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Egypt, Turkey and the Real China Challenge

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Development or democracy? Biden’s International Priorities

On April 6, 2021, Turkey released imprisoned Turkish Journalist Ahmet Altan after a European court ruled his civil rights were violated. Mr. Altan spent more than four year in prison for allegedly taking part in the failed coup of 2016. Turkish officials claim that the Turkish judiciary is independent and the European ruling had nothing to do with his release. On April 13, 2021, the Egyptian authorities released Journalist Khaled Dawood, formerly working for Al-Ahram newspaper who later became head of Addustoor (The Constitution) Party. Mr. Dawood’s release came with the beginning of the fasting month of Ramadan. He had been charged with publishing false information, abusing social media platforms and helping a terrorist organization achieve its goal. He had been taken into custody for fifteen days pending investigations in September 2019, but stayed in detention for 20 months. Turkey and Egypt ranked 154 and 166 respectively on the 2020 World Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders.

The release of both Altan and Dawood is one example of a relatively wider movement toward an improved Human Rights record in both countries that coincided with the inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden in January 2021. Mr. Biden is focusing on diplomacy, Human Rights and democracy as pillars of his foreign policy. He is also focusing on shifting resources attention from conflicts in the Middle East, the Mediterranean, Afghanistan and other regions to Asia where he needs to deal with China’s rising power. The web of conflicts and tensions in those regions shows a trend toward a reduction and efforts of reconciliation that may also be motivated by a trade off for the parties involved. 

Turkey and Europe

Turkey and the European Union held talks in Ankara on April 6, to warm their relations. The agenda included discussions to expand their 1990s trade agreement and a trade off over energy, migration and Cyprus. Turkey has for long sought membership in the EU but European countries have been critical of Turkey over what they regarded as poor democracy and Human Rights records.

Turkey and Egypt

Egyptian and Turkish Foreign Ministers plan to meet in May after the two countries froze their diplomatic relations in 2013, following the army’s removal of the late President Mohamed Mursi, who was a leader of the now outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. Turkish President Erdogan is a known to be a leader of the group in Turkey.  Although Turkish officials say the move toward reconciliation with Egypt is a part of wider efforts to repair strained ties with other Middle Eastern rivals the timing of those efforts coincides with President Biden’s focus on Human Rights, diplomacy, democracy and the China challenge as priorities for his foreign policy. Some analysts would argue that Mr. Biden wanted an undivided alliance in the Middle East to confront Iran. But President Biden is now negotiating with Tehran as he seeks to return to commit to the 2015 nuclear deal. Since 2013, no serious efforts were made by Cairo or Ankara to repair their relations that deteriorated by conflicts in Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean.

Related: Turkish Agents Capture Nephew of Prominent Cleric

Biden, Turkey, Europe

Mr. Biden reportedly has asked his European allies to reduce pressure and criticism of NATO member, Turkey, as he seeks a unified alliance to confront the expanding influence of China. In response, Ankara seems to be improving its Human Rights record. In fact, efforts to improve relations between Europe and Turkey also include better Turkish- Greek ties in the Eastern Mediterranean after decades of historically worsened hostility.

The anti-China bloc also includes non-NATO countries such as South Korea, Japan, Australia and India.

Different Priorities

Furthermore, President Biden is asking Israel and Arab Gulf states to reduce their trade and non-trade deals with China.

But Israel, Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states have different priorities from those of Mr. Biden’s. These countries still regard Iran, not China, as the main threat to their security.

The Iran threat has pushed some Arab states to normalize relations with Israel. And the reconciliation between Qatar and several countries including Saudi Arabia and Egypt cannot be explained in terms of the Iran threat alone. Several previous attempts at reconciliation failed using the Iran factor. So, the timing of the current successful reconciliation must be due to the Biden factor. Mr. Biden’s foreign policy objectives must have come into play and must be taken into account.

The China Challenge

President Biden faces a different type of the China challenge which requires more than just unifying the world against a rising rival economically, militarily and space-wise. China is expected to launch its own Space Station by 2024. He needs to consider what to do about an emerging bipolar world. China’s strategy is based on the attractive principle of “peace through development.” The U.S. strategy has so far been based on “peace through democracy.” The real challenge for Mr. Biden is: can he make democracy more attractive in a world that half of its population (3 billion) survives on $2.50 a day or less?

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