Is Erdoğan the new Nasser?
Gamal Abdel Nasser’s remarkable string of successes propelled him to dominate Arab world throughout the 1950s thanks to the power of long-distance audio broadcasting, as well as the spread of affordable transistor radios, says Eugene Rogan in his notable “The Arabs.” His anti-imperial credentials while nationalizing the Suez Canal and defending it against the French, British and Israeli forces in 1956, successfully ending British rule, coupled with his emphasis on Arab solidarity, made him a peerless leader. “Nasserism” became the dominant expression of Arab nationalism which promised the unification of the Arab people.
Since the U.N. Palmer Report was released last Friday, a rougher era of ties between Turkey and Israel has begun. First, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu decreed a “Plan B,” which included diplomatic, military and legal sanctions against Israel.
This week Ankara decided to ratchet up the pressure. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan openly threatened that Turkish gunboats would escort aid vessels (some say work is already in progress) the next time they set sail. Erdoğan also said Turkey had taken steps to stop Israel unilaterally exploiting natural resources from the eastern Mediterranean.
Ankara then leaked a “Plan C” to pro-government media on Thursday. According to this plan, following Turkey’s decision to campaign actively for Palestinian statehood at the United Nations, which the State Department considered a “a matter of concern,” Turkey plans to sign an “Exclusive Economic Zone” agreement with the “newly born” state of Palestine even though the latter’s proposed U.N. initiative is still very much up in the air. Turkey also plans to sign the same type of agreement with Turkish Cyprus for gas and oil exploration as well as to ink strategic and economic agreements with Egypt, which is said to contain similar exclusive economic zone and exploration plans. Considering the U.S. firm Noble Energy plans to start drilling in the eastern Mediterranean next month, things appear to be moving rather quickly.
Erdoğan, on the other hand, is gearing up for an Arab Spring tour, in which he will visit Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, countries who have successfully overthrown their dictators. Erdoğan will be the first head of government to visit Libya since rebels forced Col. Moammar Gadhafi to leave Tripoli, just as Davutoğlu was the first to visit Benghazi following the march of the rebel forces into Tripoli. It is clear that Ankara is trying hard to close the gap between itself and the French-British coalition which gave the earliest support to the Libyan National Transitional Council.
The visit and the messages that will be given during the tour will be watched by Washington and Tel Aviv with deep curiosity. Israel’s undisclosed nuclear arsenal is said to be another part of the Turkish assault strategy on Israel in this trip.
A well-positioned Washington source stated that following the release of the Palmer report, a meeting was held at the U.S. Defense Department in which it was posited that Davutoğlu’s tough rhetoric was meant for domestic consumption and was expected to fade away slowly. However, as the week progressed and alternative plans were announced (in addition to the direct threats from Erdoğan), the mood in Washington started changing. By week’s end, the relative comfort earlier in the week in Washington had disappeared, replaced by a worry that “things might actually spiral out” of control in the eastern Mediterranean.
Nasser’s remarkable run of successes came to an end when the union with Syria unraveled in 1961, the Egyptian army got mired in Yemen’s civil war and he led his nation and its Arab allies into a disastrous war with Israel in 1967. The liberation of Palestine was set back by Israel’s occupation of the remaining Palestinian territories, as well as Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and Syria’s Golan Heights.
Needless to say, Erdoğan is not Nasser, and neither is Turkey Egypt. The Middle East has changed enormously, even in just the last few months. Still, history holds lessons dear for ambitious leaders, particularly when it comes to the Middle East.