Why Turkey’s Erdogan Is Greeted like a Rock Star in Egypt
September 14, 2011 Leave a comment
By RANIA ABOUZEID / CAIRO: Turkish Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan — a hero on the Arab street — has a habit of irritating generals, even when he doesn’t mean to. This week, though, the men in uniform whose mustaches he is tweaking are not the military guardians of Turkish secularism, but Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF).
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, center, reacts as he visits the tomb of late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who was assassinated in 1981, as he visits the memorial of the Unknown Soldier in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2011. At right, General Hassan al Rawini, commander of the Egyptian army’s central command.Amr Nabil / AP
SCAF’s iron-fisted following Friday’s sacking of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, during a riot which left three people dead and more than 1,000 injured in clashes with security forces, has amplified anger at the generals. The Council swiftly reinstated the authoritarian Emergency Law, a despised hallmark of Mubarak’s decades-long rule, and broadened it to cover activities such as blocking roads, publishing false information and weapons possession.(See “Prime Minister Erdogan: Turkey’s Man of the People.)
Questions still swirl about the Embassy incident, with some commentators in the local media speculating that the protesters had been set up by SCAF, given that the diplomatic mission was lightly guarded by men who stood by and watched as protesters tore down a wall around the structure, and only intervened hours later. The demonstrators had been protesting Israel’s killing of six Egyptian border guards last month in a cross-border incursion following an attack in Israeli territory by militants believed to have crossed from the Egyptian side. The violation of Egyptian sovereignty had infuriated many, but elicited a tepid response from SCAF. Cairo had reportedly said it would expel Israel’s ambassador but had failed to do so.
Enter the tough-talking Erdogan, who recently tossed out Israel’s ambassador to Turkey, suspended bilateral military ties, and promised a Turkish military escort for vessels defying Israel’s Gaza blockade in the future. As far as Egypt’s public was concerned, Erdogan had shown SCAF (and everybody else) how it’s done when it comes to responding to Israeli actions, cementing his stature as the Arab world’s new pasha.
Although the Arab Spring is not directly about Israel, those who have risen to claim their dignity in the face of tyrannical regimes are not prepared to passively accept Israel’s actions against the Palestinians in the way that Mubarak and other Arab autocrats had done. That leaves Egypt’s generals wobbling on a tightrope: On the one hand, they must appease public anger at their perceived weak response to Israel and their people’s pro-Palestinian views; on the other they must maintain Egypt’s international treaty obligations, first and foremost the 1979 Camp David agreement with Israel, and maintain the flow of hundreds of millions that the U.S. sends in direct aid to the Egyptian military every year.(See photos of Egyptians tearing down the Israeli embassy wall.)
Erdogan’s visit has highlighted the vast schism between popular pro-Palestinian public opinion in Egypt, and the inclinations of the country’s military leaders. The Turkish prime minister’s thunderous speech to the stale Arab League in Cairo on Tuesday certainly couldn’t have helped. In a 30-minute address, Erdogan positioned himself as the unrivaled champion of Palestine, telling the region’s 21 foreign ministers (Syria sent a lower-ranking representative) that a Palestinian state was “not an option but an obligation,” urging them to support efforts to seek U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state later this month.
“The Palestinian issue is about the dignity of the people,” said Erdogan, dressed in a sharp dark suit with a white shirt and ruby red tie with white spots. He highlighted Turkey’s closeness to the Palestinian issue and the Arab people in general. “The cries of a Palestinian child in Gaza hurt the heart of a mother in Ankara,” he said. “It’s time to raise the Palestinian flag at the United Nations. Let’s raise the Palestinian flag and let that flag be the symbol of peace and justice in the Middle East. Let’s contribute to securing well deserved peace and stability in the Middle East,” Erdogan said. Israel had isolated itself, he added, by acting “irresponsibly” and “must pay the price” after refusing to apologize for the raid on the Turkish flotilla.
In a further provocation to Israel and perhaps also to Egypt’s generals, Erdogan reportedly wants to cross into the besieged Hamas-ruled territory of Gaza from Egypt, although it’s unclear if he will go ahead. Regardless, the Turkish leader’s message has buttressed his position in the Arab world. However Erdogan’s star may be dimming in some parts of the region, specifically in Syria. His speech at the Arab League didn’t address Syria, although leaks in the Turkish media had suggested that he was going to offer “his final words” to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Perhaps that was what came later, in Erdogan’s second address of the day at Cairo’s Opera House. This time the speech — which was billed as an address to the Egyptian people — wasn’t televised, for reasons that are unclear. “Reforms have not materialized,” Erdogan said of Assad’s promises of change. “The Syrian people do not believe in Assad, nor do I. We also do not believe him.” It was quite a statement from a man who once counted Bashar al-Assad as a personal friend. Although Turkey has taken an increasingly tougher line with Assad, as the Syrian death toll tops 2,600, activists have been looking to Erdogan for more. On Tuesday, he indicated that he is likely to deliver.