Turkey And Egypt: When Worlds Collide

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Steven A. Cook*


Over this past weekend one of my Economist-devouring, Washington Post-reading, New York Times-gobbling buddies who does not work in the field of foreign affairs asked me, “Hey, what’s up with Erdogan and the Turks?”

I’ve been asked this question so many times this summer by so many people that I've lost count. It’s been a long summer in Turkey, starting in May with the Gezi Park protests that revealed a depth of anger toward Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which seemed to surprise the Turkish leadership. Then in early August there were the Ergenekon verdicts, which brought to a close a five-year investigation and trial in an alleged plot to undermine Erdogan and his government.

The trials may be over (excluding appeals), but the controversy around Ergenekon continues. In between these two bookends have been the deteriorating situation in Syria, the coup in Egypt, a slowing economy, and the beginning of a peace process with the Kurdistan Workers Party. The combined pressure of all of the events seems to have gotten to the prime minister, who has been bullying domestic critics, engaging in conspiracies about “interest rate lobbies” intent on bringing down the Turkish economy, and generally finger-pointing at everyone but himself for the difficulties Turkey now confronts at home and abroad.

As the Gezi Park-inspired protests have faded somewhat, the July 3 military intervention in Egypt that brought down Mohamed Morsi seems to be the issue that is currently consuming Prime Minister Erdogan. In language that was once reserved only for Israelis, the Turkish political elite is lashing out at the Egyptians. Prime Minister Erdogan is alone among world leaders in advocating forcefully on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi. He has blamed the coup on the Israelis and the Gulf countries while wrecking Ankara’s ties with Egypt as well as blowing Turkish soft power.

It would be a logical fallacy to suggest that because Erdogan is virtually alone (the Ecuadoreans recalled their ambassador in Cairo over the coup) in this issue that he is thus wrong, but the Turkish leader tends to have trouble with context, though more about that down below. Regime mouthpieces like Taha Ozhan of the unofficially AKP-affiliated advocacy organization/think tank, SETA Foundation, have gone so far as to link Egyptian Major General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in some sort of new axis of evil.

In the end, however, Egypt’s present tribulations are, according to Ozhan, the fault of the United States. What is new? On the face of it, Ozhan’s missive should not be taken seriously, but for the fact that it reflects the dominant political thinking within the AKP. There are any number of shills who are all too willing to explain away the convulsions in and around Turkey as some sort of “Zionist-provocateur, interest rate lobby, American conspiracy against Muslim democrats,” rather than a serious examination of the pressures, interests and issues that have led to a range of dramatic developments in the Middle East recently. The Turks, it seems, are the last Orientalists.

So why have the Turks reacted this way? Someone recently suggested — I can’t remember where — that perhaps Erdogan’s overwrought response to Egypt, which seems to serve no purpose other than alienating yet another major Middle Eastern country, was the result of an allegedly undisclosed health problem. This is the same kind of silliness some people used to explain Vice President Dick Cheney’s behavior during the Bush years. Allegedly, the vice president’s heart condition made him do it. A more analytically sound argument for the behavior of the Turkish prime minister and his minions revolves around three issues:

1) It should not be a surprise that Prime Minister Erdogan would react strongly and negatively to a coup d’état. Turkey’s history of military interventions is hardly worth repeating, but suffice it to say that in the coups of 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997 political forces representing pious Muslims suffered. The Turkish military was responsible for the development of a political system that was geared specifically to prevent the accumulation of Kurdish, Islamist and at one time Communist political power. The result was that many, especially in the West, saw the Turkish armed forces as a “moderating force” that ensured what people considered a democratic system.

To Islamists, however, the military enforced a Jacobin-like secularism that repressed them because they took their religion seriously and wanted to live in a truly secular system where government did not control religion, but rather protected religious rights. Even as Erdogan has become the sun around which Turkish politics revolves, bringing the military to heel, presiding over an economic boom, and bringing new prestige and influence to Turkey, he remains deeply concerned about the next coup even if circumstances suggest it is unlikely to happen. Against the backdrop of the Turkish Republic’s history, Erdogan could not possibly let al-Sisi’s coup go. He is correct that there is nothing democratic about the Egyptian military’s actions, but the Turkish prime minister seems to have willfully overlooked the fact that Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brothers hardly distinguished themselves as democrats over the course of the last year.

It was clear from what the Brotherhood-dominated Shura Council was doing that Morsi and the Guidance Office were seeking to institutionalize the power of their organization with little regard for the principles of democratic politics. Erdogan simply refuses to see the Egyptian dilemma or recognize that the Brothers had no intention of forging a democratic system.

2) As I have written elsewhere on any number of occasions, Tayyip Erdogan is an extraordinary politician. He has an innate capability to connect with the average Turk and the vital center of the electorate. Sure, he’s been in power for a decade and seems isolated from society, but he is still the guy from KasımpaÅŸa. When Erdogan rails against interest rate lobbies, blames foreign hands, blasts Gulf leaders, assails Egyptian generals, and ostentatiously weeps over Palestinian blood, he is connecting with his constituency.

Everything the prime minister does is directly related to domestic politics, so it does not matter that his rhetoric contributes to the erosion of Turkey’s strategic position in the region, because this type of rhetoric resonates deeply. The domestic turbulence as a result of the Gezi protests, in particular, has given Erdogan an opportunity to play on Turkish sensitivities about the predatory role of external powers. These ideas crystallized — for good reason — in the immediate post-WWI era, but remain potent almost a century later. The tough rhetoric also insulates Erdogan from setbacks because he has framed the terms of debate in a way that no matter what happens to the economy, it is not his or his government’s fault, but rather the responsibility of foreign bankers. In an unintended way, Turkey’s troubles may actually help Erdogan politically.

3) Erdogan’s visceral response to what has happened to Morsi is a function of the Turkish leader’s own (more successful) efforts to do what the former Egyptian president tried. If you strip away the lore of a politically and economically liberalizing Turkey, the AKP has done what the Egyptian armed forces did not permit the Muslim Brotherhood to do. The Justice and Development Party has consolidated its power and in the process has made it exceedingly difficult to challenge the party in the formal political arena. The party’s members and their allies have used the last decade to exploit economic opportunities that are recycled through the political system, further institutionalizing the power of the party. Coming on the heels of the Gezi protests, Erdogan cannot allow anyone to draw parallels, however abstract, between the dynamics that led to the coup in Egypt and the political-economic circumstances that prevail in Turkey. This is not to suggest that Turkey is ripe for a coup or even that the Turkish military could pull one off, but rather that the illiberal drift in Turkish politics renders the country’s political environment more like Egypt than, say, any of Ankara’s Western partners.

The end result is a Turkey that is more insular, less democratic and pricklier than at any time during Erdogan’s tenure. In other words, the new Turkey looks a lot like the old one.

* Steven A. Cook is the Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council On Foreign Relations.
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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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