The spirit of Gamal Abdel Nasser is back – only this time he’s Turkish. Prime Minister Erdogan’s Arab Spring tour enjoyed rapturous reception on its first leg in Cairo on Tuesday – a hallmark of his increasing popularity and influence among Arabs. The Wall Street Journal reports:
In Cairo’s Opera House on Tuesday, the standing ovations, chants and fist pumping from the audience began even before Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stood up to speak…Turkey’s prime minister sought to make common cause between Arabs and Turks. He stressed their common faith and history (during the Ottoman Empire), their desire for democracy and above all, common opposition to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians…“People in Egypt see him as the new Gamal Abdel Nasser,” said Mohamad Mosalam, a banker from Société Généralé in Egypt, referring to Egypt’s revered post-colonial president, who faced down Britain, France and Israel over control of the Suez Canal in 1956. “For 40 years [after Nasser], Arab people felt they had no leader.” Now, said Mr. Mosalam, they have Mr. Erdogan.
But if Erdogan inherits Nasser’s mantle, he’ll need to be prepared for the perils that come with it. It is easy to raise expectations and at the moment Erdogan can win rapturous applause by gestures and words. But as time went on, Nasser found that the logic of his words demanded increasingly confrontational policies. His big mouth was his worst enemy, and forced him into the war of 1967.Erdogan even at his demagogic worst has much more potential to help the Middle East than Nasser ever did. Nasser could never rise above claptrap socialism; Erdogan leads a society which has learned to appreciate the market and has made substantial if perhaps not entirely irreversible progress toward real democracy.Having heard President Gul speak at Yaroslavl last week and followed Erdogan’s triumphal progress, I get the feeling that the Turkish leadership is, to use the old Bolshevik phrase, giddy with success. They have overcome so many obstacles, enjoyed so much good fortune, that they may underestimate the cunning and strength of the forces contending against them — as well as the limits of their own agenda and ability. Whatever public opinion may think, none of the region’s governments welcomes Turkey’s new prominence in the region — and it is much easier to talk about solving the Palestinian Question than to solve it in ways that satisfy public opinion in the Muslim world.Other problems lurk. A Turkey that hopes to lead the region will have to live with much harsher and closer international criticism of its present and past human rights and minority policies. There is nothing that has happened to Palestinians that Turkey has not inflicted on religious and ethnic minorities in the last 100 years. Should Armenians, Greeks and Kurds receive the same kind of compensation and benefits that Turkey hopes to gain for Palestinians? Will Turkey push for compensation for Jews forced out of Arab countries as it seeks to help Palestinians?Turkey is making a claim to a new role in the Middle East based on three qualifications: its successful socio-economic development, its model of Islamic democracy, and its ability to advance the Palestinian cause. All of these qualifications will be tested to the limit as Turkey pursues its new course, and many of the Arab leaders who applaud the Turks in public will be plotting against them behind the scenes.