Erdogan in Cairo: Not a new Nasser

Not a day passes without a Turkish threat/warning/challenge directed at Israel, but comparing him to Nasser is a dubious compliment.

Erdogan arrives in Cairo_311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Erdogan arrives in Cairo_311
(photo credit: Reuters)
This is the season of hot air in the Middle East, and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is responsible for more than his fair share of it. Not a day passes without a threat/warning/challenge directed at Israel. One threat, which raised a few eyebrows, was that of sending the Turkish navy to escort and defend the next flotilla to Gaza. Hours later, Erdogan’s office published a clarification, according to which the translation to English was faulty. In the meantime, there were those in Israel who recalled the story about the Ottoman admiral who was sent to attack Malta, but couldn’t find it. “Malta yok” (no Malta), he informed his superiors.
Funny stuff aside, the current state of affairs between Israel and Turkey is bad enough. Belligerent statements only serve to inflame it further. Take for example the initial reaction of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. As if by Pavlovian reflex, sources close to Lieberman said he would retaliate by meeting in public with Armenian and Kurdish adversaries of Turkey. Fortunately, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s office had enough diplomatic acumen to dismiss the hot air originating from the Foreign Ministry.
Beyond that, the Israeli reaction so far has been very muted, and there are those who argue on the basis of watching Erdogan in action, that this is the right approach if the idea is to calm the high tempers in Ankara. In the meantime, Erdogan is issuing threats against Cyprus over plans to produce newly-discovered natural gas and oil off its shores, a threat that put the Greeks on guard. The Turkish Interior Minister is threatening to invade Northern Iraq to put an end to Kurdish guerrilla operations against Turkey, and in the background there is the Turkish threat to intervene in Syria, in order to put an end to the massacre there. All in all, a very active week for Ankara.
Now Erdogan is visiting Cairo, in what is regarded, somewhat prematurely, as an historic visit, and the anti- Israel rhetoric is already in full force. Ahead of the visit, a choir of adulating commentators were already comparing the Turkish leader to the late Egyptian and Arab icon, Gamal Abdel Nasser. Nasser, it needs to be mentioned, lost two wars to Israel, and with them the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza. In the last years of his reign, his regime had increasing difficulties providing enough basic food to millions of desperately poor Egyptians. But then, Nasser was the great hero of Pan-Arabism, as he stood up to the West and Israel. When he died, millions of Arabs poured into the streets of the entire Middle East and mourned the departure of the leader who, so they chanted, had restored Arab national pride and honor. Honor is a precious commodity in the political culture of the Middle East, and none other than Erdogan himself acknowledged it the other day, when he declared that no matter what price Turkey had to pay for its conflict with Israel, national Turkish honor was on the line.
This is the same Erdogan who publicly condemned the Netanyahu government for being arrogant, by preferring Israeli national honor over maintaining good relations with Turkey.
So, national honor and pride played a major role in the political career of Nasser, but did not prevent him from leading his nation to defeat and humiliation. It is very doubtful whether this part of the Nasser legacy is what Erdogan wishes to emulate. Above all, Nasser was an Arab leader, and even he failed in the sacred mission of his life, uniting the Arabs and defeating Israel. What an Arab leader failed to do, a non-Arab leader will fail to do as well. Even the increasingly anti-Israel rhetoric and actions of Erdogan will not do the trick for him.
A Turkish intervention in Syria might endear Erdogan to Arab leaders, as such an intervention would address two issues much higher on the political agendas of many leaders in the Middle East: the desire to get rid of the Alawite regime in Syria and the setback to Iran that would result from that. This is an option that the Turks still keep open.
That said, the comparison with Nasser may very well be a dubious compliment to Erdogan. Perhaps another comparison is more in line with the true aspirations of the Turkish leader, that with the great Saladin, who recaptured Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1187, but alas, a little reminder is in place here. Saladin was an ethnic there a need to say more?
The writer is an Adjunct Professor at American University’s School of International Service in Washington, DC. He served as the director of the Government Press Office and was an advisor to several prime ministers. This article was first published on ‘The Huffington Post’ and reprinted with permission.