3.2.2011. Sibel Utku Bila, Turkey’s Egypt call reflects drive for regional power
Turkey’s vocal support for a regime change in Egypt reflects the country’s quest for leadership in the Middle East, where it is often lauded as an example that Islam and democracy can co-exist.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Wednesday Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s pledge to stand down in September is not enough and he should go immediately, the NTV news channel reported from Kyrgyzstan.
Earlier, he urged Mubarak «to meet the people’s desire for change without hesitation» and warned that «in today’s world, freedoms cannot be postponed or overlooked.»
He called also for democratic reform across the Middle East, saying: «We have never believed that democracy will produce chaos and radicalism. Only advanced democracy can ensure moderation, tolerance and reconciliation.»
Erdogan, whose conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) is rooted in political Islam, is already a hero of the Arab street following frequent outburst against Israel.
His support for Egyptian protesters would certainly raise his popularity among Arabs in what he would likely welcome as a boost to Ankara’s drive over the past several years for a greater influence in the Middle East.
«The Arab world has failed to produce any ‘Muslim democrat’ party or its own AKP. Thanks to the AKP, the Arab masses today embrace the Turkish model again,» columnist Hadi Uluengin wrote in the mass-selling Hurriyet daily.
Founded as a secular republic in 1923, Turkey became a multi-party democracy in 1946. Even though its record has been marred by military coups and human rights abuses, it has stuck to elections and carried out reforms paving the way for accession talks with the European Union.
Commenting on Egypt’s turmoil Wednesday, President Abdullah Gul refused to propose Turkey as a model to the Arabs but stressed he was «proud» of his country’s achievements.
«We are aware of our shortcomings and we have been carrying out reforms on our own initiative… Eventually, the Turkish economy has become stronger too,» Gul said.
«If our brothers in the region are monitoring this, we will be happy… But to present one’s self as a model would be too ambitious,» he added.
Last month, the head of Tunisia’s main Islamist party, Rached Ghannouchi, argued his movement was democratic and compared it to the AKP as he sought to dispel concerns over his intentions amid the downfall of strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Observers however cautioned that Erdogan’s advocacy of democratic reform in the region would lack credibility if he failed to convince his own people of his commitment to pluralism.
«If he manages to rid himself of the intolerance he radiates, he may even become a ‘Mandela’ in an Islamic world long deprived of democracy and human rights,» foreign policy commentator Semih Idiz wrote in the Milliyet daily.
Erdogan has come under mounting fire at home for growing authoritarian amid regular attacks on the media, simmering rows with the judiciary and heavy-handed police clampdowns on street protests.
Many secularists continue to suspect him of having a covert Islamist agenda, pointing most recently at regulations curbing alcohol sales.
Under the AKP, ties with the Arab world have seen a spectacular revival, leading some to suggest that Turkey is pursuing a policy of «Neo-Ottomanism» in a region its Ottoman forebears ruled for centuries.
Ankara has mediated in spats between Arab nations and signed a series of trade pacts and visa-free travel deals with regional countries.
But its drive for regional «soft power» took a major blow in May when ties with one-time ally Israel plunged into a deep crisis when Israeli forces killed nine Turks on a Gaza-bound aid ship.
Turkey’s refusal to back fresh UN sanctions against Iran in June stoked concern the AKP is taking NATO’s sole Muslim-majority member away from the West. The government strongly denies any policy shift.