Across Arab world, mixed feelings about Turkey's Erdogan

Protests in Turkey are stirring debate in some Arab countries about the compatibility of Islam and democracy.

Supporters of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan shout slogans as they wait for his return at Istanbul Ataturk airport in Turkey, Thursday.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (l.) is greeted by Tunisian President, Moncef Marzouki, prior to their meeting at the presidential palace in Carthage, north of Tunis, Tunisia, Thursday.

Until recently, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan could count on a universally warm welcome in the countries of the Arab uprisings. These days, as a trip this week to Tunis showed, he can expect a few hecklers.

Erdogan has been praised for supporting campaigns to topple Arab autocrats, while Arab Islamists see his Justice and Development Party (AKP) as a model for how to win elections and grow an economy while injecting democracy with a dose of religion. But clashes between Turkish security forces and protestors over the past week has dented Arab support for the Turkish leader.

"I’m against anyone who tries to place government above the rights of the people,” says Ghaith Chaabani, a recent university graduate who joined a small protest this afternoon against Erdogan's visit.

Some in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya are too preoccupied by local concerns to follow events in Turkey. But for those watching the turmoil abroad, perceptions reflect new ideological fault lines that have emerged at home since the fall of dictatorships.

“There have already been statements from secularists across the region that what we’re seeing in Turkey is the failure of political Islam,” says Geoffrey Howard, a North Africa analyst at Control Risks, a British risk assessment firm. “And Islamists are saying it’s an attempt to discredit Islamist politics."

In December 2010, strongmen ruled from Cairo to Tunis. Then a young Tunisian named Mohamed Bouazizi, bullied to breaking point by authorities, set fire to himself. His act triggered a wave of revolt that brought down regimes here and in Libya and Egypt.

Turkish support

Turkey supported those revolts and is now backing Syrian rebels fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad. A July 2012 survey of six Muslim countries by the Pew Research Center found that Turkey was widely seen to promote democracy, and that 71 percent of Egyptians and 74 percent of Tunisians gave Erdogan favorable marks.

In recent years, Turkey has become a more potent diplomatic and economic player in the Middle East and North Africa and Islamist parties in Tunisia and Egypt have called the AKP a source of inspiration.

But the protests in Turkey that began last Friday have been met with police brutality, the liberal use of tear gas, and a dismissive attitude from Erdogan, who called the protesters “hoodlums.”

Protests have since spiraled into what looks like a broad indictment of Erdogan’s ruling style, with some protestors invoking liberal values and modern Turkey’s secular architect, Kemal Mustafa Ataturk.

In Cairo, too, many see the Turkish protests through the lens of their experience of Islamist government under President Mohamed Morsi from the Muslim Brotherhood.

“The Muslim Brotherhood said we were going to be just like Turkey,” says Amgad Fakhry, who works in power tools shop and supports the Turkish protestors. “It’s a failed project, a dictatorship more than a democracy. And it didn’t achieve prosperity for the people.”

Others differ

Mr. Morsi’s supporters, however, describe Turkish protestors in the same terms they use against Morsi’s critics.

“There is a campaign to smear the Islamists, whether in Egypt or Turkey,” says retiree Mohamed Hussein, reading the news in a downtown café. “We all know that most Turks support Erdogan.”

In Libya, debate over political Islam is muted. Erdogan is respected for backing a NATO bombing campaign that helped bring down Muammar Qaddafi, while the presence of Turkish companies underscores Turkey’s image as an economic up-and-comer.

“[Erdogan] has started making a new life for Turks,” says Khaled Shteti, a Libyan who works as an administrator for a Turkish construction company. “He made agreements with a lot of countries – like Libya – and now Turks are able to do a good business.”

Mr. Shteti doesn’t approve of the police violence against protestors. But he also feels that Erdogan is right to give a nod to Turkey’s Ottoman past and Islamic heritage.

In Tunisia, that kind of thinking is fodder for a continual debate over national identity. The ruling Ennahda party swept October 2011 elections with vows to meld democracy with respect for Islam, while opposition parties have called for a strictly secular state.

While Ennahda has praised Turkey’s example of Islamic democracy and hopes to strengthen economic relations, Erdogan’s visit was a cue for some Tunisians to protest.

Around thirty gathered this afternoon outside the Tunisian Union of Industry, Commerce, and Crafts, where Erdogan was to address Turkish and Tunisian business leaders. There were slogans and placards, and one young man banged a spoon on a metal saucepan.

“Erdogan lives in dreams of Ottoman imperialism,” says Ramzi Bejaoui, an unemployed multimedia studies graduate and supporter of the Popular Front, a left-leaning opposition party that called for protests against Erdogan. “It’s a religious state using violence against secularists.”

Outside a communications and marketing school down the street, three students were watching the knot of protestors with mild interest.

“Erdogan can visit or not visit, it doesn’t matter,” says one, Aymen Abid. “What matters is finding a job. Unemployment is high in Tunisia, especially for graduates.” Beside him, his friend Ahmed Bayoudh says that as far as he can tell, Turks were doing better by comparison. He wasn’t moved by the protest.

“Anyway this is Tunisia,” he said. “There’s always a demonstration somewhere.”

– Kristen Chick contributed to this report from Cairo. 

This story was updated after first posting.

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