For Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, encountering cheering crowds and mass adulation on what some have described as his rock star tour of Arab countries must have brought back memories of his early life as a semi-professional footballer, though his success as a political coach, striker, defender and dribbler rolled into one surpasses anything he ever achieved on the football pitch.
“Erdoğan is now the hero of the Egyptian street,” one Egyptian blogger observed, complaining that Egypt was suffering from a severe shortage of national heroes.
This partly relates to the Middle Eastern “cult hero” phenomenon which I examined a few years ago, whereby leaders seen to be defying the west or Israel, no matter how recklessly or for whatever selfish reasons, are elevated to heroes in the eyes of millions.
Although the Arab uprisings have created thousands, even millions, of everyday heroes, in a region whose leaders are more often than not villains, the vacancy for a political hero remains unfilled. Erdoğan has skilfully positioned himself to fit this bill, though his advocacy of secularism and democracy as the solution has incensed the conservative wing of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and made them rethink their welcome of him.
But it is not just about the person of Erdoğan. Egypt and many other parts of the Arab world, who see in Turkey’s success – despite its recent crackdowns on free speech – a possible model for their own futures, are in the grips of what some have described as “Ottomania”.
With the Ottoman empire’s repeated refusal and failure to grant Arabs their rights to self-determination a distant and dim memory, enough generations now seem to have passed for a savvy Turkey to re-enter the regional fold from which it was pushed out by military defeat and Arab nationalism, and which it abandoned when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk decided to abolish the caliphate – a traumatic moment for the region’s Islamists – and turn his new republic westward.
Should Arabs be suspicious of Turkey’s Ottoman legacy or is that simply ancient history?
Since Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention the propping up of self-serving dictators and despots over the decades, Arabs are, in many ways, justifiably suspicious of Western action in the region, no matter how nobly packaged.
But is Turkey, despite its geographical and cultural proximity, actually any better? After all, it has centuries of previous form when it comes to imperial meddling in Arab affairs, and client and vassal rulers – long before the west discovered their usefulness – were a popular means by which it exercised its control.
In Turkey’s defence, it has taken many principled positions towards the Arab revolutions, such as being among the first to call for the departure of Egypt’s former president, Hosni Mubarak.
The country is also stuck between the rock of continued rejection of its bid to become a full member of the European club to which it has aspired for decades and the hard place of being cold-shouldered by the former members of its empire.
So, pushed away by the West, it seems to have decided, at least partly, to jump east and try to cosy up to countries with which it shared many good years, despite all the bad ones. In addition, like Iran, Turkey’s regional standing has been amplified by Washington’s gung-ho, sledge-hammer approach to the Middle East which has led Arabs to seek alternatives to counterbalance the West’s increasingly deadly hegemony in the region.
Part of Erdoğan’s interest in the Middle East has been to vindicate his Justice and Development party’s focus on Turkey’s long-neglected Islamic identity and demonstrate that it can be a political and economic boon for the country. And it seems to be paying off.
Despite widespread secular concern over his alleged Islamisation agenda, he has also received praise for raising Turkey’s regional standing and profile. “Even if we are mad at him and think he is out of line, we, as people, love him,” one Turkish columnist wrote. “For the first time, we are proud of being citizens of a big country that adopts an ethical standpoint.”
Ethical standpoints notwithstanding, there are some troubling signs that Turkey’s re-emergence is increasingly part of a neo-imperial scramble for influence in the new Arab order.
Accompanying the rhetoric and window dressing of a common history and heritage which has played so well to Arab ears has been a clear and visible economic and geopolitical bottom line. For instance, during Erdogan’s visit to Egypt, he signed agreements to increase trade between the two countries from $3bn to $5bn and raise foreign direct investment in Egypt by Turkey from $1.5bn to $5bn.
In recent years, Turkey also invested heavily in Gaddafi’s Libya. Bilateral trade was $2.3bn in 2010 and the Turkish ministry of foreign affairs confidently predicted that it would reach $10bn within five years.
Despite its expressed support for the Arab uprisings, Turkey has exhibited some signs of favouring self-interest over principle. For example, until recently, Erdogan was reluctant to criticise his close ally, Bashar al-Assad, even though the Syrian regime’s suppression of protests has been among the most brutal and ruthless in a region whose political elites are not known for their squeamishness.
Moreover, when push comes to shove, Turkey is unlikely to jettison its long-standing alliance with the west in order to champion Arab causes.
Despite the favourable Arab reaction towards Turkey’s more muscular approach to Israel, what many overlook is that the greater economic and military might that enabled Turkey to downgrade relations after Israel’s refusal to apologise for its attack on the flotilla is likely to constrain Turkey’s future appetite to act resolutely, especially when its own citizens are not involved.
After all, how likely is Turkey to jeopardise its relationship with its NATO allies and with the EU in defence of the Palestinian cause, particularly with charges of double standards being thrown about when it comes to Turkey’s treatment of the Kurds?
I am personally an advocate of Turkey becoming one of the main engines of a more integrated region, which borrows the most attractive elements of the Ottoman past – tolerance of diversity, the rule of law and the absence of borders – and adapts them to a secular and fairer future. Alongside this, Turkey could become a useful and unifying bridgehead between Europe and the Middle East.
But for this to happen requires an enlightened mix of realism and pragmatism on the part of Turkey, the Arab world and Europe.
This article first appeared in The Guardian‘s Comment is Free section on 22 September 2011. Read the related discussion.