Erdogan ‘is no Gamal Abdel Nasser’

Turkey may champion the Palestinian cause but it cannot replace missing Arab leadership.

turkey - arab world
Gamal Abdel Nasser commanded an unrivalled influence over the Arab world during the 1960s[GALLO/GETTY]

A recent poll has revealed that 43 per cent of Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip view Turkey as the regional country that is most supportive of their cause.

The survey was conducted following the deadly Israeli interception of a Gaza-bound international aid flotilla that claimed the lives of nine Turkish nationals.

Egypt, once the leader of the Arab world, came a very distant second, with just 13 per cent.

Wave of admiration

IN depth

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Although no similar polls were conducted elsewhere in the Arab world, press reports, opinion columns and the Turkish flags waved during anti-Israel protests, seem to indicate that Turkey is emerging as the new popular – or at least respected – regional leader.

Even Arab governments seem to have been swept up in this new wave of admiration for Turkey in the wake of its insistence on an apology for and an independent investigation into the deaths of its citizens.

Arab officials reportedly gave Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, a very enthusiastic reception at the Turkish-Arab Economic Forum in Istanbul earlier this month.

The Turkish position simultaneously embarrasses many Arab governments by exposing their weakness vis-à-vis Israel, while also bolstering the official Arab stand against Israel’s arrogant dismissal of Arab rights and demands.

Turkey is not perceived as a threat to Arab regimes as its influence does not undermine Arab governments at home.

Force for moderation

The Turkish prime minister has been cast as the new hero of the Palestinian cause [AFP]

While Turkey is ruled by an Islamic party, its influence over Islamic movements, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, which leads the opposition in several Arab countries, is largely viewed as a moderating factor.

In fact, many Islamic writers view Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) as the vanguard of a liberal Islamic movement seeking to take its rightful place in the international arena.

But the rise of Turkish influence is also a testimony to the decline of pan-Arab power and the absence of strong leadership in the Arab world.

Regional powers, such as Iran and Turkey, have stepped in to fill a leadership gap that has emerged partly as a result of Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel, the US occupation of Iraq and the general decline in pan-Arab solidarity.

But while Iran, which is widely perceived as a strong counterbalance to Israel, is viewed with suspicion by most Arab governments and even members of the intelligentsia, Turkey is generally seen as less threatening and as a force for stability in the region.

The Arab street

Even as Turkey is attacked in the West for supposedly “turning eastward” and favouring its “cultural affinity” with Muslim countries, the Arab world continues to see it as a bridge to the West and a potential mediator with the US and Israel.

On the Arab street, however, a new image of Turkey is emerging that is not necessarily reflective of a realistic reading of the policies and statements made in Ankara.

In the wake of the flotilla carnage, the refusal of Turkish leaders to budge on their threats to suspend relations with Israel and, more significantly, their unequivocal demand that the Gaza blockade be lifted, has seen them portrayed in articles and on popular forums as the new leaders in “the Islamic world’s struggle to liberate Palestine”.

But this is a role Turkey has neither claimed nor coveted.

This casting of Turkey as the champion of the Palestinian cause derives partly from the comparison drawn between Turkey, whose leaders take their country’s role and pride seriously, and meek Arab regimes who are vying to be accepted by the US and the West.

Countries and leaders who have challenged Israel and the West have always captured the imagination of the Arab masses, who seek an advocate in the battle against decades of colonialism, Western domination and injustice.

By calling off joint military maneuvers with his country’s long-standing ally, Israel, after the latter’s war against Gaza and by leaving the podium at Davos after an angry exchange with Shimon Peres, the Israeli president, Erdogan’s casting as a hero in the Arab imagination was sealed.

But, while certainly benefiting from his growing personal clout and that of his country among Arabs and Muslims, the Turkish prime minister has not abandoned his declared goal of being a bridge between East and West, as opposed to a champion of the East against the West.

Neo-Ottoman ambition?

On the Arab street, Turkey has become the new champion of the Palestinian cause [EPA]

Erdogan’s obvious high regard for his country’s role and status has earned him the respect of even some of the most sceptical Arab intellectuals.

But others warn that Turkey’s ambition – often described as neo-Ottoman by its critics – is more concerned with expanding Turkey’s sphere of influence than championing just causes.

That may be so and Turkish leaders are open about bidding to become the most important interlocutor for the East – Arabs and Muslims – with the West.

Turkey’s so far successful move to fill the leadership void in the region, does not, however, compensate for the absence of Arab leadership.

Erdogan is not the new Gamal Abdel Nasser, the late Egyptian president who commanded an unrivalled influence over the Arab intelligentsia and masses during the late 1950s and 1960s, until his premature death in 1970.

Neither he nor his outspoken intellectual foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, are – or yearn to be – the saviours of Arabs and Muslims.

If anything Turkey could be a stabilising force in the Arab world, but only the Arab world can decide how that will benefit it.

The fact that Egypt came second in the Palestinian survey signals both the decline of the Egyptian leadership of the Arab world and the persistence of its special place in Arab politics.

NATO member Turkey stands to gain from being a mediator between the Arab world and Israel – speaking its mind and becoming a hero in the process.

But for Egypt, acting as the go-between between Israel and Arab states has only served to diminish its power. And Turkey’s rising influence cannot compensate for that absence of an Arab leader, for it is neither its duty nor its role to protect Arab interests.

Lamis Andoni is an analyst and commentator on Middle Eastern and Palestinian affairs.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera