Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

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Erdogan’s Middle Eastern Victory Lap

by Steven A. Cook
September 16, 2011

 

Egypt's Prime Minister Essam Sharaf (R) and his Turkey counterpart Tayyip Erdogan walk after a news conference at the Prime Minister's office in Cairo (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Courtesy Reuters)

The following article was posted here on foreignaffairs.com today. 

As Cairo’s citizens drove along the Autostrad this week, they were greeted with four enormous billboards featuring pictures of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. With Turkish and Egyptian flags, the signs bore the message, “With United Hands for the Future.” Erdogan’s visit marks a bold development in Turkey’s leadership in the region. The hero’s welcome he received at the airport reinforced the popular perception: Turkey is a positive force, uniquely positioned to guide the Middle East’s ongoing transformation.

By many measures, Erdogan’s Turkey appears to have much to offer Egypt (and Tunisia and Libya, which he visited later in the week). His Justice and Development Party (AKP) is deeply attractive to both Islamist and liberal Arabs. For Islamists, it provides a lesson on how to overcome barriers to political participation and remake a once-hostile public arena. For liberals, it demonstrates that even a party of religion can embrace and advance liberal principles. The AKP thus resolves one of the Muslim world’s central political problems: Citizens are too often forced to choose between the authoritarianism of prevailing regimes and the potential theocracy of Islamists that might replace them.

Egyptian, Tunisian, or Libyan versions of the AKP could give citizens a way to overcome the second half of this dilemma. To be sure, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood was  initially wary of the AKP, regarding it as too liberal and nationalist. But it warmed up to the party after Erdogan called on former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to leave office — and did so much earlier than most other leaders. Now, some of the Brotherhood’s offshoots — for example the Egyptian Current Party, which is made up of activists in their twenties and thirties — have explicitly stated that they want to emulate AKP. And Abdel Monem Aboul Futouh, the former Brotherhood stalwart and presidential candidate, has called himself the “Egyptian Erdogan.”

Beyond the deeply appealing worldview of its ruling party, Turkey could assist the new Middle East on a more practical level. Washington is broke, distracted with the coming presidential campaign, and overloaded with crises and potential crises. Europe is as burdened with debt as the United States and has been unable to shape events in the region since Paris and London abandoned their colonies and protectorates there in the 1960s and early 1970s.

But Turkey, with its rapid economic growth and entrepreneurial spirit, could provide Egyptians, Tunisians, and Libyans what they want and need the most — investment. The Persian Gulf states have committed billions to Egypt, but only a small amount has made its way to the Ministry of Finance. Moreover, Egyptians are wary of the “soft conditionality” of Saudi, Qatari, and Emirati aid. Turks are presumed to invest for profit alone.

Still, if Erdogan and the AKP seem too good for the Middle East to be true, it is because they are. For all his brilliance as a politician, the prime minister’s legend has at times blurred political and strategic blunders.

Erdogan’s triumphalism masks serious missteps at crucial moments during the Arab uprisings. Erdogan got Egypt right, of course, but he stumbled badly in Libya, first strongly resisting the NATO-led mission to protect civilians against Muammar al-Qadaffi’s brutality.

This was the same Qaddafi who had granted Turkish companies $23 billion in contracts for construction and other projects and awarded the prime minister a prize for human rights. Good sense suggests that the prize is now sitting in a landfill on the outskirts of Ankara, but Turkey’s economic interests explain, at least in part, Ankara’s initially sluggish response to the Libyan rebellion.

Ankara seemed to cling to its political, diplomatic, and economic interests in Syria, too. Once again, Erdogan misread the situation, believing that he could convince Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to reform. Even as Erdogan stepped up his rhetoric about the bloodshed in Syria in late summer, he consistently kept the door open for Assad to remain in power.

It is an unfortunate fact of Middle Eastern politics that no one in the Arab world will publicly pressure Ankara on its inconsistencies. Turkey’s public and rather nasty fallout with Israel and its principled stand on recognizing a Palestinian state give it immunity. A few brave souls demonstrated against Erdogan when he spoke to the Arab League on September 13, but that protest pales in comparison to the rock star reception he received during the rest of the trip.

