New face of power in the Middle East

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's handling of the Gaza crisis has brought him into the spotlight – and his country into the centre of regional politics. Patrick Cockburn reports

Ever since Israeli commandos stormed a ship carrying aid to Gaza killing nine activists, the face of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan – the man who led denunciations of the raid – has been prominent on front pages and television screens across the Middle East.

The bloody fiasco has led to a crucial change in the balance of power in the Middle East, greater than anything seen in the region since the collapse of the Soviet Union deprived the Arabs of their most powerful ally.

While Muslim states were always going to praise any leader who confronted Israel, Mr Erdogan's personal role is one that will have lasting significance across the region. With his leadership, Turkey is once more becoming a powerful player in the Middle East to a degree that has not happened since the break-up of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War.

Turkey was the driving force behind attempts to denounce the raid at a regional summit that ended yesterday in Istanbul. It received the backing of 21 of the members of an Asian summit but the crucial 22nd member, Israel, blocked any mention of the raid in an end of summit declaration.

Israeli commentators are hopeful that Turkish belligerence is a passing phase and there will be no permanent damage to their country's relations with Turkey. Yet Mr Erdogan has received strong backing for his strong stance following the deaths of his countrymen on board the Mavi Marmara ship.

At a rally in Beirut, thousands of Lebanese waved Turkish flags and nine coffins draped in the red banner were displayed to honour the Turkish flotilla dead. "Oh Allah, the merciful, preserve Erdogan for us," protesters chanted, using language often reserved for Hizbollah's popular leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, who has praised Mr Erdogan's stance.

With a population of 72 million and the second largest armed forces in Nato after the US, it is surprising Turkey had not been a major role in the Middle East before now.

In a televised address on the Israeli raid, Mr Erdogan said "this daring, irresponsible, reckless, unlawful, and inhumane attack by the Israeli government must absolutely be punished. Turkey's hostility is as powerful as its friendship is precious."

Such threats from other Middle East leaders could be ignored because their regimes are too shaky and unpopular for them to do much more than cling to power. But Turkey is different because politically, diplomatically and militarily it has been rapidly growing in strength.

In relations with Iraq, Iran, Syria and its other neighbours it is playing a central role for the first time since Kemal Ataturk, the first President of modern Turkey. In Iraq, for instance, the US depends on Turkey to increase its influence and counterbalance Iran as 92,000 US troops withdraw over the next 18 months.

It is not clear how far Mr Erdogan will go this time to assert Turkey's leadership in the Middle East and take advantage of Israel's fiasco. His track record is as a man who is quick to take advantage of others' mistakes. But he likes to pick his moment and is careful not to overplay his hand. He has done this with great skill in domestic politics in his confrontations with the Turkish army leadership who used to determine Turkey's foreign policy.

Mr Erdogan, the son of a coastguard official, was born in Rize on the Black Sea in 1954. He moved with his family to Istanbul when he was 13. He reputedly sold lemonade and sesame buns in working-class districts of the capital while attending religious schools. Tall and strongly built, he became a professional footballer while obtaining a degree in management at Marmara University. He acquired a reputation for piety, saying his prayers before each football match. But from an early stage he was involved in politics. He had met Necmettin Erbakan, the leader of the Islamic Welfare party, when he was at university and became leader of the party's youth wing in Istanbul.

His rapid rise was interrupted by military coups of which there have been four in Turkey since 1960. After the coup of 1980 he lost his job in the capital's transport authority when he was ordered to shave off his moustache – seen as a sign of excessive Islamic fervour – and refused.

An able orator and political organiser, he rose through the party ranks and became mayor of Istanbul at the age of 40, running the city between 1994 and 1998. He was regarded as an honest and efficient administrator.

The army forced Islamic Welfare out of power and Mr Erdogan served four months in prison for reciting an Islamic poem which contained the allegedly inflammatory lines: "The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers."

Mr Erdogan decided along with other young Islamist political leaders that the army and the Turkish establishment would never let them take power unless they showed themselves pro-Western and pro-capitalist. They formed the Justice and Development Party, the AK, in 2001 which won the general election the following year.

Supporters for the new party were newly rich but pious businessmen in Anatolia as well as the peasantry and the poor of the cities. In power, Mr Erdogan was able to justify reduction in the power of the military as a reform made necessary by Turkey's application for EU membership. He was aided by a sustained economic boom during which foreign capital, encouraged by its EU application, poured into Turkey and the economy grew at an average rate of 7 per cent up to 2007. Careful to avoid making enemies unnecessarily, Mr Erdogan placated the US after the Turkish parliament refused to allow US troops to invade northern Iraq from Turkey in 2003.

Generally, Mr Erdogan has come off the winner in a series of skirmishes with "secularists" over issues such as women wearing headscarves. He patiently waited for the army leadership to make a mistake, which they did in 2007 when they tried to prevent the Foreign Minister, Abdullah Gul, becoming president. A General Staff website threatened military action if parliament voted for Mr Gul and Mr Erdogan called a snap general election in which the AK won an overwhelming 47 per cent of the vote.

Since 2007 Mr Erdogan's government has gone far in bringing the military under civilian control. There has been a prolonged investigation into an alleged plot by junior officers to launch a coup, some 49 officers being arrested earlier this year. The present crisis in relations with Israel may further weaken the authority of older and more senior officers, seen as the protagonists of strong links to Israel and the US.

The Israeli wars in Lebanon in 2006 and 2008 made Israel unpopular in Turkey. Mr Erdogan walked out of a session at Davos because he was not given enough time to respond to Israeli President Shimon Peres' justification for bombing Gaza. Back in Turkey his walk out was vastly popular. His strength then, as now, is that the majority of Turks agree with him.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Parts Advisor

£16500 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the leading Mercedes-Ben...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer

£27500 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Telemarketers / Sales - Home Based - OTE £23,500

£19500 - £23500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Experienced B2B Telemarketer wa...

Recruitment Genius: Showroom Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This global company are looking for two Showro...

Day In a Page

Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor