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Erdogan’s victory lap: Turkish domestic politics after the uprisings

By Steven A. Cook

As Cairo’s citizens drove along the Autostrad [last] week, they were greeted with four enormous billboards featuring pictures of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. With Turkish and Egyptian flags, the signs bore the message, “With United Hands for the Future.” Erdogan’s visit marks a bold development in Turkey’s leadership in the region. The hero’s welcome he received at the airport reinforced the popular perception: Turkey is a positive force, uniquely positioned to guide the Middle East’s ongoing transformation.

By many measures, Erdogan’s Turkey appears to have much to offer Egypt (and Tunisia and Libya, which he visited later in the week). His Justice and Development Party (AKP) is deeply attractive to both Islamist and liberal Arabs. For Islamists, it provides a lesson on how to overcome barriers to political participation and remake a once-hostile public arena. For liberals, it demonstrates that even a party of religion can embrace and advance liberal principles. The AKP thus resolves one of the Muslim world’s central political problems: Citizens are too often forced to choose between the authoritarianism of prevailing regimes and the potential theocracy of Islamists that might replace them.

Egyptian, Tunisian, or Libyan versions of the AKP could give citizens a way to overcome the second half of this dilemma. To be sure, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood was initially wary of the AKP, regarding it as too liberal and nationalist. But it warmed up to the party after Erdogan called on former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to leave office — and did so much earlier than most other leaders. Now, some of the Brotherhood’s offshoots — for example the Egyptian Current Party, which is made up of activists in their twenties and thirties — have explicitly stated that they want to emulate AKP. And Abdel Monem Aboul Futouh, the former Brotherhood stalwart and presidential candidate, has called himself the “Egyptian Erdogan.”

Beyond the deeply appealing worldview of its ruling party, Turkey could assist the new Middle East on a more practical level. Washington is broke, distracted with the coming presidential campaign, and overloaded with crises and potential crises. Europe is as burdened with debt as the United States and has been unable to shape events in the region since Paris and London abandoned their colonies and protectorates there in the 1960s and early 1970s.

But Turkey, with its rapid economic growth and entrepreneurial spirit, could provide Egyptians, Tunisians, and Libyans what they want and need the most — investment. The Persian Gulf states have committed billions to Egypt, but only a small amount has made its way to the Ministry of Finance. Moreover, Egyptians are wary of the “soft conditionality” of Saudi, Qatari, and Emirati aid. Turks are presumed to invest for profit alone.

Still, if Erdogan and the AKP seem too good for the Middle East to be true, it is because they are. For all his brilliance as a politician, the prime minister’s legend has at times blurred political and strategic blunders.

Erdogan’s triumphalism masks serious missteps at crucial moments during the Arab uprisings. Erdogan got Egypt right, of course, but he stumbled badly in Libya, first strongly resisting the NATO-led mission to protect civilians against Muammar al-Qadaffi’s brutality.

This was the same Qaddafi who had granted Turkish companies $23 billion in contracts for construction and other projects and awarded the prime minister a prize for human rights. Good sense suggests that the prize is now sitting in a landfill on the outskirts of Ankara, but Turkey’s economic interests explain, at least in part, Ankara’s initially sluggish response to the Libyan rebellion.

Ankara seemed to cling to its political, diplomatic, and economic interests in Syria, too. Once again, Erdogan misread the situation, believing that he could convince Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to reform. Even as Erdogan stepped up his rhetoric about the bloodshed in Syria in late summer, he consistently kept the door open for Assad to remain in power.

It is an unfortunate fact of Middle Eastern politics that no one in the Arab world will publicly pressure Ankara on its inconsistencies. Turkey’s public and rather nasty fallout with Israel and its principled stand on recognizing a Palestinian state give it immunity. A few brave souls demonstrated against Erdogan when he spoke to the Arab League on September 13, but that protest pales in comparison to the rock star reception he received during the rest of the trip.

In reality, the Middle East may be more important for Turkish domestic politics than Turkey is for the Middle East’s. This past June, the AKP renewed its parliamentary majority with 49.95 percent of the vote — its third electoral victory in a row. Some Western and Turkish observers concluded that Erdogan is untouchable. Yet if Erdogan were so secure, he would not have needed to make a speech to the Arab League to burnish his already stellar political position. In fact, the prime minister is profoundly aware of the unhappy history of the previous Islamist parties in Turkey’s secular political order and, as a result, is on a perpetual campaign.

Erdogan’s tour of Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya warmed the hearts of millions of proud, nationalist Turks who enjoy the spectacle of their prime minister as, in their words, “king of the Arab street.” Ankara’s posture in the Middle East — and the Arab world’s apparent receptivity to it — simply confirmed what Erdogan and the AKP had been telling Turks for some time: A prosperous, powerful, and democratic Turkey can influence the world around it.

Observers tend to underestimate how closely foreign policy reflects leaders’ domestic political constraints and opportunities. Erdogan’s trip to the Middle East was not solely about his domestic political needs and the urgency of masking Ankara’s initial blunders on Libya and Syria — although it was about that, too. But because the Turkish prime minister cut his teeth as a neighborhood party organizer, he is keenly aware of what his own street wants. In the Middle East, at least, he has given it to them. He will reap the political benefits for some time to come, making Erdogan “king” of the Arab, but most important Turkish, streets.

Steven A. Cook is the Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. A leading expert on Arab and Turkish politics, he is author of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square.

This article appears courtesy of Foreign Affairs.
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