Gulen possible asylum request a bargaining card for Egypt?
CAIRO - An announcement by Egypt that it would consider offering political asylum to Turkish cleric and opposition figure Fethullah Gulen, who is in voluntary exile in the United States, may increase tensions between Cairo and Ankara.
“This is a move that will inevitably aggravate tensions between the two countries,” said Akram Saad, a researcher at the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies think-tank. “Egypt was keen to abstain from taking any escalatory measures against Turkey in the past three years but the situation seems to be changing.”
Egyptian Prime Minister Sherif Ismail said July 27th that Egypt would study the asylum request if Gulen made it.
Ankara accuses Gulen, 75, of being behind the failed July 15th putsch even though he denounced the coup in its earliest hours. Turkey said it had submitted documents proving his involvement in the coup attempt as part of its request that the United States repatriate Gulen.
Local observers said Cairo would not have stated its readiness to offer political asylum to Gulen if there had not been contacts with the Turkish cleric himself or US officials. Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid, however, denied there had been contacts between Cairo and Gulen.
“The Turkish politician has not requested political asylum in Egypt yet, either,” Abu Zeid said. “The government has not taken any measures in this regard.”
Turkish Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag told the Haberturk television channel that Ankara had intelligence information indicating Gulen might be preparing to leave the United States for Egypt, Canada, Australia, Mexico or South Africa.
For Egypt this seems to be less about Gulen than about how the country Turkey antagonised almost three years ago against the background of the ouster by the army of the Ankara-backed Islamist president Muhammad Morsi is turning into a thorn in the side of the Turkish regime.
Egypt has received a number of Turkish activists and opposition figures, most of whom were in Egypt before the coup attempt. These people appear frequently on Egyptian television to criticise the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
In this, observers say, Egypt is answering Ankara, which hosts a large number of the affiliates of the Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi’s movement.
Egypt was also said to have led the opposition to Turkey’s nomination for a non-permanent UN Security Council seat in October 2014.
Soon after the July coup attempt, Egypt, which is a non-permanent Security Council member, blocked a resolution condemning the coup over its phrasing. Egypt’s representative at a July 28th Organisation of Islamic Cooperation meeting in Saudi Arabia expressed reservations and asked for more time for consultation on a draft resolution proposed by Turkey to blacklist Gulen’s Hizmet movement.
Ankara had taken steps to improve its political position in the region recently. Turkey signed a reconciliation deal with Israel and sent its intelligence officials secretly to Damascus to mend fences with Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Some observers say a Turkey- Egypt reconciliation could be next but the gesture considering possible asylum for Gulen could hinder that.
The asylum move came after member of Parliament Emad Mahrous requested that the government host Gulen and other Turkish opposition figures. Mahrous said Cairo should stand by the Turkish opposition.
“Gulen will likely be deported by the United States to Turkey,” Mahrous said, “but if it does this, the man will suffer repression in his country, which is why Egypt should step in and help him.”
There are suggestions that Egypt entered the Gulen fray to pressure Turkey to accelerate its rapprochement bid.
“The Gulen asylum gesture is one of these cards (held by Cairo), in fact,” negotiation expert Hassan Wagih said. “So far, Turkish opposition figures living here do not play any political role but whether this will continue to be the case in the future is not certain. If they do, this will be yet one more pressure card used by Cairo against Turkey, which also hosts Egyptian opposition figures.”