Why Turkey's Erdogan Is Greeted like a Rock Star in Egypt

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Amr Nabil / AP

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, flanked by Egyptian military men, visits the tomb of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in Cairo on Sept. 13, 2011

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan — a hero on the Arab streets — has a habit of irritating generals, even when he doesn't mean to. This week, though, the men in uniform whose moustaches he is tweaking are not the military guardians of Turkish secularism but Egypt's ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

Erdogan, in Egypt on the first leg of his Arab Spring tour that includes visits in Tunisia and Libya, was received like a rock star by thousands of adoring supporters at Cairo's airport when he flew in late on Monday. His three-day trip comes at a particularly inopportune time for Cairo's new bosses, who are increasingly seen — by tens of thousands of young revolutionaries who led February's revolution — as a throwback to their old boss.

The SCAF's iron fist following Friday's ransacking of the Israeli embassy and riot in Cairo, which left three people dead and more than 1,000 injured in clashes with security forces, has amplified anger at the generals. The council swiftly reinstated the authoritarian emergency law, a despised hallmark of Mubarak's decades-long rule, and broadened it to cover activities such as blocking roads, publishing false information and weapons possession.

Questions still swirl about the embassy incident, with some commentators in the local media speculating that the protesters had been set up by the SCAF, given that the diplomatic mission was lightly guarded by men who just stood by, watching protesters tear down a wall around the structure, and only intervened hours later. The demonstrators had been protesting Israel's killing of six Egyptian border guards last month in a cross-border incursion following an attack in Israeli territory by militants believed to have crossed from the Egyptian side. The violation of Egyptian sovereignty had infuriated many but elicited a tepid response from the SCAF. Cairo had reportedly said it would expel Israel's ambassador but had failed to do so.

Enter the tough-talking Erdogan, who recently tossed out Israel's ambassador to Turkey, suspended bilateral military ties and promised a Turkish military escort for vessels defying Israel's Gaza blockade in the future. As far as Egypt's public was concerned, Erdogan had shown the SCAF (and everybody else) how it was done when it came to responding to Israeli actions, cementing his stature as the Arab world's new pasha.

Although the Arab Spring is not directly about Israel, those who have risen to claim their dignity in the face of tyrannical regimes are not prepared to passively accept Israel's actions against the Palestinians in the way that Mubarak and other Arab autocrats had done. That leaves Egypt's generals wobbling on a tightrope: on one hand, they must appease public anger at their perceived weak response to Israel and their people's pro-Palestinian views; on the other hand, they must maintain Egypt's international-treaty obligations, first and foremost the 1979 Camp David agreement with Israel, and keep the flow of hundreds of millions of dollars that the U.S. sends in direct aid to the Egyptian military every year.

Erdogan's visit has highlighted the vast schism between popular pro-Palestinian public opinion in Egypt and the inclinations of the country's military leaders. The Turkish Prime Minister's thunderous speech to the stale Arab League in Cairo on Tuesday certainly wouldn't help. In a 30-minute address, Erdogan positioned himself as the unrivaled champion of Palestine, telling the region's 21 Foreign Ministers (Syria sent a lower-ranking representative) that a Palestinian state was "not an option but an obligation," urging them to support Palestinians' efforts to seek U.N. recognition of statehood later this month.

"The Palestinian issue is about the dignity of the people," said Erdogan, dressed in a sharp dark suit, a white shirt and a ruby red tie with white spots. He highlighted Turkey's closeness to the Palestinian issue and the Arab people in general. "The cries of a Palestinian child in Gaza hurt the heart of a mother in Ankara," he said. "It's time to raise the Palestinian flag at the United Nations. Let's raise the Palestinian flag and let that flag be the symbol of peace and justice in the Middle East. Let's contribute to securing well-deserved peace and stability in the Middle East," Erdogan said. Israel had isolated itself, he added, by acting "irresponsibly" and "must pay the price" after refusing to apologize for the raid on the Turkish flotilla.

In a further provocation to Israel and perhaps also to Egypt's generals, Erdogan reportedly wants to cross into the besieged Hamas-ruled territory of Gaza from Egypt, but it's unclear if he will go ahead. Regardless, the Turkish leader's message has buttressed his position in the Arab world. However, Erdogan's star may be dimming in some parts of the region, specifically in Syria.

His speech at the Arab League didn't address Syria, although leaks in the Turkish media had suggested that he was going to offer "his final words" to Syrian President Bashar Assad. Perhaps that was what came later, in Erdogan's second address of the day at the Cairo Opera House. This time the speech — which was billed as an address to the Egyptian people — wasn't televised, for reasons that are unclear. "Reforms have not materialized," Erdogan said of Assad's promises of change. "The Syrian people do not believe in Assad, nor do I. We also do not believe him." It was quite a statement from a man who once counted Assad as a personal friend. Although Turkey has taken an increasingly tougher line with Assad, as the Syrian death toll tops 2,600, activists have been looking to Erdogan for more. On Tuesday, he indicated that he is likely to deliver.