Erdo?an in Cairo: Street hero, rulers’ nightmare?



Thousands of Egyptians flocked to Cairo airport to greet Turkish Prime Minister Recep TayyiP Erdo?an on Monday night. (Photo: AA)
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdo?an received an enthusiastic welcome in Egypt at the start of a North African tour aiming to build on Ankara’s growing standing in a transforming Middle East.
His destinations on the tour — Egypt, Tunisia and Libya — have all witnessed the fall of entrenched leaders to grassroots revolts this year, challenging the old order across the region. Many Arabs look up to Turkey’s blend of Islam and democracy as a role model for movements that have toppled several Arab autocrats and threaten others. His visit comes at a time when Turkey’s once solid relations with Israel are in a crisis over Israeli blockade of Gaza and a deadly Israeli raid on an aid ship trying to break the blockade of Gaza in 2010, which killed eight Turks and one Turkish American.
Erdo?an planned on Monday to address the 22-member Arab League and hold talks with the military council steering Egypt after Hosni Mubarak’s ouster towards civilian rule amid a surge in popular anger towards Israel.
“The visit is important,” said Mohammed Adel of the April 6 movement of youth activists involved in street protests that saw Mubarak driven from office in February.
“We need to preserve our relations with Turkey and all the countries that want to help the Arab world and take advantage of them to create a stronger political front to enhance the Arab states’ position against Israel.”

Erdo?an, who has clashed with Israeli leaders repeatedly since Israel’s war with Hamas-ruled Gaza began in December 2008, was met on Monday evening by Essam Sharaf, head of an interim cabinet that answers to the military council, and a rapturous crowd of thousands at Cairo airport.

They clapped and cheered as the two men came off the tarmac hand-in-hand. Many appeared to be from Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, who look up to Erdo?an because of his success in bringing Islamists into mainstream Turkish politics.

“Erdo?an, Erdo?an — a big welcome from the Brothers!” one large banner said, while others had large photos of Erdo?an with “Turkey-Egypt hand in hand for future” and “Hero Erdo?an” written on them.

“I have come here to say ‘thank you’ because he says things no man can say,” said Hani, a 21-year-old university student.

Erdo?an took a microphone set up for the occasion to address the crowd, saying “Peace be upon you” and “Greetings to the Egyptian youth and people, how are you?” in Arabic.

Erdo?an, who led his Justice and Development Party (AK Party) to three election victories, will also deliver a speech at Cairo University outlining his Middle East vision. US President Barack Obama addressed the Muslim world from the same university in 2009.

While the Turkish leader boasts credibility on the Arab street, he could be a headache for US-allied rulers.

“He will use his visit to Cairo as a barometer to measure just how popular he is in the Arab street,” said Uzi Rabi of Tel Aviv University. “But some Arab leaders may not be as enthusiastic about seeing him feed on this popularity.”

Erdo?an told leading pan-Arab broadcaster Al Jazeera this month that the incident was a “cause for war” but said Turkey acted with “patience”, according to a transcript of the interview, excerpts of which were broadcast last week.

Egypt’s ruling generals, overseeing a transition to democracy after Mubarak’s exit, faced a similar dilemma on how to respond after Israel shot dead several Egyptian soldiers last month in border operations.

The government appeared to fumble its response to that incident, at first saying it had recalled Egypt’s ambassador to Tel Aviv, then saying it had not.

Protesters attacked the Israeli embassy in Cairo last week, causing the ambassador to flee the country and prompting an embarrassed government to affirm to Washington, its major aid donor, that it remained committed to a 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

Egypt has received billions of dollars in US military and other aid since making peace with the Jewish state, so the military council faces a balancing act when responding to public calls for a more assertive policy towards Israel.

Diplomatic backseat

Even if Egypt wanted to match Turkey’s regional grand-standing, it would be difficult now as the country grapples with deteriorating security, planning for elections, trials of Mubarak and other ancien regime figures, protests and strikes.

Egypt has traditionally seen itself as the leading diplomatic player in the Arab region. But its position has been eroded in recent years as wealthy Gulf countries with small populations such as Qatar increasingly make the running.

“Egypt is not in a position to play such a role at the moment so Erdo?an is trying to take advantage of that,” said Adel Soliman, head of Cairo’s International Centre for Future and Strategic Studies.

He played down prospects of Egypt and Turkey aligning policies against Israel, despite the spats.

“I don’t think they will have any big agreements when it comes to Israel. There is a lot of exaggeration. I see it more as theatrics than anything practical,” he said.

A foreign ministry official said there was no rivalry. “The results of Erdo?an’s visit will show that Turkey cares about Egypt, just as Egypt is keen to have good relations with Turkey,” said Amr Roushdy.

At the Arab League headquarters in Cairo, Erdo?an will have a chance to talk with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas about the Palestinian UN statehood bid, which is vehemently opposed by Israel and the United States.

Qatar, which won US praise for its backing of the Libyan rebels who overthrew Muammar Gaddafi last month, has taken a leading role in organising support for the Palestinian bid.

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