Turkey's failed coup: In Arab world, the rulers and the ruled react differently

Some citizens are naming their babies after Erdoğan. But governments, seeing a rival for regional leadership, have been more muted.

Mohammed Zaatari/AP
Supporters of Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, making a four-fingered gesture referring to the 2013 killing of Muslim Brotherhood protesters at the Rabaah Al-Adawiya Mosque in Egypt, denounce the failed coup in front of the Turkish hospital in the southern Lebanese port city of Sidon, on Saturday, July 16, 2016.

Peoples across the Middle East have been celebrating President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s put-down of a military coup as a victory for democracy, even as their governments have had a much more lukewarm response to the Turkish strongman’s continued hold on power.

News of President Erdoğan’s victory was met with celebration in large parts of the Arab world. From late Friday through Saturday afternoon, drivers in Arab capitals kept their ears to the radio, and shopkeeper kept their eyes glued to television screens, witnessing what many believed to be the unthinkable: a democratically-elected Islamist facing down a military coup – and winning.

Erdoğan’s victory was met with such jubilance in some corners that citizens – such as Jordanian Mohammed Dahamsheh – named children born during the coup “Rajeb Tayyep” in honor of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. With multiple cases over the weekend, government sources say, a total of 18 Jordanian children this year carry Mr. Erdoğan’s name.

For many Egyptians, Erdoğan’s victory was akin to witnessing “what could have been,” three years after their own military rose up against Mohammed Morsi, the democratically elected Islamist president. Unlike in Turkey, rival Egyptian political groups – including leftists – sided with the military and backed the coup, leading to the military regime that is now suppressing those very democratic forces.

“The [Muslim] Brotherhood made many mistakes, but we should have found another way to force them out,” Hassan Mohammed, a Cairo shopkeeper, says in a telephone interview.

But Erdoğan’s appeal goes far beyond Islamism and his unique brand of conservative, Islamist politics.

Mideast pivot

Erdoğan’s popularity among many segments in the Arab world dates back several years, as the Turkish leader has often reached out to the Arab world as part of a foreign policy pivot to the Middle East.

Many point to his refusal to allow a US-led coalition to use Turkish territory for its invasion of Iraq, as well as his support for Gaza and his public falling out with Israel as positions that matched those of Arab citizens.

In a 2012 Pew Research Center survey of citizens in Tunisia, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey, and Pakistan, 63 percent of respondents saw Erdoğan’s Turkey as a role model for religion and politics. Nearly two-thirds, 65 percent, had a favorable view of Erdoğan himself, while 70 percent had a favorable view of Turkey – the highest in either category for all countries and leaders.

Although no similar polls have been conducted since then, observers widely believe that Erdoğan’s regional standing took a substantial hit as Ankara-supported Islamists floundered in Egypt, Libya, Iraq, and elsewhere following the Arab Spring.

However, even amid his recent rapprochement with Israel, Erdoğan’s support for Palestinians – combined with his track record of lifting up Turkey’s middle class and revamping the economy – has led to renewed admiration among much of the Arab world, where inequality and corruption are rampant.

“I think [Erdoğan’s popularity] is more about his foreign policy stances – pro-Palestine and anti-Assad, plus his ability to bring Turkey’s economy into a pretty enviable and independent position,” says H.A. Hellyer,  a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Lukewarm response

In contrast to their citizens, Arab governments have had a much more muted response to Erdoğan’s victory, underscoring their often-uneasy relationship with the Turkish president.

“There is a gap between the public attitude towards Turkey and their governments’ official approach,” says Oraib Rantawi, director of the Amman-based Al Quds Center for Political Studies.

“They see Erdoğan as a competitor – he is portraying himself as a leader of the Muslim and Arab world at large, and they are not happy to watch him gain popularity.”

In Syria, meanwhile, the reaction to the events in Turkey has been decidedly different.

Erdoğan once had a close relationship with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, even referring to him a “brother” before the mass killings of Mr. Assad’s own citizens in 2011 pushed Erdoğan to give full backing to the Syrian opposition and rebels.

Initial news of the coup was met with celebration in Assad regime strongholds, where government forces reportedly took to the streets and fired into the air to celebrate what they believed to be the end of Erdoğan.

Judging from appearances, Erdoğan’s survival was met with disappointment by decision-makers in Egypt. The Turkish leader has been a vocal critic of the military regime headed by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi since he ousted Mr. Morsi, a close ally and ideological soulmate of Erdoğan.

Tellingly, Egypt’s state-run Ahram newspaper ran headlines “Turkish Armed Forces Oust Erdoğan” Saturday morning, while other state-run media outlets praised the coup attempt as a “revolution” against Erdoğan’s “terrorist” policies.

The Egyptian government later blocked efforts by the United Nations Security Council to condemn the violence in Turkey, objecting to a line in the statement calling for all sides to “respect the democratically elected government of Turkey.”

Relief in Saudi Arabia

Erdoğan’s victory was also met with a cautious response from the UAE and Jordan, where King Abdullah has reportedly expressed his distrust of the Turkish president and the policy that allowed Salafist and jihadist militias to use Turkey as a corridor to Syria.

A rare sigh of relief over the coup’s failure was heard in Saudi Arabia, which recently has rebuilt its ties with Ankara and become increasingly reliant on Turkey as an ally and Sunni counter-weight in its struggle against perceived Iranian designs across the region.

Saudi King Salman personally called Erdoğan less than 48 hours after the coup to congratulate him on the return of “normality” and “security” in Turkey, according to the Al Arabiya news network, and Saudi Arabia even arrested the Turkish military attaché to Kuwait at a Saudi airport on suspicion of being a coup sympathizer.

Observers say driving the gap between Arab governments and their people over Erdoğan are their aspirations for the future.

“The people are sending a message that Arab regimes should listen to carefully: the people are desperate for a breakthrough in democracy and political reform and are desperate for any success story in the Middle East,” Mr. Rantawi says.

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