Turkish Tourism Impacted by Dispute With Egypt
It hasn’t been a great year for Turkish tourism in light of its own political unrest, the Syrian civil war next door, and tensions with Egypt over the overthrow of Mursi. It is doubtful things will improve anytime soon.
Laila Said loved Turkish soap operas so much she named her baby boy Mohannad after the main character in her favorite program. For the past two months, she’s stopped watching.
“I was addicted to Turkish television series and was so emotionally involved with the characters, the scenes and the culture that I wouldn’t miss a single episode,” Said, 31, said in a central Cairo salon where she works as a hair stylist. “Now, I just hate everything related to Turkey.”
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been one of the most forceful international critics of the army’s July 3 overthrow of Mohamed Mursi, Egypt’s first freely elected civilian president, and the deadly crackdown on Mursi’s supporters that followed it. His defense of the ousted Islamist leader has enraged Egyptians who support the military intervention, spurring popular boycotts and threatening to choke off a burgeoning trade link.
“Mursi was the first Egyptian ruler in 200 years who got on with Turkey,” said Mustafa El-Labbad, director of the independent Al Sharq Centre for Regional and Strategic Studies, in an interview. “The fall of Mursi meant a fall to the dream of Turkey in the region as well.”
In 2012, the year of Mursi’s election, Turkish exports to Egypt surged to a record $3.7 billion, quadruple the 2007 level. It was part of a drive by Erdogan, whose party has roots in Islamic movements, to develop business and political links in the Middle East, overcoming suspicion of Turkey in a region where it was the imperial power for centuries.
There are signs that the boom is reversing. Turkish goods shipped through Egyptian ports dropped as much as 30 percent after Mursi’s ouster, according to data from OSF International Logistics Services, a transport company in Turkey.
Egypt’s Trade and Industry Ministry is threatening anti- dumping duties on Turkish steel imports. Cairo-based Oriental Weavers this month said it was canceling a carpet production project in Turkey that might eventually have meant an investment of as much as $250 million.
Asked whether the decision was political, Haitham Abdel Moneim, the company’s investor relations director, said “politics is part of the economy.”
“It’s a bit risky now, on the economic front there were credit lines to Egypt that they stopped,” he said. “It gives you an indication that later they may create problems for you when transferring money. You can wake up in the morning to find Egyptian investments in a trap.”
Turkey lent Egypt $1 billion during Mursi’s one-year rule. A second installment of the same size was never delivered because Egypt didn’t request it, Turkish Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan said last month. The gap was more than covered by Gulf countries that supported Mursi’s ouster and stepped up financial aid in the weeks following it.
Erdogan called Mursi’s removal a military coup, and criticized the chief imam at the Al-Azhar, Egypt’s leading Islamic authority, for supporting the army.
Egyptians who resent that stance are targeting Turkish goods in response. Alaa Hussein, 29, who sells home appliances on Abdel-Aziz Street in downtown Cairo, said customers are opting for Chinese equivalents instead.
“People are very emotional and when it comes to their national feelings, this can affect their choices,” he said. Outside his shop, 59-year-old housewife Salwa El-Sayed agrees. “Erdogan made a big mistake,” she said. “He supported the regime over the people, and now he’s paying the price.”
Members of Egypt’s army-backed government regularly speak out against Turkey. Last month, Interim Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy said Erdogan’s stance is prompted by fears his Justice and Development Party will suffer if political Islam fails. State media, which have backed the military intervention, joined the campaign. Recent newspaper headlines read: “Egypt is no longer under the Ottoman empire” and “Sorry, Erdogan, the Egyptian people are their own masters.”
Public opinion may be less unanimous, since Egypt remains polarized and there have been frequent demonstrations calling for Mursi’s reinstatement.
For Erdogan, it’s a turnaround from 2011 when he visited Egypt and was greeted by thousands hailing him as one of the first leaders to call for the removal of President Hosni Mubarak. Since Mursi’s fall, Turkey and Egypt canceled military drills and recalled ambassadors.
Egyptians planning a trip to Turkey are being discouraged. The Independent General Tourism Workers Syndicate is organizing boycotts and has called for the removal of Turkey from a list of recognized destinations.
Engy Salem, 28, said she was “strongly advised” against going to Turkey when she tried to book a holiday. “I was shocked because that’s the same destination I was always advised to go to by the very same agent,” she said. “But this time she told me there are some worries Turkish authorities and people might not be as welcoming as before.”
Elhamy El-Zayat, head of the Egyptian Tourism Federation, said Egyptians are now avoiding Turkey, which used to be one of their favorite foreign destinations. “Occupancy rates for flights heading to Istanbul have fallen,” he said.
At least four Egyptian television channels have halted broadcasts of Turkish soaps since Mursi’s removal, among them Al-Kahera Wal Nas, whose owner Tarek Nour, says the message is political rather than cultural.
“I only want to send a message to Erdogan that your position and interference in our affairs is not welcome,” he said.
In her hair salon, Laila Said recalls how Turkish soap star Kivanc Tatlitug played Mohannad, a character in the series, Forbidden Love, and gained the admiration of Egyptian women.
“I used to love Turkish actors, even dreamed about visiting Istanbul,” she said. “But now it’s about the dignity of Egyptians. Erdogan needs to understand we are not part of the Ottoman empire anymore.”
–With assistance from Tamim Elyan in Cairo. Editors: Francis Harris, Ben Holland.
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