erdogan hero

The awkward love of Arab Muslims for the Neo-ottoman Sultan of Turkey

It was during a cold winter in Davos when Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan hit a political jackpot. Overnight he had become the Muslim and Arab world’s champion. It was the first time that Turkish and Israeli relations were in danger. During his last re-election, many hearts were close to God and raised their hands in prayer for Erdogan’s election victory.

After the Davos conference, thousands of people gathered at Ataturk airport, in Istanbul, to greet the Turkish prime minister, waving Turkish and Palestinian flags and chanting: “Turkey is proud of you”.

According to the Middle East Eye, the Islamic and Arab world, plagued for decades with rulers who are either secular despots, dictatorial monarchs or theocratic autocrats – all of whom pay no more than lip service to furthering the wellbeing of Muslims, is quick to revere anyone who is willing to publicly speak on their behalf, even if it fails to result in firm action.

Also, for the Middle East Monitor, while the Arab countries continue to be under oppressive, tyrannical regimes, whether monarchies or presidential systems governed by the military, they can easily search for a “Hero”. All these countries, with no exception, are corrupt, with the leaders and their hypocritical supporters benefitting from the country’s wealth while the vast majority of their people suffer from poverty, hunger, deprivation and illness, unable to make a decent living or receive adequate medical treatment.

During the previous years we have seen many articles from the Arab world praising the Sultan as “Erdogan is now the hero of the Egyptian street,” from one Egyptian blogger, complaining that Egypt was suffering from a severe shortage of national heroes.

Turkish AKP partly relates to the Middle Eastern “cult hero” phenomenon, 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. This wannabe leader of the Arab world and Africa presents himself as a champion of the Palestinians to lure Arabs into his corner, while maintaining diplomatic, trade and intelligence ties with Tel Aviv.

To strengthen that relationship, both countries began planning the multi-billion-euro Mediterranean Pipeline Project, known as Med Stream, back in 2008 and more recently in 2017. The longterm goal of the undersea infrastructure project: To create a sophisticated pipeline system to facilitate the exchange of electricity, natural gas, crude oil and water.

The tender involved building a pipeline from Leviathan to the Turkish shoreline. Such a pipeline must necessarily pass through Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).Cyprus has repeatedly stated it is opposed to an Israel-Turkey pipeline running through its EEZ until a comprehensive settlement of the Cyprus problem. Whereas Cyprus’ ally Israel would prefer to have Nicosia’s consent for the pipeline,in reality it does not need it (international waters).

Erdogan’s government since Davos has been quick to mobilise Turkish resources and dispatch aid to various places where Muslims have become imperilled, whether it be to Somalia or to the Rohingya in Burma. For Erdogan, championing the cause of the world’s Muslims has also helped him to bolster his reputation among his major constituents domestically – the Muslim conservatives.

As the Arab Spring kicked off in 2011, a confident Turkey hoped to restore some of its former Ottoman-era glory, positioning itself as a leader among the Sunni Muslim nations. It threw its weight behind Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Syria’s rebels, just as it had backed Hamas in Gaza. Qatar proved an enthusiastic ally.

This strategy backfired when the Brotherhood was overthrown in Egypt and replaced by a military strongman who, backed by the region’s other status quo powers, chiefly Saudi Arabia, is restoring the pre-2011 status quo in Cairo. Syria’s Turkish-backed rebels lost ground and Bashar al-Assad held on to power in Damascus. These setbacks left Turkey looking weakened and isolated in the region — just at the time that Ankara’s relations with its long-standing NATO allies are fraying under Erdoğan.

  • Turkey and Sudan-Egypt

Erdogan chose an opportune moment to strenghten its relations with Sudan when relations between Egypt and Sudan are currently strained over the latter’s claim to sovereignty over the Hala’ib Triangle, an area of land on the Red Sea that falls within Egypt’s Red Sea governorate.

In return for Erdogan’s “generosity” and to land a punch in the direction of Cairo, Sudan’s President Omar Al-Bashir is handing Turkey the Sudanese island of Suakin, a former stopping-off point for Muslim pilgrims on route to Makkah and Madinah. Turkey will return the small deserted town to its former glory during the Ottoman era and will renovate the port, complete with a new dock for civilian vessels and warships.

  • A look back at the history of Israel-Palestine relations with Turkey

A gradual but purposeful shift in Turkish foreign policy toward Palestine has taken place since Erdoğan became prime minister in 2002. In fact, the Palestine question has helped him burnish his image in both the Arab and Muslim worlds; therefore, his ideological stance is often inseparable from his realpolitik calculations.

With an emphasis on Muslim identity by Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey has shifted its policy from positive neutrality between Israel and Palestine to a studied guardianship of Palestinian interests.

Surprising the Arab world, Turkey became the first Muslim state to recognize Israel on a de facto basis in March 1949, and official relations culminated a year later. Confronted with accusations of “selling out” the Palestinians, Ankara pointed to the fact that Turkey was among the last European powers to recognize Israel.

