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From champ to chump?: questioning the endurance of Erdogan’s popularity in the Arab world

From champ to chump?: questioning the endurance of Erdogan’s popularity in the Arab world

Egyptians wish for an Erdogan-like leader as they give Turkey's head a warmer reception than they did the US President. But how long will this attraction last?

September 16, 2011 9:00 by

It was no surprise that Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and US President Barack Obama both chose Cairo to deliver their vision for the Middle East.

The historic Egyptian capital is home to al Azhar mosque and university, Islam’s most prestigious seat of learning, lending authority to the words of any visiting leader anxious to influence Arab opinion.

Erdogan was given a hero’s welcome by Egyptians waving Turkish flags. His speech was interrupted by cheers in stark contrast to the reception given two years earlier to Obama, who was flanked by tight security and listened to quietly.

But since Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was toppled by a popular uprising in February after 30 years in power, the choice of venue is even more compelling.

“Obama, no matter how good his intentions, is restrained by certain policies. He can’t govern America based on his intentions. There are leaders and lobbies,” said Hisham Saleh, in a reference to what Arabs see as Israeli influence on US policy.

“Erdogan’s history proves that he is a man of his word,” said Saleh, 26, who listened to Erdogan in Cairo’s opera house complex on Tuesday evening.

Both leaders’ messages were similar — justice for the Palestinians and democracy for oppressed Arabs — but the reception was different.


“Democracy and freedom is as basic a right as bread and water for you, my brothers,” Erdogan said. Obama talked of the need for “governments that reflect the will of the people”.

But ordinary Egyptians embraced Erdogan in a way they could never welcome a US president, even one like Obama who in June 2009 was still relatively fresh from an election victory and who promised change at home and abroad.

“I wish we could have someone like (Erdogan), an Egyptian, to lead the country, someone who speaks with the same mentality, same power, same confidence … Obama did not fulfill his promises,” said Ahmed Youssef, a 34-year-old engineer.


But Erdogan should perhaps savour his welcome while he still can.

Analysts say Egyptians’ growing confidence in Turkey to help unravel decades-old wrangles like the Arab-Israeli conflict over a US superpower could run into the same disappointment.

“Erdogan is the prime minister of Turkey, a regional power not an international one. It is not in its hand to solve our problems. He could only enhance our positions and support us but not more than that,” said Emad Gad, a researcher at the Cairo-based Al-Ahram centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

Erdogan has been lionised by Arabs for taking a stand against Israel. Many Egyptians have been impressed by Turkey’s decision to expel the Israeli ambassador after nine Turks were killed last year in an Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla.

Egyptians wanted a similar tough line from their ruling generals after last month’s shooting of five Egyptian guards when Israeli forces were chasing cross-border raiders. No such action was taken.

Erdogan referred to “Israel’s illegitimate and inhumane policies”, a phrase in his speech that was guaranteed to please his audience. Erdogan could never have made such a speech under Mubarak, who pursued…


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