By Tony Badran

Throughout the 2011 Arab popular revolts, much ink has been spilled over the positive role the so-called “Turkish model” was supposed to have on the course of the protesters’ quest for democracy.  However, as evident from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Egypt and his Nasserist performance there, the role Turkey is settling on is one of inflammatory demagogy, heating up tensions and potentially threatening US interests at a critical moment in the region.

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Much like how Iran has sought to paint the Arab revolts with the brush of “resistance,” Turkey is in the process of refocusing the narrative of the Arab Spring back on the conflict with Israel. As with Tehran, Ankara’s objective is the promotion of its own bid for regional primacy. The arena for this power play is Egypt.

For all the hype around Turkey’s “soft power,” to advance his brand, Erdogan has fallen back on a familiar tactic: addressing the region’s masses over the head of their governments, and rousing their emotions with calculated anti-Israel rhetoric. As Michael Doran wrote a few months ago, Gamal Abdel Nasser wrote that playbook, but it is Iran that has made it its modus operandi since the Islamic Revolution took power.

Turkey is now following this well-trodden path. In explaining Ankara’s ambitious drive, Erdogan’s chief adviser, Ibrahim Kalin, offered these heady words: “We have made it clear we never had any kind of imperial intentions, but there is demand from the Arab street.”

For a government whose foreign minister has wondered why Turkey shouldn’t “rebuild its leadership in former Ottoman lands in the Balkans, Middle East and Central Asia,” Kalin’s pronouncement on imperial intentions is rather rich. But it is the reference to the “Arab street” that reveals the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) strategy—a strategy former US Ambassador to Turkey James Jeffrey understood all too well, noting, in a 2010 cable, “the AKP’s outreach to populations over the heads of conservative, pro-US governments.”

Projecting the image of an “authentic” regional leader with street cred, as opposed to pro-American lackeys (as Erdogan portrayed former President Hosni Mubarak), was always part of the Turkish premier’s game and remains a critical component of his domestic sales pitch as an independent leader who marches to his own beat, not the Americans’. Take, for instance, the August fracas between Erdogan and the main opposition party when the latter (surreally) accused the prime minister of  “being a subcontractor of the Western powers in the Middle East.” 

But this image requires a corresponding confrontational narrative. And it is here that Turkey’s game becomes most destructive, as it effectively promotes a version of the “resistance” narrative and seeks to reframe the Arab Spring accordingly.

Witness the shift in Turkey’s rhetoric about the meaning of the Arab Spring. In a May op-ed, Kalin talked about transition to “a pluralist democracy,” emphasizing freedom and prosperity. This emphasis quickly changed giving way to prioritizing the conflict with Israel as the primary value of the Arab Spring. “Policies of occupation, dispossession and humiliation will no longer be covered up and justified by petty dictators in the Middle East,” he wrote in an op-ed on the eve of Erdogan’s visit to Egypt.

And that is where Kalin’s words are specifically aimed: post-Mubarak Egypt, where both Turkey and Iran are making a power play. Egypt is the prize, especially for its access to Gaza—not to mention the potential for turning the heat on Israel, which could embroil Cairo and threaten its peace treaty.

Erdogan’s desired itinerary in Egypt reveals as much. He had hoped to use his visit to address Egyptians in Tahrir Square and to cross into Gaza, hitting both birds with one stone. Tellingly, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in Egypt nixed his plans. Given the fragility of the border situation, Erdogan’s plan was particularly pernicious. It is one thing for a hostile Iran to attempt to light the fuse between Egypt and Israel. But to have a NATO member threaten the stability of two US allies is a different matter entirely. 

Turkey’s destabilizing push in the eastern Mediterranean, all while it continues to maintain an ambiguous posture toward Syria (which Erdogan failed to even mention in his address at the Arab League), conflicts with US interests. However, as Lee Smith noted, so long as Erdogan feels he has little to worry about from Washington and believes he can have it both ways, he will press ahead with his irresponsible actions. 

The stakes are too high for the US to maintain a passive posture. It must assert leadership and remind regional middle-range powers like Turkey of their natural place before they cause serious damage. 

Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay. This article was first published on NOWLebanon.com.


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