DUBAI (Reuters) - Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s star is rising in the Arab world over his willingness to confront Israel, outshining even regional leaders whose tough rhetoric has proved popular but won little for the Palestinians.
Turkey’s support for a Gaza aid flotilla that Israel stormed, recalling Turkey’s ambassador and cancelling joint military exercises with the Jewish state, has turned Erdogan into a folk hero -- with his name invoked at rallies and babies named in his honor.
“This was a non-governmental civil society action that was embraced and endorsed by a political leader. That is so rare in the Arab world,” said Hady Amr, director of the Brookings Institute’s center in Doha.
“It just is a whole different approach ... It has clearly brought Erdogan prominence in the Arab world. It has raised his profile on the global stage, even though I am sure it has frustrated Washington.”
Israel’s storming of the Turkish ship and killing of nine Turks plunged Israel’s ties with Ankara to the lowest level since the two states forged a strategic relationship in the 1990s, and invoked harsh criticism from the Turkish leader.
But more importantly for many Arabs, the flotilla raid appears to have galvanized global attention to the Palestinian plight in Gaza that Arab activism has sometimes had difficulty attracting -- either through militancy or staid Arab diplomacy.
The crisis also prompted Egypt to ease its closure of the Gaza border with a partial, possibly indefinite, opening to provide relief. Cairo has resisted a full opening partly because it does not want the burden of securing Gaza on its shoulders.
At a rally in Beirut, thousands of Lebanese waved Turkish flags and nine coffins draped in the red banner were displayed to honor the Turkish flotilla dead.
“Oh Allah, the merciful, preserve Erdogan for us,” protesters chanted, using language often reserved for Hezbollah’s popular leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, who has praised Erdogan’s stance.
In Egypt, one reader of independent newspaper al-Masry al-Youm dubbed Erdogan as the “Caliph of the Muslims” in comments posted on its website.
Erdogan’s popularity is now such that in Gaza, at least one newborn baby has been named after him. In non-Arab Iran, whose leader has said Israel should be wiped off the map, some Iranians yearned for a leader like Erdogan.
“(President Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad has isolated Iran by his harsh anti-Western rhetoric. But look at Erdogan, he uses civilized methods to do whatever is the best for his nation without compromising Islamic values,” said Ali Sadri, a 35-year-old Iranian architect.
Ahmadinejad has rarely missed a chance to berate the West for trying to halt Iran’s nuclear progress but critics say his anti-Western rhetoric and uncompromising nuclear line have isolated Iran.
Erdogan, offering less threatening opposition to Israel than leaders such as Ahmadinejad and Nasrallah, was providing a fresh path for Arabs frustrated by inaction of pro-Western Arab states, but who also did not back more extreme stances.
“I tend to think it’s very early for him to establish himself as a replacement for leaders, nor do I think leaders like Nasrallah are bankrupt. They don’t need replacement,” said Oussama Safa, head of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies.
“But what he is probably replacing is the absent role of Arab state leaders, especially the moderate ones.”
Turkey, NATO’s only Muslim member and a candidate to join the European Union, has sought to raise its international profile, mediating in issues ranging from Afghanistan/Pakistan ties to Iran’s nuclear program.
Israel and Syria held four indirect rounds of peace talks with Turkish mediation in 2008 before they were suspended after an Israeli offensive in Gaza. Israeli-Turkish ties have since deteriorated as Erdogan began championing the Palestinian cause.
Turkey, which lost its Ottoman imperial grip on the region a century ago, has been keen to regain influence among Muslim neighbors. It presents itself to the European Union it seeks to join as an important bridge between Europe and the Middle East.
The cost of Erdogan’s support for Gaza, however, is Turkey’s probable elimination as a potential mediator with Israel, at least so long as the current Israeli government is in office. It was a role many in Washington treasured.
“The niche that Turkey occupied -- the edge, the advantage that Turkey had -- was its ability to bring together people like Hamas and Israel. This is gone,” said Ezzedine Choukri Fishere of the American University in Cairo.
“The region loses a mediator, because Turkey in its past capacity could and did play a mediator between the Arabs and the Israelis. At the same time, the Arab camp wins another player, with all the complications that this brings,” he said.
Turkey’s stance may embarrass some similarly U.S.-allied Arab states such as Egypt, which have shied away from confronting Israel despite popular demands to do so and have sometimes cracked down on pro-Palestinian protests.
Erdogan’s popularity would likely have staying power in the region, analysts said, although it was unclear if Arab states would follow his lead, and some Arab citizens had their doubts.
“Everybody knows our leaders have sold off the country and are hardly lifting a finger to help anyone either in it or out of it,” said Egyptian Mahasan Abdo. “Others are doing more for the Palestinians.”