Saturday, 17 September 2011


Erdogan’s brand benefits Arabs and the west

As Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, continues his triumphal tour of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, the countries that have successfully overthrown tyrannies in the unfolding Arab awakening, he can justly lay claim to be the most popular politician in the Arab world.

There are those who argue he is the non-Arab leader Arabs have most admired since Saladin – a Kurd from Mesopotamia – recaptured Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1187.

In western capitals, Mr Erdogan is decried for his strident Israel-bashing, which is seen as cynical populism, a naked play for the Arab gallery. Yet the Turkish leader’s popularity is an invaluable asset – to the Arabs and to the west.

What the Turkish leader is selling is the successful political brand of his neo-Islamist Justice and Development party (AKP).

So far, he is wiping the floor with a noxious competitor, the aggressive and sectarian Islamism of the mullahs in Iran. The outcome of this regional contest between Turkey and Iran will help determine the future of the Middle East, as the Arabs fight free of the stifling cocoon of often western-backed despotism and strive to create a new democratic order.

Can anyone doubt for one instant that the Turkish prospectus – a vibrant democracy and a dynamic economy led by Islam’s equivalent to Christian Democrats – is a better bet than the breast-beating bigotry of the theocrats in Tehran? Few Arabs do.

According to this year’s Arab Attitudes, the authoritative annual survey carried out by Zogby International for the Arab American Institute Foundation, Mr Erdogan’s ratings are so high he could be forgiven for believing (as his enemies whisper) he could recreate a neo-Ottoman sultanate. Turkey’s policies are a hit from Morocco (80 per cent approval) to Saudi Arabia (98 per cent); Iran’s are not, with 14 and 6 per cent respectively.

Even in Lebanon, stronghold of Hizbollah, Tehran’s Shia Islamist proxy, 93 per cent have a favourable view of Turkey and 87 per cent like Mr Erdogan.

But part of this picture is that President Barack Obama and the US score well below Iran everywhere except Saudi Arabia.

Egypt is the most populous and strategically critical Arab country, the cockpit of the new revolutions where the US still bankrolls the army to the tune of $1.3bn a year. It was in Cairo in 2009 that Mr Obama set out a bold new vision of America’s relations with the Middle East and the Muslim world.

Two years on, and after what looks like US capitulation to Israel on Palestine, 62 per cent of Egyptians agree with the policies of Mr Erdogan, 31 per cent with Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, Iran’s president, but only 3 per cent with Mr Obama. The survey reveals that US prestige in the Arab world has fallen below the nadir plumbed by George W. Bush.

In these circumstances, Turkey, a Nato member and candidate for membership of the European Union, is the best bet for the west too.

Mr Erdogan and his AKP have won three successive elections with a rising share of the vote. During that time Turkey’s economy has tripled in size and per capita income has doubled.

He has brought Turkey’s army, until now the final arbiter of power, to heel. This success looks attractive to many Arab Islamists, and to many liberals too.

Islamism is bound to be a factor in the new Arab dispensation. The previous regimes’ suppression of all dissidence left their opponents nowhere to rally but the mosque. But the Turkish model suggests Islamism can be synthesised into a pluralist order. The Iranian model creates immovable vested interests, violently defended, behind a facade of divine order.

The mullahs initially hailed this year’s wave of upheaval as an Islamic Awakening inspired by Iran’s revolution of 1979. They wish. More recently, as the contest with Turkey sharpens, Iran has even called for reform in Syria, where its ally Bashar al-Assad is trying to crush a menacing civic uprising – and Turkey is becoming the organising hub for the opposition.

Iran’s Shia theocrats used to feel complacent when all they had to compete with was the quasi-theocracy of Sunni Saudi Arabia, built on the twin pillars of Wahhabi sectarianism and absolute monarchy. But the pluralist and modernising Sunni brand of Turkey’s AKP is a threat of a different order – literally – and it is devouring Iran’s market share.

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