Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will on Monday begin an “Arab Spring” tour to Egypt, Tunisia and Libya in a bid to forge stronger ties as relations with Israel are sinking to new lows over a flotilla row.
The visit to Egypt comes amid a state of high alert declared on Saturday in Cairo after protesters stormed the building housing Israel’s embassy and clashed with police, prompting a mass evacuation of the ambassador and other staff, a Turkish diplomat said.
Erdogan, a popular leader on the Arab street due to his strong challenge to the Jewish state, will seek closer economic and military ties with the new rulers of Egypt as Turkey is positioning itself as a regional player.
A strong sympathizer of the Palestinian cause, Erdogan in the past embarrassed Egypt with his outspoken condemnation of Israel’s treatment toward Palestinians, in contrast to the restraint of now ousted president Hosni Mubarak’s regime.
In Cairo, Erdogan will meet with his Egyptian counterpart Essam Sharaf as well as Marshal Tantawi, head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
He will also deliver a speech at the council meeting of the Arab League foreign ministers, according to his official programme.
Besides his official talks, Erdogan will meet Egypt’s young leaders who spearheaded the country’s popular revolt that ousted the 82-year-old strongman.
In February, those young activists who gathered in Cairo’s central Tahrir square listened live to Erdogan’s calls for Mubarak to step down, as carried by Al-Jazeera television.
Erdogan’s visit to Egypt comes at a time its relations with Israel have reached a new low after last-ditch efforts to reconcile between the once-regional allies over last year’s deadly flotilla raid on a Gaza-bound Turkish ship failed.
In retaliation for Israel’s refusal to apologise for the killing of nine people in the raid, Turkey’s Islamist-rooted government announced a set of measures including expelling the Israeli ambassador and suspending all bilateral military agreements.
Erdogan went even further by saying that Turkish ships would appear more frequently in the eastern Mediterranean.
On Thursday, Erdogan expressed his government’s will to allow more ships to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza, saying that Turkish warships would escort the country’s aid vessels, a move sparking fears of a confrontation with Israel.
He also threatened to visit the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, entering via neighbouring Egypt, but Turkish officials ruled out such a trip for the time being, saying that Ankara did not want to become a problem for the new Egyptian administration.
Observers say the Turkish measures against Israel could boost the country’s popularity in the Arab world as Ankara is also a fervent supporter of the Palestinians’ drive for statehood at the United Nations later this month.
In a sign of solidarity, Erdogan will continue his tour with a trip to another Arab Spring country, Tunisia, before travelling to Libya the next day.
In Libya, he will confer with Mustafa Abdul Jalil, head of the now-ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) based in the eastern city of Benghazi.
Turkey, the only mainly Muslim member of NATO, gradually took a hard line against the old Libyan regime, after at first criticising Western air strikes against the forces of Moamer Kadhafi.
In July, Turkey recognised the NTC as Libya’s legitimate government.