When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stepped off the plane at Cairo’s airport late Monday night, he was met by a rapturous crowd that included Muslim Brotherhood members holding a sign that read "Egypt and Turkey together are one hand for the sake of the future.”
The message, part of a finely choreographed visit that at times seemed more like a campaign, followed the Turkish prime minister throughout the city. It appeared on billboards lining 6th of October Bridge, which showed Erdogan in heroic profile with the words “together as one hand for a better future.” It turned up on posters waved by his fans who gathered outside the Arab League, where Erdogan shook hands with those who reached through the iron fence to greet him.
An official at the Turkish Embassy in Cairo, who preferred to remain anonymous, said the diplomatic mission was not responsible for the billboards, suggesting they were probably the work of local NGOs.
Yet the visit certainly seemed a popularized one, rather than limited to the closed rooms of state officials.
His schedule in Cairo was promoted as a visit to improve military and economic ties between the two countries. Although new trade and energy agreements were announced on Tuesday, Erdogan spent much of his time in Cairo making well-publicized appearances at prominent institutions
such as the Arab League, Al-Azhar and the Cairo Opera House.
He turned up on Egyptians' television screens on his first night, in an interview with Mona al-Shazly on the widely viewed Al-Ashera Massa’an (10 pm) show, during which he touted his early support for Egypt's revolution and dedicated the words of a Turkish song to Egypt. “We went through this road together,” went the song's lyrics, he said. “And rain soaked both of us, and in every song I hear I remember you.”
Turkish journalists flew into Cairo to cover the trip and the Turkish Embassy offered reporters in Egypt transportation to the airport to cover his arrival.
The visit won him strong support on the street. Crowds thronged the entrance to the Cairo Opera House where he spoke directly to Egyptians on Tuesday night in a speech which echoed US President Barack Obama's June 2009 appearance at Cairo University. Like Obama before him, Erdogan made broad appeal to improve relations with the Arab world.
Turkey’s popularity in Egypt follows its recent suspension of defense and trade ties with Israel and the expulsion of Israel's ambassador in response to the latter’s refusal to apologize for the killing of nine Turkish activists aboard a Gaza-bound aid ship in 2010. The stance echoed with Egyptians at a time when they have pressured their government to expel the Israeli ambassador to Egypt after six Egyptian borders guards were killed by Israeli fire in Sinai.
Yet the Muslim Brotherhood, who were quick to welcome Erdogan as the leader of an Islamic party, have balked at his bid for regional leadership.
"We welcome Turkey and we welcome Erdogan as a prominent leader but we do not think that he or his country alone should be leading the region or drawing up its future," said Essam al-Erian, a spokesperson for the Brotherhood.
“Many figures in the Islamic movement actively participated in receiving and welcoming the prime minister of Turkey,” said Gamal Sultan, researcher of the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. “But it was these same people that expressed disappointment at the Turkish foreign minister when he talked about secularism as the best political model.”
Erdogan may have upset those who seek a role for Islam in Egypt's new government when he emphasized his support for a secular government that stands at an equal distance from all religions in his interview with Shazly.
According to Sultan, Turkey’s popularity lies in its ability to appeal to some Egyptians for its secular government, others for the strong role of its military, and others for its economic growth.
“Turkey is seen as a Muslim country that is a success story,” he said.
Skepticism prevailed, however, for those who thought Istanbul could have its own hegemonic project. In the aftermath of the second Gulf war, Turkey started realizing its regional importance and engaged in many initiatives directed at various Middle-Eastern countries.
“Egyptians are sensitive to any Turkish attempt to come to the country as new Ottomans,” said Samer Soliman, associate professor of political economy at the American University in Cairo.