Erdogan: Never a ‘yes’ man
By Sami Moubayed Available at: http://english.aljazeera.com/news/articles/39/Erdogan-Never-a-yes-man.html
In his autobiography ‘In Search of Identity ‘Anwar Sadat recalled that he used to travel from his remote village to cosmopolitan Cairo as a poor child and jump into the royal gardens by night to steal oranges, only to be beaten by the king’s guards.
He never imagined that one day he would walk through the palace gates to greet King Farouk I as an officer in the Egyptian army. He never imagined – not in his wildest dreams – that one day he would walk through the same gates to sit on the king’s throne after he became president of republican Egypt in 1970.
The game of fate is a strange one indeed, which British statesman Winston Churchill once described: “It is a mistake to look too far ahead. Only one link in the chain of destiny can be handled at a time.”
For one week now, mainstream media in the Arab and Muslim world have been trumpeting the early life of Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. As a young vendor selling cakes, melon and lemonade on the streets of Istanbul during summer holidays Erdogan, now 56, never imagined that one day he would become premier.
Growing up in the 1960s, her never imagined he would rise to become a pan-Muslim leader, stirring pro-Turkish emotions that have been stifled since the downfall of the Ottoman Empire 92 years ago.
In modern history, only Erdogan and the Egyptian diva Um Kalthoum (who died 35 years ago) have been able to capture the minds and hearts of Arabs and Muslims, the popular Saudi channel al-Arabiya said in a biography recently published on its website. Had such a statement been made 10 years ago, the name next to Um Kalthoum would have probably been ex-Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser, the “godfather” of modern Arabism. A Turkish citizen with an Islamic agenda who does not speak a word of Arabic would have been far from making the grade.
In January, in a testament to how popular he was becoming, Erdogan was awarded the prestigious King Faisal International Prize for “service to Islam” by the Saudi King Faisal Foundation. In April, Time magazine listed him, for the second time, as among the most 100 influential people in the world.
Reading through Erdogan’s career it is clear he has worked hard, but it is probably by coincidence that he won pan-Arab and pan-Islamic popularity.
On March 1, 2003, two weeks before Erdogan assumed office as prime minister, Ankara – headed by his Justice and Development Party (AKP) – vetoed a proposal to allow the United States to use Turkish territory to open a second front against Iraq from the north, in order to topple Saddam Hussein.
That scored him his first points with Arabs and Muslims at large. Two years later, in March 2005, then-US secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld bitterly complained to Fox News, “Clearly, if we had been able to get the 4th Infantry Division in from the north, in through Turkey, more of the Hussein-Ba’athist regime would have been captured or killed.” Had Turkey been more cooperative, “the insurgency today [in Iraq] would be less”, he added.
Quiet unintentionally, Rumsfeld’s frustration pinned another medal of honour on Erdogan in the eyes of millions of Arabs. That same year Erdogan refused to accept US dictates, strengthening his relations with Syria at a time ties between Damascus and the George W Bush administration were souring, and he become a frequent visitor to the Syrian capital.
Erdogan again defied the US by receiving Khalid Meshaal, the head of the political bureau of Hamas, after the Palestinian movement emerged victorious in parliamentary elections in 2005. He also declined an invitation from former prime minister Ariel Sharon to visit Israel in 2004, again arousing US ire, and did not meet Ehud Olmert on the then-Israeli minister of labor and trade’s visit to Turkey in July 2004.
Erdogan stood up for the Palestinians during the war on Gaza in 2008, accusing Israel of committing war crimes. Addressing Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum at Davos in January 2009, he told the Israeli president, “President Peres, you are old, and your voice is loud out of a guilty conscience. When it comes to killing, you know very well how to kill. I know well how you hit and kill children on beaches.”
That single statement sky-rocketed him to pan-Arab and pan-Islamic fame, and his photos began appearing in major Arab capitals. But his outburst in Switzerland was nothing compared to his angry words last week after the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) stormed the Free Gaza flotilla off the shores of Gaza, killing nine Turkish citizens onboard the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara.
