LONDON (Reuters) - Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has captivated many Arabs with his tough talk against Israel, but voices at home and abroad question his drive to carve out a leadership role for Turkey in an Arab world once under the Ottoman imperial thumb.
“A Palestinian child crying in Gaza wrenches a mother’s heart in Ankara,” Erdogan told the Arab League in Cairo on Tuesday, using language calculated to delight Arab masses.
His message of how Turks and Arabs twang to the same emotions would have seemed alien to a previous Turkey, friendly with its U.S. military ally, keen to join the European Union and disdainful of a “backward” Middle East on its doorstep.
The so-called Turkish model has fascinated Arabs for several years, although no Arab country has emulated its mix of secular democracy, Islamist leadership and economic success.
Yet Turkey’s role is uncertain in a fluid region in which popular revolts are jolting many Arab nations, including some of Ankara’s favored political and business partners such as Libya and Syria, as well as traditional Arab leader Egypt.
“All (Turkey‘s) moves against Israel are only meant to promote itself as a political power in the Arab region and spread its influence on the new generation of the Arab youth who are longing for change and power,” said Nabil Abdel Fattah, at Cairo’s Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies:
Adel Soliman, another Egyptian analyst, said Turkey, for all its verbal barbs at Israel, would not break with its former ally and, as a NATO member, remained aligned with the West.
Nevertheless, Turkey feels jilted by the EU and less crucial to NATO defenses since the Cold War ended, spurring Erdogan to seek new friends and markets in the Middle East.
Erdogan’s rhetoric -- he also said U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state was an obligation -- certainly resonates with Arabs, as it does with his Islamist political base at home.
Thousands of Egyptians cheered him after he landed at Cairo airport on Monday. Many Arabs admire him for his repeated tangles with Israel since he angrily left a platform he had shared in Davos with Israeli President Shimon Peres in 2009.
Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, prominent in the crowd, also applauds Erdogan’s reforms as head of an Islamist-based party that has neutered the political clout of Turkey’s secularist generals, even as the Turkish economy powers ahead.
Turkish newspapers highlighted Erdogan’s “hero’s welcome” but secularist commentators derided his trip to Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, all of whose veteran leaders were toppled this year.
“Poor Arabs! How should they know the guy who’s advising them on democracy actually only sees it as a vehicle, a means of achieving his own goals, and getting off the vehicle once this has been done?” wrote Cuneyt Arcayurek in Cumhuriyet, calling Erdogan the “Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Republic.”
Erdogan’s personal popularity with Arabs has soared.
A Pew Research Center survey conducted in March-April showed that 78 percent of Egyptians had confidence in him, along with 72 percent of Jordanians and 64 percent of Lebanese. Nearly 95 percent of Israelis took the opposite view.
And that was before the Turkish leader expelled the Israeli ambassador last week after Israel refused to apologize for last year’s killing of nine Turks by Israeli commandos who halted an aid ship trying to break an Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip.
Rattling his naval sabers, Erdogan then said Turkish warships would escort any such future flotillas to Gaza -- alarming the United States as well as Israel.
Such combativeness has long been absent from the Arab League, which never confronted Israel during President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule, when the ousted Egyptian leader was bent on preserving Cairo’s peace treaty with the Jewish state.
Egyptian investment specialist Mohammed Yassin, 27, said Erdogan’s Arab League appearance was “the visit of the master to a corrupt spoiled student who is not willing to learn.”
For an outsider to champion the Palestinian cause, as non-Arab Iran has also done, can raise the hackles of Arab leaders, but given their own lack of weight, they can hardly complain.
“Some people talk about Turkey having the ambition of going back to the old Ottoman role, but in Saudi Arabia the majority do not think this way,” said Saudi analyst Khalid al-Dakhil.
“At this point, Arab states are weak, so you can’t avoid Turkey having this leading role in the region,” he said, adding that Arab states wanted Turkey to counterbalance Shi‘ite Iran.
“Iran is playing a sectarian role, making its alliances in the region on the basis of sectarian affiliation. But Turkey is a secular state with a Sunni majority,” Dakhil said.
Erdogan’s old policy of “zero problems” with Turkey’s neighbors has crumbled in the rancor with Israel and the Arab upheavals that have forced some awkward adjustments for Ankara.
Turkey opposed Western intervention in Libya, where it had contracts worth $15 billion, and was slow to recognize those who ended Muammar Gaddafi’s 42 years in power. Now Erdogan must woo Libya’s new rulers to protect Turkish economic interests.
In Syria, Erdogan had befriended President Bashar al-Assad and built new political and economic ties with a once-hostile neighbor. After urging Assad repeatedly to stop killing protesters and enact reforms, he has now lost patience.
For some of his secularist Turkish critics, Erdogan’s foreign policy is a shambles of ambiguity and instability.
“Yesterday Libya’s Gaddafi was an ally, now he’s an enemy. Syrians are our brothers, but then again we may plan something against them with the U.S.,” wrote Oktay Akbal in Cumhuriyet.
The bloodshed in Syria goes on, but some Syrians prefer Erdogan’s stance to the Arab League’s muted approach.
“Erdogan has turned into an Arab hero,” said Samer Zaher, a Syrian from Homs, a hotbed of anti-Assad sentiment, who was cheering the Turkish leader outside the League’s headquarters.
“We have not found a leader as powerful as him asking Assad to leave and calling him an illegitimate president.”
Additional reporting by Ibon Villelabeitia in Ankara, Edmund Blair and Yasmine Saleh in Cairo, Angus McDowell in Dubai;Editing by Samia Nakhoul