In the Islamic world’s leadership void,
Erdoğan candidates as leader of the streets
Cristoforo Spinella 5 January 2018

Young Fevzi is there, blindfolded. He cannot see the few years but far more muscular Israeli soldiers surrounding him and dragging him away by force. Nor can he see Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pointing out his image to the entire world, not only Muslim, symbol of an Intifada that has not yet begun – at least not completely – and perhaps for this very reason demands to be encouraged and supported. About ten days after his arrest in the West Bank, 16-year-old Fevzi al-Junidi is still being held in an Israeli prison and knows little or nothing about his unexpected bitter fame. His terrified, but still combative face has become the icon of protests over Jerusalem and the Turkish president has proved he understands this, as always early on and in any case before many others.

At the summit held by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), hurriedly convened on December 13th in Istanbul to address the emergency and not miss this opportunity, Erdoğan opened the session with a photograph of Fevzi’s face. As a caption, his words were, “Israel, a terrorist state that kills children” – taking him back ten years to that “you know well how to kill” broadcast to world viewers, as he addressed an astonished Shimon Peres seated next to him at the composed meeting of economists in Davos, and who certainly had not expected such an attack on that occasion from the then leader of “moderate Islam” bearing Europe’s seal of approval. This happened one day in January 2009, thereby marking the birth of Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the idol of Palestinian crowds and acclaimed during his Middle Eastern tours following the Freedom Flotilla’s attack on the coasts of Gaza.

After endless domestic issues and the bungles of ‘zero problems with neighbours’ diplomacy – in the meantime turned into ‘only problems with neighbours’ – those days seemed over and dreams of governing the ‘Arab Springs’ transformed into an illusion.

The sultan’s revival is certainly only just beginning. One could say still in an incubator. It is hard to tell whether he will really succeed in renewing himself in the eyes of his Arab “brothers and sisters” who have always rather mistrusted the Turks with their expansionist goals, if for no other reason than the fact that they were already dominated by them for centuries as part of the Ottoman Empire. In the meantime, however, on a mid-December Wednesday almost too warm for Istanbul, in the halls of a luxury hotel a few hundred yards away from the modest house he was born in, Erdoğan was reborn. Or at least returned to his origins.

His wager appears clear; it may be risky but it is certainly well thought out. In the Islamic world’s leadership void, concentrated above all on fratricidal struggles and caught off-guard by Donald Trump’s leap forward – or perhaps having allowed itself to be taken by surprise – the Turk aims to become the leader. He wants to be the reference point for those on the streets, rather than those in institutional buildings. Should he manage to travel it, the third way between the Saudis’ Sunni and pro-American throne and Shia Iran now also dealing with domestic protests, already explored last summer in connection with the Qatar crisis, might take him far. On the streets of Gaza and Ramallah, condemnation of Trump’s initiative by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his elderly father the king, appeared to be belated and weak, probably because they were and with good reason. While at the Istanbul summit, Iranian President Hasssan Rouhani and Jordan’s King Abdallah II provided support (at least symbolically) for Abu Mazen, Riyadh only sent its Minister for Islamic Affairs – effectively a consultant. This was rather like sending a Transport Minister to inaugurate a strategic infrastructure alongside heads of state and government. Of course, Saudi Arabia was not alone in downgrading Erdoğan’s summit, but these days it was its absence that was felt, an absence that the Palestinians have already translated as follows; Jerusalem sacrificed on the altar of a total war against Tehran. Rouhani did not back down, stating in the presence of other Muslim leaders that as far as Jerusalem was concerned, Trump only “dared” make his statement because someone in the Middle East tacitly allowed him to, someone who really wants to reach a compromise with Israel against a common enemy: Iran. It is at this point that, within the chaos of the new Middle East, Erdogan has found his playing field; and he cannot wait to play.

Of course for him this is an unexpected and very welcome gift.  The leader who just a few months ago had become unacceptable for Europe and even less liked by several Middle Eastern chancelleries, has managed to return to the stage in a leading role. Having survived the coup d’état, he learned to deal with defeat when he understood he could not win – Bashar al Assad’s permanence in Syria, for example, offered as a gift to Vladimir Putin – and is now ready to dive back into the place in which he has, after all, always been most at ease, the political arena – a word he actually despises to the extent of having had it removed from official names of stadiums in Turkey.

His pax with Netanyahu, signed only last year, now feels prehistoric. Accusations of interfering in Israel have also returned in these days of protest in Iran. It remains to be seen whether this new about face will work. It is a sensitive issue and, at every turn, he tries to take matters a little further. After the OIC’s recognition of East Jerusalem as Palestine’s capital, now it is Ankara’s embassy turn, although for the moment, as Erdoğan has explained, it cannot be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem because the city is “under Israeli occupation”. His moves are equal and contrary to Trump’s. The American Embassy will not be moved for at least a few months, while for the Turkish one instead “the day is approaching, if Allah is willing.”

Credit: Yasin Akgul / AFP

Translated by Francesca Simmons