Turkey’s Islamist Policy Remains Intact – After Accidentally Extraditing a Member of the Muslim Brotherhood

Ömer Taşpınar

How should we interpret the fact that a member of the Muslim Brotherhood was recently extradited from Istanbul to Cairo? Is the Turkish government finally changing its policy of support for the Islamist movement? The short answer is no.
But, before we get too far ahead, what actually happened? Mohamed Abdelhafez Ahmed Hussein, a 27-year-old engineer, was one of 28 people convicted in 2017 by an Egyptian court for the 2015 assassination of the prosecutor general, Hisham Barakat. Shortly before he was convicted – in absentia – and handed a death sentence, he fled to Somalia via Sudan. From there, he wanted to seek refuge in either Malaysia or Turkey. Finding that flights to Kuala Lumpur were too expensive, he decided to go to Istanbul. But he could not obtain a Turkish visa in Mogadishu because the embassy was not authorized to issue visas to Egyptian citizens.
Hussein was undeterred, however. He bought a ticket for Cairo with a stop-over in Istanbul. On January 16, Hussein arrived in Istanbul with a ticket for a connecting flight to Cairo the next day. At Turkish immigration, he asked to be issued a visa-on-arrival. However, authorities informed him that because of his age, he was not entitled to such a visa. As an Egyptian citizen, he had to be younger than 18 or over 45 to qualify for a Turkish visa-on-arrival.
In exasperation, Hussein told Turkish officials that he could not board the flight to Cairo because an execution order was waiting for him in Egypt. Yet, because he was unable to show evidence of a court decision, or any legal documents to prove that he was in danger of execution in his own country, Turkish immigration – unaware of the political trouble awaiting them – put him on a flight to Cairo on January 18. Egyptian authorities arrested Hussein upon his arrival.
When what happened hit the Turkish press, the situation turned into an embarrassment for the president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. His government immediately launched an investigation over how such a “grave mistake” could have occurred. The mistake, it came to be concluded, was that immigration officers treated Hussein as just another attempted illegal entry without paying attention to his political status. Based on the investigation, the government declared that Hussein would not have been extradited if the authorities had known he was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood sentenced to death in his country.
As such, Ankara’s position vis-a-vis Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood remains intact. And why that is so can be can be parsed at two levels, first tactical and second strategic.
At the tactical level, Turkish support for the Muslim Brotherhood helps Erdogan with his domestic anti-West agenda. For the president, what happened in Egypt in the summer of 2013 – when the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi was removed as president and Western governments’ reluctance to condemn it – is the best way to expose American and European double standards about human rights and democracy. Now, when the Western press describes Erdogan as a dictator, the Turkish president can accuse them of Islamophobia.
Erdogan also is quick to point out that he has won every election in Turkey since 2002, and that the era of military guardianship in his country is over. In short, the Muslim Brotherhood is a perfect fit for Erdogan’s populist anti-Western narrative. And as Turkey approaches municipal elections next month, it would be absurd to expect Erdogan to change his position on a foreign-policy issue that resonates so strongly with his religious, conservative and nationalist base.
As for the strategic factors behind Turkish support for the Brotherhood, Erdogan’s logic is infused with both idealism and ideology. Erdogan’s own political background is in Islamist politics. Moreover, he firmly believes that democratic elections in the Middle East can only produce victories for the Muslim Brotherhood. And such victories, he rightly predicts, will produce a strategic victory for Turkey because Muslim Brotherhood-oriented parties consider Erdogan’s Turkey as a model state and Turkey as the regional leader.
This line of thinking played a critical role in Erdogan’s support for the Arab Spring in countries like Tunisia, Egypt and Syria. As a result, according to Erdogan’s calculations, the rise of electoral democracy can only increase Turkey’s political, economic and diplomatic soft-power in the Arab world. Although Erdogan’s neo-Ottomanism is perceived as a form of Islamism in the region, to Erdogan’s supporters, his regional strategy is based on democratic principles.
How should one interpret all this in terms of concrete results? No rational observer would see Erdogan as a democrat because of his support for the Brotherhood. He may be right about Western double standards, yet this does not change the fact that he is a populist autocrat with no willingness to embrace liberal democracy.
A less ideological, and more realistic, Turkish policy would see Turkey recalibrate its position vis-a-vis the Brotherhood by accepting regional realities. If Erdogan really wanted to prove his democratic credentials, he should take steps toward liberal democracy at home, instead of waxing poetic about the victimhood of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Sadly, this is not about to happen for now. And as such, Erdogan will continue to exploit the Muslim Brotherhood for all these strategic and tactical reasons.
Ömer Taşpınar is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor of national-security strategy at the National Defense University in Washington.