Turkey steps forward but...

by our Arab Affairs correspondent

TURKISH premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan got a rapturous welcome when he landed in Cairo this week as part of a whistle-stop tour of the Middle East designed to boost Turkey’s standing in the Arab world.

Turkey is already riding high on the Arab street. Last week the Turks kicked out the Israeli ambassador, downgraded diplomatic ties and halted all defence-related trade with Israel following Tel Aviv’s refusal to apologise for their raid on a Turkish Gaza relief vessel in May 2010 in which nine Turks were killed.

Now the Turks say their warships will escort all future Turkish Gaza-bound aid ships to deter any new Israeli provocations.

Many Egyptian Muslim Brothers see Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) as a fellow Islamic movement and the Turkish government has certainly played this up to develop open and covert links with the Muslim brotherhoods of Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and the Gaza Strip.

While the Turkish Muslim Brotherhood undoubtedly plays a major role within the AKP, Erdogan’s party is a much broader political front. The AKP has also had to move cautiously to replace the bourgeois secularism imposed on the country by General Mustafa Kemal when he became dictator after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War.

Though the AKP has never looked back since winning its first general election in 2002, the Islamic agenda is being opposed at every step by the secular parties and the Kemalist senior officer caste in the armed forces.

The AKP rejects the traditional Kemalist policy of alignment with imperialism through Nato, Israel and the European Union on the grounds that this has politically and economically isolated Turkey from its Arab neighbours for decades.

But the AKP’s “neo-Ottoman” alternative is only a device to project the Turks as the friends and protectors of the Arabs to give them more bargaining power with American and European imperialism and unlock the doors of the European Union that they still hope to enter.

It’s the “protector” bit that many Arabs don’t like. The Ottoman Turks ruled most of the Arab world for centuries and still retained most of the Middle East and Arabia in 1914.

Some fear that the new Turkish government is working to try and restore its former glory at the expense of the Arabs it once exploited and oppressed.

So while the flags were out to welcome the Turkish leader in Cairo there was a more muted response from Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leaders. “We welcome Turkey and we welcome Erdogan as a prominent leader but we do not think that he or his country alone should be leading the region or drawing up its future,” said Essam el-Erian, deputy leader of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party, which is expected to win the elections when and if the Egyptian army junta, that came to power after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, agrees to hold free elections. “Arab states do not need outside projects ... This has to come from the new internal systems of the Arab countries which after the revolutions ? will be democratic ones,” said Erian, who was jailed by the Mubarak regime.