The rise of Recep Erdogan, from street snack seller to Middle East Muslim champion
ISTANBUL // When the young Recep Tayyip Erdogan sold snacks on the streets of Kasimpasa, a tough neighbourhood in Istanbul, as a child to support his lower middle-class family no one would have guessed that this boy would grow up to become one of the most powerful prime ministers in Turkey's history and one of the most influential leaders in the Middle East.
Mr Erdogan, who is 57 today, fought his way to the top against many odds, spending time in prison and in the political wilderness, and surviving what prosecutors in trials said were plots by the military. However, he has always bounced back, thanks to an extraordinary mixture of political talent, self-confidence, Muslim piety and realism.
When the Turkish prime minister arrived in Egypt late on Monday, the first stop of a tour through three countries of the Arab Spring, he was greeted by an enthusiastic crowd, shouting slogans that called Mr Erdogan the "saviour of Islam".
At home, Mr Erdogan's religiosity has not been universally welcomed. Secularists in the military, the judiciary and the opposition have accused him of having a secret agenda aimed at turning the western-style republic into a Muslim theocracy. It is a charge that Mr Erdogan has been fighting against for most of his political career, which took off when he became the mayor of Istanbul in 1994. Four years later, he lost his post as mayor and was sent to prison for a speech that was seen by the judiciary as an incitement to religious hatred.
But Mr Erdogan has always balanced his religious roots with a healthy dose of hard-nosed realism. When he set up his Justice and Development Party, or AKP, in 2001, he turned always from Turkey's more radical religious circles in favour of a centrist approach that echoed Christian Democratic parties in Europe. That strategic move enabled the AKP to attract moderate voters in droves, resulting in the party's first election victory in 2002. It has won two other general elections since then.
In his foreign policy, Mr Erdogan has steered Turkey towards its long-time goal of becoming a member of the European Union, but his enthusiasm cooled markedly as he was confronted with an increasing unwillingness by EU countries to take Turkey in. Meanwhile, Turkey boosted its role in the Middle East. Mr Erdogan's personal popularity in the region soared when, in late 2008, he strongly condemned Israel for its military intervention in Gaza.
Today, Mr Erdogan regards Turkey, a western-style democracy with a Muslim population and a booming economy, as a natural regional leader. Caught off guard by the Arab Spring, his government has changed course in recent months, from cooperation with repressive regimes such as the one in Syria to support for popular uprisings in the region.
"We will become much more active in regional and global affairs," Mr Erdogan told supporters after the latest election victory of the AKP, which raked in almost 50 per cent of the vote on June 12.
Mr Erdogan's decision to visit Egypt, Tunisia and Libya was designed to cement Turkey's political role and to boost Turkish economic interests in the region at the same time. Almost 300 Turkish businessmen accompanied him on the visit to Cairo.
Published: September 14, 2011 04:00 AM