The Arab world went into uproar in defense of the Turkish prime minister, who angrily withdrew his ambassador from Israel, leading to his country’s flag being hoisted by protesters in massive demonstrations that stretched throughout Damascus, Baghdad, Beirut and Cairo.
“Turkey’s friendship is strong; and all should know that our hostility is strong too,” Erdogan told the Turkish parliament. ”The international community has to say to Israel enough is enough! The sailing of Freedom Flotilla is legal; the Israeli aggression against the flotilla targets the United Nations. Israel should pay the price for what it has done … Israel can’t wash its hands off its perpetrated crime in the Mediterranean. The country which tries to win the hatred of the entire world can never achieve its security; Israel has been losing the ribs of peace one by one.”
He added, “Israel shouldn’t look at the face of the world, unless it apologizes and be punished for its doings. We are fed up with Israeli lies; the actions of the Israeli government harm Israel itself before harming others.”
Then almost in disbelief Arabs cheered as he hinted that he would board a ship and head off to Gaza to help break the Israeli siege that began in 2007, and would let the Turkish navy accompany him into Palestinian waters to ensure the IDF would be helpless as he ventured into the Gaza Strip.
Erdogan is at his finest hour in the Arab and Muslim worlds, thanks to strong words accompanied by strong deeds. Earlier in the year, he forced the Israeli government to apologize after humiliating his ambassador to Israel, prompting Arab media to boast, “Israel only understands Turkish!”
Last month he hammered out a uranium-swap agreement with Brazil and Iran, which if it had been immediately accepted by the international community could have spared Iran the burden of a fourth set of sanctions that are due to be discussed at the United Nations on Wednesday.
Under Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey has cut its Cold War image as an appendage to the West, yet also wants to be a full member of the European Union by 2014. Should it join, the EU will border Iran and see a six-fold increase in its Muslim population. Seeking “zero problems with neighbors”, Ankara has put in place visa-free travel agreements with Lebanon, Jordan, Libya and Syria, while one with Russia will soon come into effect.
As al-Arabiya noted, “Overnight he [Erdogan] has become the most popular person in the Arab world while Iran, the US and some European countries have strived to achieve what he got in a second.”
Perhaps it is Erdogan’s eloquence and strong defiance of Israel that brought him to the top in the Arab world. Or perhaps it is his piousness, given that he is a devote Muslim whose wife Emine wears a headscarf, as do millions of Arab and Muslim women around the world.
In the 1990s, he was dismissed from government office for publicly reciting a poem that challenged Turkey’s cherished secularism with the words, “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers …”
Or perhaps it is his humble background. The son of a coastguard who had a rough upbringing because his family was poor, Erdogan excelled at an Islamic school before obtaining a degree in management from Marmara University – while playing professional football. His rise to power was not smooth. He failed twice, in 1978 and 1991, to be elected to parliament on an Islamic ticket.
The real reason, however, is that he said “no” to Israel and put his full weight behind the Palestinians. That is a magical cure in the Middle East and has never failed since the creation of Israel in 1948.
It did wonders to the careers of men like Egypt’s Nasser, Syria’s Hafez al-Assad, and former Palestinian president Yasser Arafat. It is also the reason why Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah is so popular on Arab and Muslim streets, and why Arab leaders with peace treaties with Israel, like Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, are not.
Anyone who understands how unpopular Turkey was in the Arab world for the entire 20th century, thanks to systematic indoctrination against the Ottoman Empire and Turkey’s alliance with Israel after 1948, realizes how dramatic Erdogan’s achievement has been over the past seven years.
He has rebranded Turkey – and the entire Ottoman legacy – and created a new kind of leadership in the Arab world that combines the traits of Nasser, Assad and Nasrallah. This explains why Erdogan is a phenomenon worth watching as his career unfolds and he develops the charisma, style and character of the talented and complex leader he has already become.
Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.
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