Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on February 1 joined a growing chorus of critics taking aim at embattled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Given Turkey’s rising influence in the Muslim world, Erdogan’s words seemed set to catalyze Egyptian protesters. His comments also underscored a looming democratization dilemma for Ankara.
"I have a very sincere piece of advice for ... Hosni Mubarak," Erdogan told deputies and party supporters in Ankara, at the same time hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Cairo to demand political change in Egypt. "No government can survive against the will of its people. The era of governments persisting on pressure and repression is over ... All of us are mortals, transient things. All of us will die and will be judged on what we have done. Our resting place as Muslims is two square meters of earth."
In his 20-minute speech punctuated by thunderous applause, Erdogan repeatedly insisted that his government had always "unhesitatingly" taken the side of the oppressed. By "standing up to tyranny", the Turkey of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) was "changing the course of history in the region," he said.
It is the sort of rhetoric that has earned Erdogan massive popularity across the Arab world since he publicly castigated Israeli President Shimon Peres during a panel discussion on Gaza at the World Economic Forum in January 2009.
And it is not just ordinary Arabs who are wowed by the new, proactive and Islamic-tinged foreign policy of Erdogan's government. Political leaders elsewhere are starting to look at Erdogan as a role model.
Speaking in Tunisia on January 30, on the day that he returned from 22 years in exile in the United Kingdom, the head of a powerful Tunisian Islamist movement that could assume a governing role effusively praised the AKP. "I envisage an AKP-style structure," Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi said. "They have proved that Islam and democracy go together. That will happen in Tunisia too."
In Turkey, however, not everybody is enraptured by Erdogan's words. Far from confirming AKP hopes of turning Turkey into what Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in late January called a "regional playmaker," some Turkish analysts say the Turkish prime minister's February 1 speech exposed growing tensions in Ankara’s foreign policy between style and content.
After eight days of protests in Cairo, "some sort of transition in Egypt now seems almost certain," said Soli Ozel. A leading foreign affairs commentator, Ozel noted that an unofficial US envoy had arrived in Egypt on February 1 for talks with Egyptian leaders. "In this context, Erdogan said too little, too late," Ozel maintained.
Far from being a spokesman for the oppressed, Ozel argued, Erdogan has more often than not taken the side of regional leaders: Ankara, for example, defended Mahmud Ahmedinejad’s administration in Iran during election-related upheaval in 2009 and continues to maintain close relations with Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who is charged with war crimes by the International Criminal Court.
"Of course, Erdogan is not going to call for Mubarak's resignation, but a country which claims to be a moral leader does need to show some sort of principles," Ozel said.
A foreign affairs columnist for the daily Milliyet, Semih Idiz thinks the hesitation of Turkish leaders to take a stance on unrest in the region reflects the conservatism inherent in the policy of good neighborliness that has guided the AKP’s regional diplomacy. "Recent events risk capsizing [Foreign Minister Ahmet] Davutoglu's 'regional vision' because it was based on deepening relations with neighboring powers by getting along well with them," Idiz said.
He adds that there is little the AKP government can do with a Middle East shaken by popular rebellions, at least, not until the new representatives of regional order are in place.
Echoing Ahmet Davutoglu, Erdogan on February 1 repeatedly emphasized democracy's role as a stabilizing agent. The difficulty he faces today, argued Bulent Aliriza, an expert on Turkey at the Center for Strategic and International Relations in Washington, is that the regional road to democratic stability looks set to bring instability right to Turkey's borders.
Just like the United States, Turkey has good reason to be concerned about the possible regional effects of a new Egyptian government abrogating long-standing agreements with Israel, Aliriza says. Until now, Turkey has been able to balance anti-Israeli rhetoric with underlying policies in line with Israel and the United States. The rise of a new Egypt, one that may be opposed to Israel, might force Turkey "to take decisions that it has successfully held in the balance until now."
Despite a shared history, and an annual trade volume estimated at US$2 billion, Turkey and Egypt are not particularly close allies today. Turkey's real concern is with Syria, its southern neighbor. No less authoritarian than Mubarak, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is a personal friend of Erdogan's, and Turkey's relations with Syria are such that some Turks jokingly refer to Syria as "Turkey's 82nd province."
"If you are pursuing the end of a more democratic Middle East, that is laudable," said Aliriza. "But you get to a point where supporting that creates instability in countries you have close relations with. It is a dilemma Turkey is struggling with, and it explains why, beneath all the brave rhetoric, Erdogan trod a very careful line today."
Nicolas Birch specializes in Turkey, Iran and the Middle East.