Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, arrived last night in Cairo with three objectives: stand as the leader of “the Arab Spring”, even though he is not an Arab himself, promote the model of moderate and democratic Islamism, and flex muscles in front of Israel. Before he left his country he assured that the Israeli assault on the boat Mavi Marmara, in May last year, was “a reason for war”. This word, “war”, was carefully chosen to inflame the Arab public opinion, increasingly more furious with what it perceives as arrogance of Israel.
Cairo was the start of a tour that in four days would take him to the three countries that in the last months have toppled their dictators: Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. Erdogan showed much interest in going on a walkabout to enjoy his popularity, the most a non-Arab has savoured between Arabs since the Kurdish Saladin snatched Jerusalem from the crusaders.
He proposed to the Egyptian military authorities that they allowed him to visit Gaza in order to challenge the Israeli blockade, but the de facto president did not think it was a great idea, marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who is not a close friend of Hamas and the armed Islamist groups that swarm the Strip, and last night the idea was discarded by Erdogan himself. He also expressed his wish to speak to the Egyptian people in the emblematic Tahrir Square, an option that Tantawi and his Government considered very dangerous given the volatility in the local political climate and the risk of a discourse that would inflame the mood and provoke similar disturbances to those last Friday, when thousands of demonstrators attacked the Israeli Embassy and provoked the evacuation of the ambassador and almost all of the diplomatic staff.
Erdogan had planned, in any case, to attend the meeting where the Arab League, with its headquarters in Cairo, was to endorse the Palestinian initiative of requesting State recognition from the UN, and to meet with the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, to express his full support. He had also prepared a speech where he draws a regional future based both in Islamism and democratic mechanisms, a speech intended also to reduce Israeli power.
Turkey has launched into a real diplomatic whirlwind since the “Arab spring” modified the balance of the area and reduced the convenience of the “relations with all” mechanism which Erdogan had until then used in foreign politics. The relationship with Israel, with whom he kept a tight commercial and military cooperation, started to go sour with the Israeli war against Gaza in December 2009 and worsened with the assault to the Mavi Marmara, one of the ships that in May 2010 tried to break the siege of the Strip, resulting in the deaths of nine Turkish citizens. After that incident, the Turkish prime minister used very harsh words. Now he is going further: he can afford to speak of “war”, though he thereupon dismisses it as a taste of the “Turkish greatness”, and supports the word with the dispatch of several war ships to the Eastern Mediterranean, a maritime area in which Israel has been imposing its control of navigation without any obstacles.
Erdogan enjoys great popularity between the Egyptian population. But he is less popular between the military men and the political and economic elites, who suspect that Turkey is trying to take advantage of the bad patch Egypt is going through to supersede it in its historical role of regional leadership.
Turkey and Egypt are going through very different phases. The moderate Islamism of Erdogan has just obtained a rotund backing in the polls and the Turkish economy weathers the international economic crisis without great difficulties. Egypt, instead, suffers a deep crisis and faces an uncertain future, pending on presidential elections and constituent Parliament for which there isn’t a set date yet and with a frustrated population due to unemployment and the enigma of whether the revolution of February was authentic or the replacement of one dictatorship with another. That, and the different perspectives in regards to Israel, makes the achievement of great bilateral agreements improbable.
The situation of public order in Egypt is so precarious that marshal Tantawi has re-established the emergency laws the ex president Hosni Mubarak based his dictatorship on and has announced, to prevent the repetition of the pitched battles like the ones last Friday, that the police will shoot the moment situations of street violence take place.
ElPaís, Enric González, Cairo, 13/09/2011
Translated from Spanish by Clara Rivas Alonso