ISTANBUL, Turkey — As hundreds of thousands of protesters rallied in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to give his people the change they have been calling for.
“No government can cast aside the people’s demands for democracy,” Erdogan said on Feb. 2, breaking Ankara’s conspicuous silence on the unrest in Egypt. He later called for an end to Mubarak’s three-decade rule.
"This is the expectation of people. I think this process should start, and its road map and schedule should be announced," Erdogan said the next day.
With anti-government protests transforming the region’s political backbone, the man some call the Middle East’s most popular leader is offering Egypt a way forward — another sign of Turkey’s growing stature, which is partially a result of its success in balancing religion and politics.
It is this model, analysts say, that could provide a compass for Egypt to follow.
An overwhelmingly Muslim country with a democratically elected government, many are pointing to Turkey’s political system as a potential guide for not only Egypt, but for all of the region’s countries that are in the midst of revolts, and which might soon need a new template for their own political structures.
“The people on the streets of Egypt are clamoring, not for an Islamic republic, but for a fair deal and equal opportunities,” said Semih Idiz, a columnist for the Milliyet newspaper. “And Turkey is a key regional model.”
Speaking with the confidence of a popular leader, Erdogan told Egyptians that their political problems could only be solved through democracy. "If there is a problem, the place for solution is the ballot box,” he said.
Erdogan’s speech, one of the most vigorous intercessions made by a leader from this region since the protests began, reflects how much Turkey’s influence in the Arab world has grown since the Islam-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) took power in 2002.
The AKP has since won a second election and, with approval ratings high, are poised to win a third this summer.
Despite his country’s tacit alliance with the United States and other western countries, Erdogan’s Islamic background, tough-guy appeal and fondness for telling off Israel, has swelled his profile across the Arab world.
Ilter Turan, a professor of international relations at Istanbul’s Bilgi University, said Turkey is perfectly situated to help Egypt with a political transition after the dust settles on the streets of Cairo.
“If some international assistance is to be offered to countries in need, I think Turkey’s assistance would be accepted more willingly and with less suspicion than others,” he said, pointing to Erdogan’s popularity.
This wasn’t always the case. Regional governments once viewed Turkey’s secularism with disdain. But with the rise of Erdogan’s Islam-based political party, coupled with its excoriations of Israel, its defense of the Gaza-bound aid flotillas and its antics at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in 2009, regional leaders have begun to respect — or at least listen to — Turkey’s prime minister.
Seizing on his newfound prestige, Erdogan has wasted no time in positioning Turkey as a regional leader who can help see the Middle East through to the other side.
“For ages, the Middle East has been the cradle of civilizations,” Erdogan said in Tuesday’s address. “But during the last century ... it has become associated with wars, conflicts, blood, tears, poverty, corruption, ignorance and violations of human rights.”
As unrest spreads from Tunisia to Egypt to Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere, a new regional order, and a new power structure, is beginning to emerge. And it is Turkey that hopes emerge on top of it all.