David D. KIRKPATRICK The New York Times
CAIRO — Seeking to capitalize on Turkey’s growing stature and influence across the Arab world at a time of regional upheaval, its prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, appeared on Egyptian television late Monday once again calling Israel “the West’s spoiled child.”
Mr. Erdogan’s appearance kicked off a so-called Arab Spring tour, with plans to also visit Libya and Tunisia in addition to Cairo. He is seeking to enhance his regional celebrity and bolster Turkey’s standing as a potential role model for Arab states fitfully inching toward democracy. His visit comes at a moment when the revolutions of the Arab Spring have thrown into question much of the established order that has prevailed in the region for the last 30 years, including the terms of Israel’s uneasy peace with its neighbors, in particular, Egypt.
Once a close ally of Israel, Turkey accelerated its growing stature across the Arab world — and further upended the regional order — when it downgraded diplomatic relations with Israel and expelled its ambassador early this month after Israel refused to issue an apology for a deadly commando raid last year aboard an aid ship trying to break the embargo of the Gaza Strip. But even before the recent flare-up with Israel, Mr. Erdogan was already lionized across the region for his commitment to Islamist politics, pluralistic constitutional democracy and energetic economic development. In Egypt, aspiring Islamist politicians often try to sell themselves as “the Egyptian Erdogan.”
Even before any diplomatic meetings in Cairo, he opened his visit with an appearance Monday night on a popular television talk show, where the host, Mona el-Shazly, introduced him with an Oprah Winfrey-style video biography as “a man who is admired not only by a large sector of Turkey but also by a large sector of Arabs and Muslims.”
“The Turkish state is in its core a state of freedoms and secularism,” Mr. Erdogan said, explaining Turkey’s support for the Arab revolutions. “The world is changing to a system where the will of the people will rule. Why should the Europeans and Americans be the only ones that live with dignity? Aren’t Egyptians and Somalians also entitled to a life of dignity?”
“As a Turk,” he added, “I didn’t want to be watching this situation from afar as if I was watching a football game.”
He also arrived in Cairo just days after a mob’s invasion of the Israeli Embassy brought relations between Egypt and Israel to a level of tension not seen in the three decades since the Camp David accords. And his trip also comes at a moment when leaders of the Palestinian Authority are in Cairo consulting with Arab states and European diplomats in preparation for a bid to seek United Nations recognition as a state.
Mr. Erdogan seemed to present himself as a spokesman for the backlash against Israel unleashed by the revolts across the region.
“Israel is the West’s spoiled child,” he said, “to this day it has never executed a decision by the international community.”
Asked about Turkey’s downgrade of diplomatic relations with Israel, he vowed that his nation would not back down until Israel apologized for its forces killing eight Turkish citizens and an American of Turkish decent aboard an aid flotilla seized in international waters on its way to the blockaded Gaza Strip. “Israel cannot play with our dignity,” he said.
He faulted the United States, as well, for failing to demand a similar apology for the killing of its citizen in the commando raid. “One of the victims was an American from Turkish origin, but America did not protect the right of its citizen after that,” he said.
Mr. Erdogan also sought to sign on to the attempts, in anticipation of a statehood bid, to broker a reconciliation between the secular Palestinian Authority, which controls the West Bank and the Islamist militant faction Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip. Some reports had suggested that Mr. Erdogan planned to visit Gaza on his tour in a symbolic snub to the Israelis and a boost for Hamas. But in the television interview Mr. Erdogan said he preferred to visit together with Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the Palestinian Authority, and his Hamas counterpart, Ismail Haniya.
“I told Abbas to come with me so that we can all go together, Mahmoud Abbas, Erdogan and Ismail Haniya,” Mr. Erdogan said. “You know what he said? He said, yes I will come with you. I have hope and I am waiting for this visit.”
Mr. Abbas is expected to announce soon how the Palestinian Authority will stake its claim at the United Nations, whether seeking partial membership through the General Assembly or full membership through the Security Council. If the Palestinians go to the Security Council, the United States is expected to veto the move, further straining relations with the Arab world.
Mr. Erdogan, for his part, used his television appearance to promote the merits of the Turkish model of Islamist-led democratic capitalism. “Management of people, management of science and management of money,” he said, sticking to slogans rather than details. “If you do those three, you will accomplish your goal.”