When supporters of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood demonstrated against Israel this week, they also celebrated their newfound hero: Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister.
“Ya Teyeb Erdogan, lik menna Alf salam” (Erdogan, we send you a thousand salutes), they chanted.
In a new Middle East crisis in which the cast of characters unusually does not involve Arabs, Turkey’s leading role – in backing the aid flotilla raided by Israeli commandos and demanding punishment of Israel – is boosting its popularity in the Arab world, and consolidating its status as a regional power.
For ordinary Arabs, particularly Islamists already impressed by the democratic rise of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party, the Gaza aid flotilla has been a reminder of the weakness of their own governments.
Fearful of bolstering Hamas, the Islamist group that rules Gaza, pro-western Arab states have never seriously challenged the three-year blockade on the Palestinian territory.
Most embarrassed by this week’s events was Egypt, whose own border with Gaza, though now temporarily open, is usually as firmly closed as Israel’s.
Arab foreign ministers meeting in Cairo on Wednesday condemned the Gaza blockade and decided to lobby the United Nations for a resolution demanding the opening of the territory.
Turkey, meanwhile, has withdrawn its ambassador from Israel, cancelled joint military exercises and warned that ties will be normalised only when the Gaza siege is lifted. It also led the push for a denouncement of Israel at the UN Security Council.
“Today is a turning point in history,” declared Mr Erdogan on Thursday. “This bloody massacre by Israel on ships that were taking humanitarian aid to Gaza deserves every kind of curse.” He added: “Turkey’s hostility is as strong as its friendship is valuable.”
Fahmi Howeidi, an Egyptian commentator, asked in Thursday’s Shorouk newspaper: “How do we explain that the eyes of the Arab world were focused on the statements of …Erdogan …and nobody cared for or pinned any hope on the emergency meeting of the Arab League foreign ministers?”
The flotilla debacle comes at a time when Turkey has been asserting itself in the Middle East, improving ties with Syria and Iraq and seeking to mediate in regional crises.
Turkey was among the most vocal critics of Israel’s assault on Gaza in 2008. Last month, Mr Erdogan stood next to Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, the Iranian president, to announce an agreement under which Tehran would export 1,200kg of low-enriched uranium in return for fuel for a civilian reactor. The Turkish leader hoped this would defuse the tension over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
But while Turkey’s role has been welcomed by most Arab governments, largely because it has been viewed as a benign counterweight to the more radical interventions of Iran, the deal in Tehran and the row with Israel could raise a new concern: is Ankara aligning itself with hardline states such as Iran and Syria?
Turkish policies already are starting to worry Washington, which has tried to soften the backlash on Israel in the wake of the flotilla attack, backing an Israeli investigation rather than the international probe that Ankara is seeking. The US, moreover, was deeply annoyed by the Iranian fuel swap agreement, considering it an attempt to derail the push for UN sanctions against Tehran.
Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, a political science professor at Emirates University, says that perceptions of a radicalisation of Turkish policy should not be exaggerated. “It’s not that the Turks are going radical, it’s that the Israelis are doing everything possible to antagonise the Turks,” he says. “Turkey is getting extremely popular and it’s most welcome.”
The balance of power is shifting, he says, with Egypt growing weaker and Turkey and Iran becoming regional heavyweights.
More criticism of Turkey’s regional interventions is being heard in Turkish opposition circles, amid warnings that Ankara could end up with more enemies than friends.
In an assessment of Turkey’s gains and losses from the flotilla incident, researchers at the US-based GlobalSource Partners warn that Ankara’s recent attempts to shake the established order in the Middle East may carry consequences.
They predict that Turkey’s relations with pro-western Arab regimes will suffer and conclude that if Mr Erdogan persists in “spoiling western policy” he could soon become a liability to the west.
Additional reporting by Andrew England in Abu Dhabi and Delphine Strauss in Ankara
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