Wednesday, February 4, 2009


By Dr Bassem Hassan**

Recep Tayyip Erdogan is undoubtedly the man of the moment. Headline grabber par excellence. I think the man is a very good strategist and knows exactly what he is doing.

Erdogan’s public political behavior is probably motivated by three issues. First he has more "eastern" leaning tendencies than the traditional political establishment in Turkey. Second, he, like most Turks by the way, is frustrated- more like sick and tired- of the constant delays and obstacles that the EU keeps erecting in the face of Turkish accession to the union. One should note here that Erdogan has done more than any other Turkish politician in terms of economic, democratic and human rights reforms in Turkey in order to meet EU standards. Third, Erdogan- in fact like most Turks also, except he has the courage to say it- has this deep gut feeling that he is the heir to an Empire that used to rule half the world and he believes that Turkey's current position as a "bridge between east and west" does not do justice to its size and its history, especially, when one understands this "bridge" from a political (as opposed to cultural) perspective. A bridge, after all, is something you just step on and go through to get somewhere! And that is exactly how the west and more particularly the US see Turkey. From an American perspective Turkey has- like Israel- for a long time been a great stick used to keep the region under control and ensure access to the region's (the near and middle east) natural resources. The loss of Iran from this western alliance after 1978, gave even greater importance to Turkey's role as a US ally.

So, the bottom line is that Erdogan has apparently decided, for a while now probably, that Turkey should wield its power in the region in a way more consistent with its own national interests, and his party’s Islamic ideology. In other words, why be the small (economically and culturally) fish in the big EU pond (especially that that pond keeps getting more and more difficult to jump into) when you can be the big fish in the considerably smaller middle eastern pond, which is your natural habitat to begin with.

This policy began openly in earnest when Turkey in the person of Erdogan, started mediating the peace negotiations between Syria and Israel and- if the man is to be believed- a deal was really close to being struck. And what does Israel do? Launch a cowardly, savage and barbaric attack on Gaza killing more than 1500 people in 3 weeks and injuring over 5000 with 1/3 of the dead and injured under the age of 12! Erdogan saw this as not only a crime against fellow Muslims and a personal insult but also, simultaneously, an opportunity. Notice that his outrage was delayed by about a week, and his government had sent mixed signals calling on Hamas, for example, to lay down its arms. Erdogan knows full well that his verbal onslaught against Israel is a winning strategy both abroad, and more importantly, at home. Israel's savagery has been met with world-wide popular condemnation and- aside from the cowardly Europeans- to quote Karel De Gucht, the Belgian foreign minister- who don't matter anyway, also world-wide official condemnation. Coming out as its most ardent and passionate critic makes him look like a decent, moral and courageous politician from a country whose population has a deep rooted and historical sympathy with the Palestinian cause. Israel today is politically weak and divided, and it certainly cannot afford to displease its largest and strongest regional friend. Erdogan’s verbal assault also positions Turkey- in the eyes of the fabled Arab street- firmly as a fair mediator for Arab-Israeli peace and fills a gaping political void that the Arab regimes actively created and that Iran is actively trying to occupy. On this point, the Sunni-Shiaa issue in the Arab world is important, by the way, but I will not get into it. Of course the new US administration would be happy with that, because Turkey after all is an ally, a member of NATO and a secular quasi-democracy.

Now, on the domestic front, the timing of the Gaza onslaught could not have been better for Erdogan. Mired in corruption allegations by several members of his party, and facing a looming economic crisis, the upcoming municipal elections could not have come at a worst time. Enter Israel's newest foray into war criminality, while Turkey is trying to mediate peace! Suddenly Erdogan has a very crystallized focus for his message of moderate Islamization mixed with Turkish nationalism and- for lack of a better term- imperial pride! If you cannot win elections on factual issues, then by god, win them on emotional ones!! Note, by the way, that the corruption issue is not a distinguishing factor for Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party. Turkey's entire political establishment, starting with the army, is corrupt and the traditional political parties are weak and fragmented. Turkish parties depend on municipalities for political fund raising. A probable calculation by Erdogan is that a landslide win in the municipal elections will ensure the flow of much needed funds to the party and ensures that his people are in the right places throughout the country. By the time the general elections come, the economy would have turned around, Turkey would have become a stronger regional player and Erdogan gets four more years!

Gaza for Erdogan is an issue that he both genuinely believes in and can exploit electorally. For a politician, this is exactly what you call the best of both worlds!

*N.B. Ragab is the Egyptian pronunciation of the Arabic Rajab, and also the title of a song by Lebanese pop super star and sex idol and bombshell Hayfa Wehbe.

P.S. here’s the newest Hayfa joke (I just made it up)
What did Hayfa Wehbe say to Erdogan when Shimon Peres tried to make a pass at her?
She said: “Ragab, 7oush sa7bak 3anni!”

P.P.S. Yes, yes, I confess, I love Hayfa!

**Dr Bassem Hassan is Lebanese and holds a PhD in Molecular Genetics from the University of Ohio,USA He is currently based at the University of Leuven in Belgium where he works as a Professor and Researcher.

1 comment:

Arab Democracy said...

Excellent article Bassem and very revealing on the internal political situation in Turkey.

I liked your comment on the Turks' delayed response.

Erdogan is praised as leader and a hero across the Arab world, when this dramatic 'stand'didnt actually cost him anything. He wins the Arabs without losing the Israelis (No diplomatic or major bilateral consequences) and the West. In this he emulates Kaddafi who is a master at making the headlines with symbolic gestures.

But symbolic will not bring back Palestine