Egyptian in support of Erdogan 311.
(photo credit: Mohamed Abd El-Ghany/Reuters)
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrived Monday night in Cairo to crowds of cheering Egyptians, but analysts said he was likely to get a less enthusiastic reception in the corridors of power, encountering resistance to his bid to make his country the leading regional power.
Erdogan’s confrontational policy with Israel- topped off with remarks made on the eve of his visit that Israel’s raid on the Mavi Marmara last year was a casus belli – won him fans in the Arab Street. The crowds greeting him waved the flags of Egypt, Libya and Turkey. Some chanted, “Egypt,Turkey - one fist,” while others raised large portraits of the leader captioned "Turkey-Egypt - hand in hand to the future.”
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But, analysts say Erdogan’s regional ambitions can only come at the cost of Egypt’s standing as the Arab world’s leading power. Faced with a slumping economy and an uncertain political future, Cairo may be in a weak position to compete with Ankara, but it is likely to resist becoming the junior member of a partnership.
“This isn’t going to be an easy relationship to manage. These countries have been competitors in the game of regional influence, with Egypt wanting to play a lead role in the Arab world and Turkey trying to increase its influence,” Sinan Ulgen, director of Turkey’s Centre for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies (Edam) and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Institution, told The Media Line.
Erdogan has sought to build a network of political and trade ties with the region as he leverages Turkey’s massive and growing economy and his credentials as an Islamic leader friendly to democracy. The Arab Spring has upset some of these plans by threatening the rule of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and other friends, but it has also created new opportunities by weakening potential rivals like Egypt
Erdogan has staked a lot on the trip. It is only the third overseas visit the prime minister has made – following the traditional must-visit stops in Turkish Cyprus and Azerbaijan – since he won a third term as prime minster in June. Erdogan has a busy schedule while in Egypt, the first leg of a North Africa trek that will take him to Tunisia and Libya – two other countries stumbling to recover after revolutions that ousted long-time leaders.
On Monday, Erdogan addressed the 22-member Arab League, held talks with the military council steering Egypt and met with the Grand Imam Ahmed Al-Tayeb of Al-Azhar. He was also to deliver a speech at Cairo University outlining his Middle East vision, the same platform US President Barack Obama used to address the Muslim world in 2009.
The Turkish and Egyptian prime ministers are slated to sign an agreement establishing a Turkish-Egyptian strategic council. Ulgen said the agreement would be something short of a strategic partnership. He preferred to term it a “strategic relationship.”
Erdogan has cut a figure as a swashbuckling Arab hero, speaking out strongly against Israel and its blockade of the Gaza Strip. While he was slow in opposing Libyan strongman Muamar Al-Gaddafi, he spoke out early and strongly against Al-Assad, who the United Nations says has killed more than 2,600 Syrians trying to put down an anti- government rebellion, winning kudos from opposition leaders across the Middle East.
"We need to preserve our relations with Turkey and all the countries that want to help the Arab world and take advantage of them to create a stronger political front to enhance the Arab states' position against Israel," Mohammed Adel of the April 6 movement that led the protests that brought down Egyptian President Husni Mubarak last February told Reuters news agency.
But Maha Azzam, an associate fellow at London's Chatham House think tank said that Erdogan’s fan base in the street was likely a cause for concern among Egypt’s military rulers, who have grown increasing unpopular as they have rolled back some of the democratic gains of the post-Mubarak era.
“There is a strong sense of discomfort that he may be indirectly pushing an agenda that is in line with popular sentiment but certainly not in line with present leadership in Egypt and other states in the region that have not had changes in regime,” she told The Media Line.
Erdogan’s problems in cementing closer ties with Egypt are further complicated by Egyptian domestic politics. Egypt’s military is ruling the country but has been hesitant to take major political initiatives before an elected government takes office in the next few months, analysts said.
The Turkish prime minister’s decision not to make a controversial side trip to the Palestinian-ruled Gaza Strip reflects these divergent interests of the two countries, said Ulgen.
Facing pressure from Washington and Jerusalem, Egypt, which is also in the midst of a diplomatic crisis with Israel, was apparently behind Erdogan’s backtracking. While Turkey is a member of the Western NATO alliance, it is less beholden to Western interests than Egypt, which now more than ever needs the $2 billion in annual US aid to shore up its flagging economy.
Alon Liel, a former Israeli chargé d'affaires to Turkey, said last week
Turkey may try to dilute American influence by offering its own aid
package to Egypt.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if there will be Turkish economic aid, maybe
military aid, offered to Egypt,” Liel told reporters in Jerusalem,
adding that with Al-Assad’s regime threatened by protests, “Turkey needs
a regional ally and will invest a lot of money in Egypt to get it.”