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Turkish prime minister arrives for visit to Egypt as role widens

From Ivan Watson and Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, CNN
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Turkey asserts itself
  • NEW: A cheering crowd chants "Egypt and Turkey are one hand"
  • A poster proclaims: "Welcome Erdogan the hero in his second country Egypt"
  • The visit comes as Turkey takes a broader role in the region
  • Israeli ambassadors have left Cairo and Ankara

Cairo (CNN) -- Turkey's prime minister arrived in Egypt Monday for an official visit, as twin diplomatic crises are shaking the foundations of several critical Middle Eastern alliances.

An all-male, cheering crowd of more than a thousand gathered at the Cairo airport to greet Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on his first visit to Egypt since the revolution that ousted President Hosni Mubarak.

Posters -- many with Erdogan's face on them -- proclaimed sentiments such as, "Welcome Erdogan the hero in his second country Egypt."

As those in the crowd awaited Erdogan, one chant was "Egypt and Turkey are one hand."

A statement from the office of Egyptian Prime Minister Esam Sharaf said Sharaf received his Turkish counterpart at the airport with a delegation of six ministers and 200 businessmen.

Erdogan and Sharaf stepped before the crowd together, clasping hands and flanked by Ergogan's foreign minister and a contingent of bodyguards in suits and ties.

Egypt, Israel, Turkey: Tensions high
  • Turkey
  • Egypt

Erdogan made a brief attempt to address the crowd through a speaker system but the speakers were not loud enough and his words were largely drowned out by chanting. He was heard saying in Arabic, "Peace be unto you, youth of Egypt."

Signs in the crowd identified some of those gathered as members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was long persecuted by the ousted Mubarak.

One banner said, "Muslim Brotherhood welcomes Erdogan."

"We consider him as the Islamic leader in the Middle East" said a young man named Mohamed Fahe, who identified himself as a Muslim Brotherhood member. "And we appreciate what he did for Gaza."

Erdogan arrived here as part of a three-nation tour that will include Tunisia and Libya, as Turkey expands its diplomatic efforts.

Israeli ambassadors have been forced to abandon their posts in both Turkey and Egypt over the past week, albeit for sharply different reasons.

On Friday, Israel's ambassador to Egypt fled the country along with other Israeli diplomats, after an angry crowd broke down a protective wall around the Israeli Embassy in Cairo and stormed the bottom floor of the diplomatic mission.

Egypt's ruling military council denounced the riot and announced the re-activation a controversial series of emergency laws to restore order. It also vowed to honor the peace treaty it signed with its Israeli neighbor in the historic 1979 Camp David accords.

Meanwhile, Turkey, which was once Israel's closest friend in the Muslim world, ejected Israel's ambassador and other top diplomats earlier this month and suspended all bilateral military agreements.

Ankara is furious that Israel has not apologized for the May 2010 killing of eight Turkish citizens and a Turkish-American humanitarian worker aboard an aid convoy headed to Gaza. Israeli commandos raided the vessel to prevent it from breaking Israel's sea blockade of the Palestinian territory.

Analysts say Turkey's diplomatic offensive against Israel struck a chord in Egyptian society.

Last month, Israeli troops opened fire on Egyptian border guards after unknown attackers carried out a deadly attack that killed eight Israelis on the Israeli side of the frontier.

A sixth Egyptian soldier died of wounds received during that incident last weekend. Israel has expressed regret and launched an investigation into the attack. But the Jewish state has not offered a formal apology or any compensation to the families of the victims.

"Definitely the Egyptians started to make a comparison between what Turkey did and what the Egyptian government did. And at the end of the day they want action," said Sameh Seif Elyazal, a retired Egyptian army general and Cairo-based political analyst. "No action at all has been put in place by the Egyptian government."

During Friday night's clashes in Cairo, some protesters at the Israeli Embassy were seen carrying posters of Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister.

"I really like him because he is a firm man who kicked out the Israeli ambassador. We will welcome him here," said a driver named Naguib Ali one day after the riots. He was walking through the neighborhood of Giza, where Egyptian troops are now protecting the empty Israeli Embassy.

"He [Erdogan] has this big image in the region, which is new to Turkey," said Hugh Pope, an Istanbul-based analyst with the International Crisis Group. "Because of the success and legitimacy of the Erdogan government and his ability to merge both the Muslim side of Turkey's identity with secular, successful and commercially powerful government, it has made Turkey much more attractive."

Ottoman Turkey ruled much of the Arab world for centuries, until the empire collapsed after World War I.

The subsequent, staunchly secular Turkish republic long kept itself at a distance from its Arab neighbors, orienting itself instead towards Western countries and the NATO military alliance.

That changed when Erdogan's Justice and Development Party swept to power after winning elections in 2002.

Erdogan's government embarked on a "zero problems" foreign policy that sought to mend relations with eastern neighbors, while also opening markets to Turkish goods and services.

But since the Turkish prime minister won another resounding victory in last June's parliamentary elections, analysts say that spirit of cooperation has faded.

"There is no more 'zero problems,'" said Pope, of the International Crisis Group. "Turkey has generally assumed a more muscular approach, a more confrontational approach and the most obvious example of this is Israel."

Erdogan has repeatedly said he hopes to visit Gaza during his visit to Egypt, which many would interpret as a slap in the face of the Israeli government.

Egyptian authorities clearly want to avoid this scenario, say analysts in Cairo, because it would exacerbate existing tensions with Israel.

"Going to Gaza will embarrass Egypt a lot," explained retired army general Elyazal. "Because if he goes to Gaza he would have to pass through the Egyptian border."

Unlike Erdogan, who governs Turkey with a strong domestic mandate and a booming economy, the interim government in Egypt is struggling to cope with a deep economic crisis and growing anger on the streets.

Egyptian revolutionaries frustrated with the slow pace of reform since the overthrow of longtime strongman and Israeli ally Mubarak, have ramped up criticism of Egypt's ruling military.

Its not clear how comfortable Egypt's military commanders will be with Erdogan.

The Turkish politician has fought and won a long-running political war with his country's own military commanders. In the last three years, Turkish police have arrested more than 100 Turkish generals and admirals accused of plotting to overthrow his government.

"The purpose of the visit is to show our support to the Egyptian people in their struggle to establish a democratic socio-political order based on justice, freedom, transparency and rule of law," wrote Ibrahim Kalin, Erdogan's foreign policy adviser, in an e-mail to CNN. "The same values which Turkey has been implementing in its domestic and foreign policy."

One Egyptian political movement that appears ready to welcome the Turks with open arms is the Muslim Brotherhood.

"It is good for him to come here, as he is one of the most eminent leaders in the region," said Dr. Essam Elerian, a spokesman and top official in the Brotherhood. "There is vacuum now in the region. And Turkey is playing an important role."

Journalist Mohamed Fadel Fahmy contributed to this report