Erdogan: The Conqueror of the Arab Streets

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 23

Until Israel invaded Gaza in January, Turkey had devoted its energy and resources to developing an outline for a possible peace deal between Israel and Syria. Just three days before the Gaza operation, in fact, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert paid an official visit to Ankara for a five-hour meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to finalize points of interest before launching direct talk with Syria. Erdogan revealed that the night before Israel went into Gaza, Syria and Israel were extremely close to agreeing to hold direct peace negotiations (Star, February 1). After the Gaza operation, Turkey suspended its role as mediator for peace between Israel and Syria (The Jerusalem Post, January 29).

Israeli officials specifically blame Erdogan for the damage to relations between the two countries. A senior Israeli diplomatic told The Jerusalem Post that "Erdogan has lost all credibility as an honest broker in peace discussions. As long as he is the prime minister of the country, Turkey has no place in peace negotiations or discussions. It is not a trustworthy diplomatic partner anymore" (The Jerusalem Post, February 1). Although Turkey has already suspended its role as mediator, Israeli diplomats continue to censure Erdogan. On February 4 The Jerusalem Post quoted an official as saying, "Israel will still have close economic and military relations with Turkey, but there won’t be any communication with Erdogan himself. He went too far, and we simply can’t trust him again. He hasn’t even bothered to apologize" (The Jerusalem Post, February 4).

It seems that Turkey’s close relations with Israel have soured, at least for now, which diminishes Turkey’s effectiveness when it comes to any diplomatic initiatives requiring Israeli participation. On the other hand, even though Erdogan’s supporters have dubbed him the "conqueror of Davos," he might better be described as the "conqueror of the Arab streets." Turkish political observers, echoing the analysis made in EDM, continue to compare Erdogan to Egypt’s populist leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, who won over the Arab streets in 1950s and 1960s (see EDM, January 15). There is talk about whether Erdogan is becoming the "new Nasser" of the Middle East (Radical, January 31; Hurriyet, February 1; Sabah, February 2; Star, February 3). The Lebanese newspaper Dar Al-Hayat went so far as to suggest that "Erdogan should restore the Ottoman Empire and be the Caliph of all Muslims" (Vatan, February 4). Cengiz Candar, a leading Turkish expert on the Middle East, stated that "because of Erdogan’s moral stand against Israel [demanding a stop] to killing civilians, Turkey has gained the ‘moral leadership’ of the Middle East" (Radikal, February 4).

Pro-Erdogan newspapers further reported that the prime minister’s criticism of Israel, together with the Davos affair, gave Arab businessmen the confidence to make investments in Turkey. The chairman of the Turkish-Arab Businessmen Association said that "Arab investors have long been looking for opportunities to invest in Turkey. Erdogan’s recent stance against Israel gave Arab Investors confidence that they could invest in various businesses (Star, February 3).

Despite Erdogan’s winning the esteem of the man in the street, Arab leaders are not very happy about his popularity in their countries.

Foreign ministers of nine Arab countries-Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan, Bahrain, Egypt, Palestine, Yemen, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates-met in Abu Dhabi as part of a growing Arab process of consultation and increasing Arab solidarity. A statement issued after the meeting noted, "We are working to overcome this difficult time in the Arab world and ensure that unwelcome, non-Arab parties do not become involved in our affairs in an unconstructive manner" (,, February 3). The Turkish press maintains that this "unwelcome, non-Arab party" is Turkey and that Arab leaders are not happy about Erdogan’s response to the Gaza crisis (, February 4).

It seems that gaining the admiration of the Arab people and becoming the "moral leader" of the Middle East has its cost-the loss of confidence among the Israelis. Moreover, Turkey must work with the Arab leaders, who are not happy about what Erdogan is doing in their own backyards. It will require skillful diplomacy to turn sympathy in the Arab streets into political gain for Turkey.

At this point Turkish diplomats would like to exploit Turkey’s "moral leadership" in the area of economic investments. Inasmuch as the Erdogan government has paid special attention to Arab investors, a significant amount of Arab investments at this time of economic crisis could heal some of Turkey’s economic problems. Politically, the pro-Israel lobby in Washington may not want to see Erdogan become more involved in Middle Eastern affairs. His popularity in the Arab world, especially among the moderates, however, could become a useful tool for the Obama administration, which seeks to win over moderate Islamists in order to isolate militant Muslim groups. The irony of the situation, however, is that Erdogan’s political success in the Arab world is in the hands of Hamas, which Erdogan strongly defended against Israel. If Hamas does not stop violence and continues to terrorize Gaza and Israel, it could put Erdogan into the position of a leader who, despite his support for Hamas, has no influence on the organization to stop further violence.