ISTANBUL — Some see him as benignly avuncular. Others call him cunningly sly.
But the question that has been roiling observers since Necmettin Erbakan became Turkey's prime minister in July is this: Will the pro-Islamic Mr. Erbakan shift secular Turkey's orientation away from the West and toward such Islamic states as Iran, Syria, and Libya?
The trip that Erbakan planned to begin last night starts to answer that question more clearly. Besides Egypt, his itinerary includes Libya and Nigeria - two states high on the Western blacklist: Libya for sponsoring terrorism, Nigeria for human rights violations.
The question of Erbakan's intentions matters greatly because of Turkey's placement on the world map. It stands at the nexus between East and West - between Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and also between Christian and Islamic realms. And with tensions rising between the Muslim and Christian camps, Turkey is a key prize.
Despite the trip, Erbakan has made many pro-Western moves: Soon after coming to power he dropped his anti-Western rhetoric, allowed US forces to remain stationed in Turkey for the Operation Provide Comfort mission in northern Iraq, and continued to build military ties with pro-Western Israel.
The reasons for going to Libya and Nigeria, Erbakan's spokesmen say, are economic: Libya owes Turkish contractors $365 million, which Erbakan hopes to persuade Libya's Col. Muammar Qaddafi to begin repaying.
And although Turkish-Nigerian trade now totals only $20 million per year, Erbakan has said "There is a great potential there for economic cooperation." Supporters point out that Tansu Ciller, Turkey's former prime minister and current foreign minister, went to Libya two years ago with little outcry from the West.
This time the response has been somewhat strong: "When other countries, especially friends of the United States, like Turkey, consider normalizing or treating on an equal basis countries like Libya, of course we have some concerns," US State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said Monday.
Long-term Islamic aims?
But Erbakan's critics say his flexible approach to the West is tactical and his long-term objective is to align Turkey with the Islamic world. In fact, Erbakan has repeatedly declared in the past that he wants Turkey to take the lead in uniting Islamic countries and making the Islamic world a new political and economic force.
Part of his approach is designed to play well at home. His stance has strong appeal to the swath of pro-Islamic Turks who supporting his party, Refah. And with those pro-Islamic moves, Erbakan hopes to entice even more backers in largely Muslim Turkey.
Erbakan's government is a coalition with Mrs. Ciller's secular True Path party. Observers say Erbakan wants to continue building popular support so that one day he'll be able to rule without secular partners.
A 'multidimensional' plan
But the question is whether Erbakan's trip marks a sea change in Turkey's foreign policy.
Refah members of the government says there is no shift at all. They say foreign policy remains basically the same, although there is a new approach. Erbakan, they say, is adopting a "multidimensional" foreign policy.
Abdullah Gul, a close aide of Erbakan and minister of state, said yesterday that Erbakan's visits and the new overtures to the Islamic world shouldn't be seen as contrary to traditional policy. "We want to maintain good relations both with the West and with the East," he says.
It's unclear if Turkey can engage in such a balancing act without endangering its Western relations. "A tilt toward some of the controversial Islamic countries, such as Iran and Libya, runs the risk of alienating Turkey from the West," says an experienced Western diplomat.
Checks and balances
However, many observers here say that Turkey's foreign policy essentially hasn't changed and cite two reasons:
*Erbakan cannot act alone and carry out his "vision" because he shares power with a pro-Western partner in the coalition government. His room for maneuvering is limited, although he sometimes takes unilateral action in dealing with Muslim countries and organizations.
*The diplomatic and military establishment in Turkey strongly influences foreign policy - as seen on such issues as Turkey's support for the US-backed Operation Provide Comfort in northern Iraq and in Turkey's military accord with Israel.
These factors will constrain Erbakan from orchestrating a totally different foreign policy, these observers say.