Turkish Leader Begins 'Arab Spring' Tour

Sep 12, 2011
Originally published on September 21, 2011 9:47 am

Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyep Erdogan, began a trip to North Africa on Monday as part of an effort to build strong relations with new leaders following the ouster of long-time authoritarian rulers in those countries.

Erdogan made his first stop on his "Arab Spring" tour in Cairo, where President Hosni Mubarak quit back in February. The Turkish leader is also visiting Libya, where Moammar Gadhafi was driven from office last month, and Tunisia, where President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled in January.

In addition, Erdogan is moving quickly to take advantage of surging anti-Israel sentiment in a number of countries, including Turkey.

Turkey recently expelled the Israeli ambassador, and in Egypt, a mob in Cairo descended on the Israeli Embassy, forcing the evacuation of Israel's diplomatic staff.

And next week, the Palestinians take their bid for statehood recognition to the United Nations, a move that is likely to increase the pressure on Israel.

Turkey's dispute with Israel is linked to the Israeli commando raid on a convoy of aid ships last year while they were in the Mediterranean Sea, headed toward the Gaza Strip.

Sharply Critical Of Israel

In one interview last week, Erdogan called Israel's attack on a aid ships a "cause for war." In another interview, he was scornful of Israel's actions on the world stage.

"Up until now Israel has played the role of a spoiled child in the face of all of the decisions taken against it by the United Nations, and no doubt they thought this behavior could continue," he said.

In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's has been rather subdued in responding to the Egyptian crisis, a sign that Israel does not want to ratchet up the rhetoric.

By contrast, Erdogan seems intent on underscoring Israel's unpopularity at the start of his North Africa tour, says Barcin Yinanc, a columnist with Turkey's Hurriyet Daily News.

"The fact that there will be thousands of Arabs in the streets will boost the confidence of the Turkish prime minister," according to Yinanc. "It will also serve as a message to Israel that it is being further isolated."

Turkish analysts say Israel and its largely right-wing government have been slow to respond to the volatile and fast-moving changes brought by the Arab Spring.

Bulent Kenes, editor-in-chief of Today's Zaman, Turkey's largest English-language daily, says it took the Muslim world a long time to launch the kind of political awakening that spread across Eastern Europe two decades ago. But he claims that now, Israel has been even slower to recognize that change.

"Today, Israel is giving the impression that it is resisting against the flow of history," he said.

There are, however, signs that Israel is preparing to respond to the recent upheavals in the region. Israel's liberal Haaretz newspaper reported that Israeli military, intelligence and foreign affairs officials have all circulated documents recently recommending a return to negotiations with the Palestinians. Some are calling the current climate "an opportunity for progress."

Meanwhile, Yinanc, the Turkish columnist, says Turkey will continue to cement ties with the emerging regimes in North Africa, spreading its example of a governing party inspired by Islam that tolerates other religious beliefs and a secular population.

She cautions, however, that this is a political invesmtent that will likely take years to show a return. In the meantime, Erdogan will also be looking to build economic and trade ties with the new leaderships in North Africa which could begin paying dividends sooner.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

As NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Istanbul, Israel is trying to find its place in the new order that came as a result of the Arab Spring. And relations with Turkey and Egypt, once key allies, are now severely strained.

PETER KENYON: With Israel reeling from the expulsion of its ambassador to Turkey and the emergency evacuation of its diplomatic staff in the face of a mob assault on its embassy in Cairo, the Turkish leader is moving quickly to take advantage of surging anti-Israel popular sentiment. In one interview last week, Erdogan called Israel's attack on a Gaza aid ship last year a cause for war, and in another, he was scornful of Israel's behavior on the world stage.

RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: (Through Translator) Up until now, Israel has played the role of a spoiled child in the face of all of the decisions taken against it by the United Nations. And no doubt they thought this behavior could continue.

KENYON: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's subdued response to the Egyptian crisis was seen by some as a sign that Israel recognized that hard-line rhetoric would not be helpful at this moment. By contrast, says Hurriyet Daily News columnist Barcin Yinanc, Erdogan seems intent on underscoring Israel's unpopularity at the start of his north Africa tour.

BARCIN YINANC: The fact that there will be thousands of Arabs in the streets will boost the confidence of the Turkish prime minister. It will also serve as a message to Israel that it is being further isolated.

KENYON: Bulent Kenes is editor in chief of Today's Zaman, Turkey's largest English language daily. He says it took the Muslim world a long time to launch the kind of political awakening that spread across Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. But he says as slow as these countries, including Turkey, were to change, Israel has been even slower to recognize that change.

BULENT KENES: Today, Israel is giving the impression that it is resisting against the flow of the history.

KENYON: Kenes says regarding Turkey, but especially when it comes to Egypt, Israel would do well to adjust its thinking and its tactics. But he's not sure that's possible under the current Israeli government.

KENES: There is no way other than accepting the rising expectations of the Egyptian people. I hope Israeli people could manage to establish a new government, otherwise this tension will not reduce.

KENYON: Meanwhile, says Turkish columnist Barcin Yinanc, Turkey will continue to cement ties with the emerging regimes in North Africa, in the process, spreading its example of a governing party inspired by Islam that tolerates other religious beliefs and a secular population.

YINANC: Although in Turkey sometimes we don't like to use this reference as Turkey as a model, we are, in the world, one of the few democracies with a majority Muslim population. And at times, culture matters.

KENYON: Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.