During the Cold War era, Turkey’s NATO membership led it to pursue a policy that did not fully favor either Palestinians or Israelis. A special awareness of the Palestinian issue was raised in Turkey’s leftist party platforms, not among conservative Turkish politicians, because of the left’s general affinity with national liberation movements. It is rumored that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) recruited from Turkish and Kurdish leftist students.

Furthermore, and owing to deep ties with the United States military, Turkey’s military establishment strong relations with Israel’s top brass—not through official government lines, but rather, by cultivating personal relations with officers.

As the Soviet Union collapsed and the question of reform and democratization emerged in its former republics, The Economist announced Turkey to be the “Star of Islam” and a model particularly for the newly independent Central Asian republics. Roughly a decade later, the idea of Turkey as a “model” was raised once again, this time by U.S. President George W. Bush, when he launched the Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative after intervening against Saddam Hussein in Iraq. In both cases, Turkey’s “model” credentials were promoted by the West because Turkey was both a secular Muslim country and a democracy with a liberal market and close ties to the West.

Additionally, the birth of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the group’s training camps in the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon, and Kurdish leftists’ relations with the PLO during the 1980s fortified military cooperation between Turkish and Israeli officials. Turkey-Palestine relations reached their nadir in the mid-1990s when the Turkish military signed numerous and unprecedented defense contracts with Israel. Interestingly, some of these agreements were signed by the Islamist Welfare Party of the 1990s—with which Erdoğan was affiliated, and it was the party that elected him mayor of Istanbul—although party leaders later claimed that they took such decisions under the influence of powerful Turkish generals.

Just before the rise of Erdoğan’s AKP, leftist Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit took steps toward mediation between Palestinians and Israelis before the Camp David talks in 2000. Ankara suggested the Ottoman model for Jerusalem, where Israelis and Palestinians would have shared sovereignty over the Haram al-Sharif. The Turkish government emphasized its support for the right of Palestinians to an independent state, and at the same time, persuaded PLO leader Yasser Arafat to postpone his plans for declaring independence.

Following the Second Intifada and the Israeli aggression against Palestinian civilians, Ecevit reflected the frustration in Turkish public opinion polls, in which most citizens stated that Turkey did not take enough measures to save Palestinians. He became the first Turkish prime minister to accuse Israel of genocide, saying that “genocide is being perpetrated against the Palestinian people before the eyes of the world.”

After AKP party came to power, former Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu pursued a diplomatic campaign to convince Washington that Hamas’s 2006 election victory in the Palestinian parliamentary elections should be seen as an opportunity instead of an alarming threat—as Ankara was already using its credibility to influence Hamas leaders to engage in the international system and fence off their relations with Iran and Syria. The AKP aimed to maintain warm relations among all parties to the conflict and hosted a summit with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Turkey.

Nonetheless, Turkish relations with Israel changed dramatically during the end of the last decade. Mr Erdogan had walked out of the World Economic Forum in Davos, during which he participated in his position at the time as Turkish Prime Minister after an angry verbal exchange with the Israeli President Shimon Peres in the immediate aftermath of Israel’s military offensive (Operation Cast Lead) against the Palestinians in Gaza.

With Gaza on fire as Israel fought a bitter and uneven war against Hamas, Erdogan lashed out at fellow panellist Shimon Peres, Israel’s then-president, who had spent his allotted time defending Israel’s incursion.

A year after, relations between Turkey and Israel deteriorated after the assault by Israeli commandos on the Turkish-registered Mavi Marmara in international waters in May 2010 where nine Turkish citizens on board were killed and another died of his wounds later. The ship was sailing towards the Gaza Strip as part of the Freedom Flotilla to break the Israeli-led siege of the Palestinian enclave. At the time, Ankara recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv.

It marked a turning point for Erdogan, then Turkey’s prime minister, and his country. The adulation he received from the Islamic and Arab “street” – Gazans are calling their children Recep – gave him a clear direction: defending the Muslim world and its causes at every opportunity.

On the other hand, the economist Hatice Karahan makes no bones about her own pragmatic approach to Israeli-Turkish relations. The economist is simply looking at the numbers, and she likes what she sees: “Turkish exports to Israel have continued to grow over the last several years. They were at about $2.5 billion (€2.1 billion) in 2016. In the first 10 months of 2017 Turkish exports to Israel have already gone up another 14 percent.” Thus, Israel is one of the 10 most important export markets for Turkish products globally.

The Turkish model, a model for Tunisia after the Arab Spring

As the Arab Spring spread from Tunisia to the rest of the Middle East early in 2011, the longtime opposition figure Rashid al-Gannouchi, also the co-founder and leader of Tunisia’s an-Nahda party, was among the many leaders who pointed to Justice and Development Party (AKP)-led Turkey as a model for guiding the transformation of the Middle East. Gannouchi maintained close relations with AKP and its leadership, which later became closely involved in Tunisia’s transformation efforts.

