Turkish PM to visit Egypt, boost regional influence

CAIRO Mon Sep 12, 2011 7:15am EDT

CAIRO (Reuters) - Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan will meet Egypt's new military rulers during a visit to Cairo starting on Monday that is likely to be scrutinized by Israel whose once cozy ties with both Muslim states have been shaken.

Erdogan's trip will be followed by visits to Libya and Tunisia, which, like Egypt, have thrown off long-time rulers, highlighting Turkey's bid to expand its regional influence.

Egypt has long viewed itself as a leading voice in the Arab world but Turkey's influence has risen steadily with its growing economic might and its assertive policy in the region, notably toward Israel, which has drawn praise from many Arabs.

"There will be rivalry over a regional role for sure. Egypt is not in a position to play such a role at the moment so Erdogan is trying to take advantage of that," said Adel Soliman, head of Cairo's International Center for Future and Strategic Studies.

Ankara expelled the Israeli ambassador in a feud over an Israeli raid last year that killed nine Turks on a flotilla bound for the Palestinian enclave of Gaza.

Erdogan told Al Jazeera television that the incident was a "cause for war" but said Turkey acted with "patience," according a transcript of the interview, excerpts of which were broadcast last week.

Egypt said it would withdraw its ambassador from Tel Aviv last month after five Egyptian border guards were killed when Israel repelled cross-border raiders it said were Palestinian. But it did not follow through with the threat.

Egypt's army rulers have struggled to quell the public fury over the incident, which boiled over into an attack by protesters on the Israeli embassy that prompted Israel to fly its ambassador and embassy staff home on Saturday.

Both Egypt and Israel say they want a return to normal diplomatic activities. Cairo has vowed to protect the embassy and try the attackers, offering some reassurance to Israel over its commitment to a 1979 peace treaty.

"THEATRICS"

Despite their spats with Israel, Soliman played down prospects of Egypt and Turkey aligning policies against the Jewish state.

"I don't think they will have any big agreements when it comes to Israel," he said. "There is a lot of exaggeration. I see it more as theatrics than anything practical."

Egypt has received billions of dollars in U.S. military and other aid since signing its peace treaty with Israel, so the ruling generals face a balancing act when responding to public calls for a more assertive policy to toward the Jewish state.

Activists and ordinary Egyptians have called for a tougher line against Israel but have also criticized the violence.

Asked about the attack on Israel's Cairo embassy, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu only said Egyptians had given their own reaction and said Israel was more isolated.

But he added: "We as Turkey say that we will continue to bring on to the agenda Israel's incorrect attitudes in all global platforms in the framework of international law and after this Israel will become even more isolated."

Moshe Yaalon, Israel's vice prime minister, called on Erdogan in a speech in Tel Aviv on Monday to reconsider Turkey's attitude in relations with the Jewish state.

"We have no interest in deteriorating relations with Turkey and we are worried that this attitude will encourage the terror groups. Therefore we call on Prime Minister Erdogan to change course," Yaalon said at a security conference near Tel Aviv.

Uzi Rabi, Middle East analyst at Tel Aviv university, said Erdogan's trip was part of his bid to "strengthen his foothold in the Arab world."

"He will use his visit to Cairo as a barometer to measure just how popular he is in the Arab street but some Arab leaders may not be as enthusiastic about seeing him feed on this popularity," he added.

Erdogan will meet Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, head of the ruling council that took over when Hosni Mubarak was ousted in February. He is will address the Cairo-based Arab League and outline his vision for the Middle East at Cairo University, the place U.S. President Barack Obama did the same in 2009.

The Turkish prime minister will also meet his Egyptian counterpart Essam Sharaf. The two are due to sign a political declaration to create a strategic council for cooperation and will sign economic, trade, investment and other accords.

Erdogan is due to visit Tunisia on Wednesday and hold talks in Libya on Thursday.

(Additional reporting by Yasmine Saleh in Cairo, Ibon Villelabeitia in Istanbul, Jon Burch in Ankara, Ori Lewis in Jerusalem and Dan Williams in Tel Aviv; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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