Erdogan's Middle Eastern victory lap
Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is visiting Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. (Getty Images)
September 16th, 2011
04:15 PM ET

Erdogan's Middle Eastern victory lap

Editor's Note: Steven A. Cook is the Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square.

By Steven A. Cook, Foreign Affairs

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."

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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.

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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.

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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 tim: A prosperous, powerful, and democratic Turkey can influence the world around it.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Steven A. Cook.

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Topics: Egypt • Emerging Powers • Foreign Policy • Libya • Middle East • Turkey

soundoff (46 Responses)
  1. 100% STRONGER

    Erdogan must fix his home grown separatest problem before he acts, internationally.

    September 16, 2011 at 6:22 pm | Reply
    • Audrey Meridienne

      If countries were to fix their domestic issues before acting internationally, no country would be able to act internationally as every country has a ton of issues, even more than Turkey. You are posting with an anti-Turkish sentiment, it is extremely obvious, but you are failing to fool third parties, get real.

      September 17, 2011 at 1:42 am | Reply
  2. 100% STRONGER

    Turkey, will visit American soil during THANKS GIVING DAY. Now, its not the right time. Quake, Quake, Quake,........

    September 16, 2011 at 6:32 pm | Reply
    • Audrey Meridienne

      No surprise here, this particular message shows your level. The day is soon that the entire world will be making your country which is swimming in debt and unable to even pay for the utilities of its public schools. Turn your back to the nearest mirror, pull your pants down, and laugh now Mr.Obese.

      September 17, 2011 at 1:44 am | Reply
    • Saarah

      Perfect mtireaal! I have been previously hunting for something such as this for some time now. Thanks for the tips!

      February 12, 2012 at 12:21 am | Reply
  3. j. von hettlingen

    I bet Erdogan and Sarkozy will not speak again! Erdogan was at the onset of the military foray in Libya against France’s unilateralism and insisted on deploying the NATO. He hadn't forgotten that Sarkozy opposed Turkey's EU-membership. During the No-Fly-Zone campaign, Erdogan was reluctant to condemn Gaddafi until a few weeks before the general election in Turkey. As Sarkozy heard about Erdogan's North African trip, he decided within short notice to be the first foreign leader visiting Libya a day before Erdogan came.

    September 16, 2011 at 7:08 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      Sarkozy's effort to outshine Erdogan in order to secure his country economic interests and to burnish his presidential image for next year's re-election showed how desperate he is.

      September 17, 2011 at 5:11 am | Reply
  4. Matt

    He has used the issue with Israel to increase his force posture into the East Med, it is basically claiming all the East of the Med as Turkey's. Then he will seize the Greek islands and Cyprus. It is about energy and territory, little to do with Israel, but it allows Turkey to move by stealth, it is an excuse. Now if we move the 6th fleet to the Asia/Pacific as we need to for the res-posture of the force structure he will take all the Mediterranean. That is why Gates comments on NATO and the EU, so the US has a real problem, much bigger than just a dispute with Israel and Turkey. It has direct implications on the US. The EU see it as a problem between Israel, as the Greeks did until they realized the implications, so the EU will see it as a Greek/Turkish issue and do nothing and before they know it, all of the Mediterranean will be in dispute. With the US forced to stay as a buffer or fight a war for them.

    September 16, 2011 at 7:29 pm | Reply
  5. Cam Rankin

    I hope this is the start of a better future for the Middle East. People want democracy and change. Turkey maybe just the country to bridge the East and West. Its time for the US to fix ourselves and help when we can for the people and not for brutal despots. Let freedom ring and God bless the United States!

    September 17, 2011 at 2:04 am | Reply
    • Geo T

      "...and not for brutal despots..."

      of course all these are miserable lies for the turks...
      etc. etc. etc...

      September 17, 2011 at 8:02 am | Reply
      • xyz

        How desperate you are!!

        September 17, 2011 at 6:50 pm |
      • Zach

        shall i put up all the crimes commited by the west too?

        we cant sit there and look at each others past in order to detirmine our future realations with each other we must look to what we can do today not the mistakes done years ago.

        September 19, 2011 at 10:27 am |
      • ammy

        "Armenian Genocide": It is the only thing that bonds Armenians. hatret to Turkey. They have to feed this hatret. It was a relocation not a genocide. look at archieves.
        "Greek Genocide": It was greece who tried to invade Turkey in 1st world war. You know how they buned all the cities in Anatolia? if you dont you should read more.
        Turkish Invasion of Cyprus: Do you know the genocide committed against Turks by Greeks Before Turkey sent soldiers? And I think you dont know the results of the election of Annan plan? Who wants solutions?
        Kurdish people: Do you know that most of the Kurdish peole in Turkey did not vote to Kurdish ethnic party? do you wonder why? Turkey is not fighting against Kurd. Fighting against terrorist.

        September 21, 2011 at 12:31 am |
  6. MissingPoint

    Writer forgot or did not mention intentionally that, Erdogan could not be quick in Libya because there were thounds of Turkish Citizens at that moment, he waited till they are secured and saved.

    September 17, 2011 at 6:04 pm | Reply
  7. xyz

    Yes indeed there were 25000 Turkish citizens would be foolish..

    September 17, 2011 at 6:51 pm | Reply
  8. babysitter

    libya issue was different from eygpt.bcs there was a lot of turkish people in libya when erdogan saved his citizens from gaddafi and trippoli he started to talk against gaddafi.this can explain why he didnt so quick about libya. this is a subjective article

    September 21, 2011 at 12:31 pm | Reply
  9. Sally in CH

    I think many in Turkey are smarting from being refused EU entry and are suffering from the same problems most ex-colonial countries have had, loss of pride in losing power over others (Ottoman empire) and a desire to get back the feeling of power and influence at any price.

    Atatürk used force to westernize Turkey but made many angry.. now that an Islamic government has been brought to power, many underlying rancors are surfacing.

    Turkey has a fantastic growing economy but so many of their demons, have-nots, crushed minorities, and overpopulation in cities could destroy them and everything they have done to progress.

    It would be very sad but everything I heard from Erdogan today gives little hope.

    September 25, 2011 at 9:02 am | Reply

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