Yet, after a May 2013 talk on “Tunisia’s Democratic Future” at The Brookings Institution, Gannouchi’s response to a question asking him which countries he thought constituted a model for Tunisia was striking because he did not mention Turkey.

Public opinion surveys run by the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV) between 2010 and 2012 repeatedly showed that approximately 60 percent of the Arab public saw Turkey as a model and believed that Turkey could contribute positively to the transformation of the Arab world.

A number of factors made Turkey attractive to the post-Spring Arab public. The most visible one was Turkey’s economic performance. The impressive growth rates that the Turkish economy achieved at a time when Western economies were suffering caught attention. This was accompanied by the growing visibility of Turkish manufactured goods and investments in the region. Furthermore, the Turkish government’s efforts to encourage regional economic integration and the signing of free trade agreements with a string of countries including Syria and Lebanon was welcomed as development that would help the region’s economic development.

The AKP government’s policy to liberalize visa requirements also made it possible for an ever-growing number of Arab tourists, professionals and students to come and see this economic performance with their own eyes. The fact that a political party with Islamist roots was in power in Turkey since 2002 and that it had introduced a long list of reforms to improve the quality of Turkey’s democracy was another factor that strengthened Turkey’s model credentials. In the early stages of the AKP’s government, Turkey’s close relations with the EU and its prospects of membership also attracted considerable positive attention and appreciation.

Turkey’s popularity was also strengthened by the “zero problems with neighbors” policy of Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmet Davutoğlu. In the Middle East, the cornerstone of this policy was Turkey’s ability to improve its relations with neighboring countries and to talk to all parties involved in the region’s disputes. In Lebanon, Turkey was able to engage with Hezbollah as well as with the Christian and Sunni leaderships. The same was true of Iraq, where Turkey maintained close contacts with Sunni, Shi’a, Kurdish and Turkmen parties during much of the 2000s. Longstanding tensions with Syria over territorial disputes, water rights and the Kurdish issue were replaced by much closer and warmer relations. Additionally, Erdoğan’s critical stance toward Israel and his support for the Palestinian cause galvanized the Arab street even if it did raise some eyebrows in diplomatic circles.

However, the brutal police repression used against the anti-government protests in Istanbul and across Turkey coupled with Erdoğan’s choice of denigrating language toward the protestors raised doubts about the quality of Turkey’s democracy. Turkey, nowadays, had increasingly been cited as a country that had a greater number of journalists in jail than did China, Iran and Russia.

Trump’s policy regarding Palestine and the new role of Turkey.

Mr Erdogan’s major initiative for Palestine before his re-election this month has been to call an emergency meeting in Istanbul in May of the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), of which Turkey is the current rotating president.

At a special summit in Turkey convened by President Tayyip Erdogan, the 57 members pledged to take “appropriate political (and) economic measures” against countries that followed the United States in moving their Israel embassies to contested Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.

Erdogan, used the summit to verbally attack Israel, comparing the actions of its forces to Nazi Germany’s treatment of Jews in World War Two, when millions were killed in concentration camps.

He also castigated the United States, saying its decision to move its embassy had emboldened Israel to put down the protests at the border with Gaza with excessive force. Most countries say the status of Jerusalem – a sacred city to Jews, Muslims and Christians – should be determined in a final peace settlement between Israel and Palestinians and that moving their embassies now would prejudge any such deal.

For Mustafa Gurbuz, who wrote “Between Idealism and Realpolitik: Erdoğan’s Quest for Palestine” on Arab Centre Washington DC website, it is obvious that Turkey’s move to make itself a pivotal campion of Palestinian interests and rights is finding an opportune moment at the present time. But with this accomplished, Erdoğan might find himself at seriously negative odds with the United States and Israel.

Turkey’s maneuvers in Syria against US allies have already caused Ankara unneeded headaches and further complicated its relations with Washington. Turkey’s sharp criticism of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, while well-placed and strategic, might also result in more tense relations with Tel Aviv. As Erdoğan looks to make himself a champion in the eyes of the Arab and Muslim worlds, he would do well to prepare for possible unwanted repercussions in the future.

Ankara has lately deepened its ties with Fatah, despite the latter’s dislike of Ankara’s coziness with its rival, Hamas. The current Fatah leadership welcomed Turkey’s denunciation of the June 2017 talks between Hamas and dismissed Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan. Turkey’s active policy regarding Jerusalem’s future also delighted Mahmoud Abbas and his team, who paid more frequent visits to Turkey.

The Trump Administration’s unwarranted Jerusalem embassy declaration has bolstered Turkey’s guardian role of the Palestinian question and opened a risky chapter for Turkey-Israel relations. Washington’s rush to implement the decision, despite the UN vote, will add fuel to the fire, as the inauguration will take place when Palestinians commemorate the Nakba—when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were displaced from their homes, starting in 1948. For Ankara, such provocative symbolism indicates that the Trump Administration gives carte blanche—and a blank check—to Israel.