

Giorgio Cafiero, CEO of Gulf State Analytics in Washington D.C., says that this has been an important factor contributing to the UAE’s willingness to look at its relationship with Turkey differently.

“The Tunisian autogolpe, events in Sudan, Syria, Egypt and elsewhere have left the leadership in Abu Dhabi viewing the Muslim Brotherhood as much less of an influential movement compared to the earlier stages of the Arab Spring,” Cafiero told Ahval.

It remains to be seen whether Erdoğan’s reintegration into the Middle East means an end to its patronage of the Muslim Brotherhood entirely.

Despite its desire to see better ties with Egypt, Turkey has refused to label the MB a terrorist group as the Egyptians and their Gulf allies do. For all the fear that its normalisation had inspired among Egyptian exiles of the MB in Turkey, there has been no sign that authorities are moving to extradite any home to Egypt where they face torture and other harsh conditions in prison.

Like Qatar, Turkey’s chief ally in the Middle East and a supporter of the MB, Ankara has not committed to curtailing any of its activities at least publicly. This is despite both countries moving to reduce the hostility between them and MB foes like the UAE. None of this proved to be a deal-breaker as relations improve likely owing to the weakness of the MB.

Yet for Erdoğan, the defeat of the MB as a political force in the region cannot still help but signify a setback for his past ambitions for leadership in the Middle East.

"Islamist parties have lost their vigor," said the American University's Gurbuz. "Erdoğan's regional power play has suffered a major defeat."

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