Growing Turkish interference in Yemen stirs concern in Cairo
CAIRO--Turkey’s growing presence in Yemen, especially in the restive southern region, is fuelling concern in Egypt over security in the Red Sea and the Suez Canal.
Turkey has taken a greater political role in southern Yemen through the country’s local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is helping Turkish charities gain influence.
“The Islah (Reform) party is instrumental in giving Turkish institutions and the Turkish government, all masquerading as charity organisations, access to Yemeni cities,” said Yemeni political analyst Mahmud al-Tahir. “Turkey has interests in abetting the Muslim Brotherhood and giving it more power on the Yemeni stage.”
Founded in 1990, the Reform Party, the Muslim Brotherhood’s local branch, has long been an important player on the country’s political stage. The party has gained more power in recent years, filling a political vacuum left by the downfall of the Ali Abdullah Saleh regime in February 2012 and then by a coup staged by the Iran-backed Houthi militia against President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi in March 2015.
The party is represented in the government of Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalik Saeed, which is based in the south-eastern port city of Aden.
Brotherhood-affiliated officials and ministers have taken trips to Ankara to lobby officials with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) to be more active in Yemen, particularly by investing in the country’s transport sectors and ports.
ln mid-January, Turkey’s deputy interior minister, Ismail Catakli, visited Aden and held talks with Saeed. He revealed that Erdogan had asked a team of aides to prepare a report about humanitarian needs in Yemen.
This came two months after former Yemeni Transport Minister Saleh al-Jabwani, a Reform Party affiliate, visited Turkey to discuss cooperation in managing Yemeni ports.
Cairo has not spoken publicly on the development, but political analysts in Cairo say the government is concerned that Turkey’s efforts to increase their presence near the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, through which Gulf oil is transported before reaching the Suez Canal, will threaten the security of Egypt and Gulf Arab states.
“Turkey sets its eyes on Yemen’s Red Sea ports and ports close to the strait only with the aim of putting pressure on Egypt,” said Yemeni political analyst Abdel Karim al-Medi.
Turkey’s efforts to increase its presence near the Bab el-Mandeb Strait are part of a larger campaign to shore up influence in the southern entrance of the Red Sea.
With a military base in Djibouti and repeated efforts to gain a foothold in Somalia and the Sudanese Red Sea island of Suakin, Ankara is working hard to become a force in the Red Sea.
Egypt is at odds with Turkey due to Ankara’s support for political Islam, including the international Muslim Brotherhood movement, and competition for resources in the Eastern Mediterranean.
“Turkey was hoping that the post-Arab spring political rise of this Islamist movement would serve its interests in the region,” said independent Egyptian analyst Abdelmonem Ahmed. “This was why it threw its full weight behind the movement everywhere: in Egypt, in Sudan, in Libya and in Yemen.
On top of Turkey’s involvement in Yemen, Ankara has also lent support to Libya’s Islamist-leaning Government of National Accord (GNA).
Egypt, reacting to the Houthis’ takeover of Yemeni territory in 2015, built up its military presence in the southern entrance of the Red Sea.
It now deploys naval units near the coast of Yemen and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and has constructed a naval/air base near its border with Sudan on the Red Sea.
The Egyptian military buildup in the Red Sea aims to protect the maritime movement in the sea, secure international oil supplies and safeguard the security of the Suez Canal.
In August 2018, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said his country would not allow non-Arab powers to gain a foothold in Yemen.
“We will not accept Yemen to turn into a springboard for threatening the security and stability of Arab countries or the freedom of navigation in the Red Sea or the Bab el-Mandeb Strait,” Sisi said at a press briefing with Hadi in Cairo.
It remains unclear how Egypt will react to Turkey’s recent activities in Yemen. “Turkey harbours a lot of animosity to Egypt on economic, ideological and political grounds,” Ahmed said. “Cairo needs to urgently step up coordination with the Yemeni government to trim Turkish influence in Yemen.”