After nearly two decades in power, first as prime minister then as president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has towered over modern Turkey. His mystique at home has been eroded by authoritarianism and a decreasing ability to provide his pious and conservative followers with prosperity. In local elections in 2019 he lost the country’s great cities, including Istanbul and Ankara, proving he is politically mortal.
Yet even if Erdogan is losing some of his magic in Turkey, he is by far the most popular leader in most of the Arab world, according to an Arab Barometer poll released last week.
This may seem a paradox. Many have believed no leader of Turkey, heir to the Ottoman Empire that ruled Arab lands for more than four centuries, could possibly enjoy this level of Arab esteem. That might seem doubly so in the case of Erdogan, who regularly indulges in flights of neo-Ottoman fancy — illustrated on occasion by maps detailing Turkey’s claims to swaths of Syria and Iraq — and has occupied four enclaves in northern Syria since 2016.
But Arab Barometer, an established research network in a region with dodgy statistics, consistently reveals top marks for Erdogan, and has just polled more than 20,000 people to confirm it. His main regional rivals, crown prince and de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman and Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, trail way behind him. Some possible reasons for this are positive; others are worrying.
So often disempowered by autocratic rulers, Arab citizens have shown a weakness for populist heroes. The legendary Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, for instance, mesmerised the Arab world with his pan-Arab nationalist mirage, between his seizure of the Suez Canal in 1956 and the Arabs’ ignominious defeat in the 1967 Six Day war with Israel.
Erdogan’s ambitions swelled beyond his borders partly because of the turmoil of the past decade across Arab lands. But partly also because of the dramatic lack of mainstream Sunni Arab leadership, at a time when (Persian) Iran is forging a Shia Arab axis across the Levant to the Mediterranean. His dreams of old Ottoman lands, along with a chain of Arab uprisings that initially propelled Islamist parties forward, seem to have coalesced into his ambition to become the paramount Sunni Muslim leader.
In the autumn of the so-called 2011 Arab spring, Erdogan’s visits to Tunis, Cairo and Tripoli were a triumphal progress. His strident support for the Palestinians for a while made Tayyip a popular boy’s name in Gaza. The 2013 coup against the Ankara-supported Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and a decade of civil war in both Libya and Syria, dimmed Erdogan’s allure but did not eclipse it.
His accelerated surge to one-man rule, sweeping aside Turkey’s parliamentary system to rule like a neo-Sultan while purging government and parties and clamping down on dissidence, are black marks. Yet these are turned shades of grey by the abortive 2016 military coup, which brought his followers into the streets and in which many Turks and Arabs believe the US and Europe were complicit.
Pugnacious rows with the US and the EU, as well as the Turkish president’s enmity with the autocratic rulers of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and the Assad dictatorship in Syria, do little harm to a man who has legitimacy in many Arab eyes as victor of more than a dozen elections.
Arab opinion also appears to admire Erdogan’s growing fondness of hard power, and defiance of not just Israel but the US. Using drones, militias and mercenaries as well as Turkish forces, he turned the tide of the civil war in Libya, helped Azerbaijan reconquer disputed territory from Armenia and is putting down roots in northern Syria in areas from which Ankara is pushing back US-allied Kurdish fighters. Where Turkey sees the rightful assertion of national influence, its Nato allies worry about a neo-Ottoman push for regional hegemony.
Erdogan’s use of soft power encompasses vehicles such as popular soap operas, often with an Ottoman narrative. But other moves — such as turning the Hagia Sofia, the Byzantine basilica converted into an Ottoman mosque then made a museum in 1934, back into a mosque — are pernicious. They sharpen the Sunni, ethnic Turkish and hard Islamic nationalist identity of the Erdoganist regime.
As part of the jostle for Muslim and regional leadership, Erdogan’s Turkey is widely better regarded than the Saudi and Iranian theocratic regimes. The risk is that it joins the stream of poison that has disfigured a Middle East that desperately needs to escape the mire of sectarian proxy and paramilitary conflict.