In reality, the Middle East may be more important for Turkish domestic politics than Turkey is for the Middle East’s. This past June, the AKP renewed its parliamentary majority with 49.95 percent of the vote — its third electoral victory in a row. Some Western and Turkish observers concluded that Erdogan is untouchable. Yet if Erdogan were so secure, he would not have needed to make a speech to the Arab League to burnish his already stellar political position. In fact, the prime minister is profoundly aware of the unhappy history of the previous Islamist parties in Turkey’s secular political order and, as a result, is on a perpetual campaign.

Erdogan’s tour of Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya warmed the hearts of millions of proud, nationalist Turks who enjoy the spectacle of their prime minister as, in their words, “king of the Arab street.” Ankara’s posture in the Middle East — and the Arab world’s apparent receptivity to it — simply confirmed what Erdogan and the AKP had been telling Turks for some time: A prosperous, powerful, and democratic Turkey can influence the world around it.

Observers tend to underestimate how closely foreign policy reflects leaders’ domestic political constraints and opportunities. Erdogan’s trip to the Middle East was not solely about his domestic political needs and the urgency of masking Ankara’s initial blunders on Libya and Syria — although it was about that, too. But because the Turkish prime minister cut his teeth as a neighborhood party organizer, he is keenly aware of what his own street wants. In the Middle East, at least, he has given it to them. He will reap the political benefits for some time to come, making Erdogan “king” of the Arab, but most important Turkish, streets.

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  • Posted by Nikos Retsos

    It is definitely a victory lap. And Obama’s planned to ask Erdogan to patch relations with Israel at their meeting at the U.N. will fall in deaf ears! And regardless if the U.S. like it or not, Erdogan holds the best cards in Middle East at this time. He is high in the pantheon of Muslim and Arab admiration, and he would certainly not demote himself to play second fiddle either to the U.S. or to Israel.

    It used to be that the U.S. pushed all its Arab dictators and despots to accept Israel, and then it allowed Israel to become a bully in Middle East under U.S. protection. During those years, the U.S. also controlled the Turkish foreign policy through its control of the Turkish military. Any Turkish elected government who didn’t toe the U.S. line
    was dismissed by the Turkish military – under U.S. pressure on the U.S. trained and supplied Turkish army. The most striking was the dismissal of prime minister Necmettin Erbakan, on June 30, 1997. It took Tayyip Erdogan 3 elections to obtain a solid parliamentary majority, and a tough courage to refuse a demand by the chiefs of the Turkish army, navy and air force to order the release of 200 army officers arrested for planning a coup against him. The chiefs resigned in protest, and Erdogan appointed new commanders. And that fall marked the end of the U.S. clout to either approve or dismiss the elected Turkish governments. (Note: The European Union has denied membership to Turkey until it brought its military under civilian control).

    Erdogan’s stature has now become a big problem for the U.S., and his popularity is enhanced by the high anti- U.S. and anti- Israeli sentiment in the Middle East. The U.S. has accused Iran and Syria as “terrorist supporting states” for supporting Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah. But the U.S. doesn’t dare to accuse Turkey as a “terrorist supporting state” for doing the same! And when Obama called Erdogan recently and asked him to reconcile with Israel, Erdogan replied sternly that he should take his advise to Israel – according to reports in the press.

    In short, the scale of political and military influence in Middle East is changing, and the U.S. and Israel are on the losing side. Erdogan owes his meteoric rise in Middle East to a a high anti-American sentiment in Turkey, 99.5% during the Bush years (Turkish Weekly, November 9, 2006), and a 93% anti-American sentiment in Global Polls (National Public Radio, Chicago, June 13, 2006 – confirmed the same day by Indiana Senator Richard Lugar in the Lehrer’s Report) With such high anti-U.S. and anti Israeli sentiments brewing worldwide, Erdogan’s call to “stop the Israeli lawlessness in the Middle East” (Al Jazeera, June 2, 2010) have made him a “Middle East idol,” and a statesman that the U.S. and Israel will be forced to reckon with! Nikos Retsos, retired professor

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