The Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s tour of North Africa was addressed above all to the populations and public opinion rather than to transitory governments, even though he obviously met a number of politicians in charge (of Egypt: Field Marshal Tantawi, head of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces ‘Inân, the Prime Minister Saharaf, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar and the Mufti of the Republic) and undersigned various cooperation agreements (eleven in Cairo).
He was given a triumphant welcome in Egypt. Huge portraits of him decorated the main roads of the city. Several political groups, mainly the Muslim Brotherhood, mobilised their troops to greet him and pay homage. Long TV programmes featured Turkey. The editorialists sang his glory, each one explaining his success in reference to his agenda: Islamist, secularist, concordist….The entrepreneurs and businessmen flocked to the dinner organised in his honour. The few ‘indignant’ persons who feared a ‘return of Ottomanism’ or who deplored the ostentatious presence of his personal security men were isolated voices which were lost in the ocean of general infatuation.
Erdogan in fact has been the most popular statesman in Egypt for a number of years now – and perhaps in other parts of the region too. This success (which partly explains his very bad relations with Mubarak) is, here and now, more lasting and solid than Ahmadinejad’s ephemeral one. Lasting since it is not based exclusively on extremely firm stances towards Israel going back to the quarrel with Peres in Davos 2009 and then culminating, some weeks ago, in the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador, following the publication of the Palmer report on the episode of the attack by the Tsahal navy on a Turkish ship sailing towards Gaza. Ankara’s resoluteness has captivated many in Egypt, especially compared with the timid response of the local authorities when six Egyptian soldiers were killed by shots allegedly coming from the Israelis. This explains, even if it does not justify, the assault of the embassy of the Jewish state by the Egyptian protesters. Public opinion recognises the fact that the Turkish measures are more efficient that the bragging of Teheran which, in final analysis, gives convenient pretexts for Israeli intransigence.
Erdogan however has more solid assets than Iran’s. In the first place, he is a Sunnite – even if I do not believe that this is essential. His youth and dynamism make a powerful impression in this region governed by seventy and eighty year olds. And above all he can boast, and this is a fact, impressive economic results – which are enviable. For all the ‘transitologists’ and intellectuals he is the example of what needs to be done to conciliate Islamism with democracy – forgetting or pretending to forget the specific nature of the Turkish context and the difficulty in transposing the AKP ‘recipe’. Lastly, above all in Egypt, where the population is very devout, Erdogan is seen as the person that has given back the right to citizenship to Islam in Turkey and who has redirected Turkish foreign policy to involve it in the region. The letters to newspapers, for example, show how the readers see the greatest opportunity for the umma in the search for a new splendour in Erdogan.
Things are obviously more complicated than this. And Erdogan has had the merit and courage to remember it by making the astonishing apologia of secularism before public opinion, explaining that this does not mean ‘hostility towards religions’, but the creating of a distance, advantageous for the religions, between the political and the religious, the latter finding itself freed from the control of the prince.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which attempted to make people believe they were as moderate as the AKP, who mobilised their troops with banners promising a reconquest ‘We will go with you to Jerusalem’, who openly dreamed of the caliphate, immediately deplored such ‘interference in Egyptian internal affairs’. Interference that naturally was welcomed favourably by the Egyptian non Islamists, the monarchists included.
The commentators did their utmost to explain this declaration – and it is not clear whether or not they fully understood the question. For some, Erdogan, who has sensitive ‘antennae’, understood that even though the Egyptian Islamists are hegemonic forces in Egypt, they do not have the majority in the public opinion, and therefore he intended to speak to the ‘road’. For others the message was destined to show the western capitals that Erdogan is a moderation factor, who can use his huge prestige to ‘get messages passed on’. For others the Turkish foreign policy, which is undoubtedly too subtle and creative to be summarised in just a few sentences, aims at ‘stabilising the region’, relaxing the tensions and increasing cooperation, creating a big common market. Recently it also proposed a partnership, a strategic alliance with Egypt, the other ‘big country’ of the eastern Mediterranean.
It is a fact that many links interwoven over the centuries unite the two countries. It is a fact that they are both allies of the United States, not always at ease with the ‘heaviness’ of Washington and the Jewish state. It is a fact that they have an objective interest in common for the stability of the region, unlike for example, Iran. It is a fact that the two economies can expand their exchanges. The balance of commercial exchanges amounts to 3.2 billion dollars. Total Turkish investment in Egypt is 1.2 billion dollars.
The Egyptian situation however will only probably be stabilised in a few years time and the Brothers, whether rightly or wrongly, are seen as a factor of destabilisation, a potential ally of Iran, which arouses the concern of many neighbouring capitals, above all Riyadh. Not that Erdogan’s statement is necessarily a casus belli towards the Islamist organisation. At the moment it seems more appropriate to see one or two unpleasant but useful references to it.
Despite this episode, is an idyll perhaps being born? The idyll between Erdogan and the Arab peoples has existed for some years now. It remains to be understood how the future Arab executives will ‘experience’ it, whether as a resource or a restraint, the source of strength or weakness. In private the Egyptian officials of the former regime said that blustering with Israel is easier when one has no common boundaries with that state.
The new executives issued a reminder through their news agencies that Egypt has never developed any military collaboration with Israel and they asked whether the spectacular stances against Netanyahu were in fact hiding a dispute over this. They repeat ad nauseam that Turkey is too dependent on Israel for technology and that it has already helped it to circumvent western embargoes, to go much further. Legitimate reserves or expression of annoyance? But public opinion, still searching for a saviour, does not appear to be convinced.