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Erdogan's Middle Eastern Victory Lap
STEVEN A. COOK is the Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is most recently the author of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square.See more by this author
As Cairo's citizens drove along the Autostrad this week, they were greeted with four enormous billboards featuring pictures of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. With Turkish and Egyptian flags, the signs bore the message, "With United Hands for the Future." Erdogan's visit marks a bold development in Turkey's leadership in the region. The hero's welcome he received at the airport reinforced the popular perception: Turkey is a positive force, uniquely positioned to guide the Middle East's ongoing transformation.
By many measures, Erdogan's Turkey appears to have much to offer Egypt (and Tunisia and Libya, which he visited later in the week). His Justice and Development Party (AKP) is deeply attractive to both Islamist and liberal Arabs. For Islamists, it provides a lesson on how to overcome barriers to political participation and remake a once-hostile public arena. For liberals, it demonstrates that even a party of religion can embrace and advance liberal principles. The AKP thus resolves one of the Muslim world's central political problems: Citizens are too often forced to choose between the authoritarianism of prevailing regimes and the potential theocracy of Islamists that might replace them.
Egyptian, Tunisian, or Libyan versions of the AKP could give citizens a way to overcome the second half of this dilemma. To be sure, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood was initially wary of the AKP, regarding it as too liberal and nationalist. But it warmed up to the party after Erdogan called on former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to leave office -- and did so much earlier than most other leaders. Now, some of the Brotherhood's offshoots -- for example the Egyptian Current Party, which is made up of activists in their twenties and thirties -- have explicitly stated that they want to emulate AKP. And Abdel Monem Aboul Futouh, the former Brotherhood stalwart and presidential candidate, has called himself the "Egyptian Erdogan."
Beyond the deeply appealing worldview of its ruling party, Turkey could assist the new Middle East on a more practical level. Washington is broke, distracted with the coming presidential campaign, and overloaded with crises and potential crises. Europe is as burdened with debt as the United States and has been unable to shape events in the region since Paris and London abandoned their colonies and protectorates there in the 1960s and early 1970s.