CAIRO // Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, placed his country at the forefront of change in the Arab world yesterday, telling regional foreign ministers gathered in the heart of its most populous nation that it was their "obligation" to support the Palestinian statehood bid at the United Nations this month.
In his first stop of what has been dubbed an "Arab Spring tour" Mr Erdogan emphatically donned the mantle of arbiter of regional transformation, making clear the necessity of forging broad-based governments in response to the upheavals.
He told a local newspaper in an interview published yesterday that Syria could plunge into "civil war" unless power in that country was distributed more evenly between the Sunni Muslim majority and the Alawite minority that now dominates the regime of President Bashar Al Assad.
In his speech to foreign ministers at the Arab League headquarters, Mr Erdogan also laid down a tough line on Israel, saying the government of Benjamin Netanyahu must "pay the price" after refusing to apologise for its raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla last year. That insistence, along with his clarion call for the Palestinian UN statehood bid, was certain to dismay the United States as well as Israel, both longtime Turkish allies.
The make-up of Mr Erdogan's entourage made it clear that the Turkish leader had more than geopolitics in mind on his first visit to the Egyptian capital since the stunning popular uprising nearly seven months ago that overthrew Hosni Mubarak, the country's long-running autocrat. His entourage included 280 Turkish businessmen.
"The legitimate demands of the people cannot be repressed with force and in blood," Mr Erdogan said in his televised speech. "More freedom, democracy and human rights must be our joint slogan."
Mr Erdogan's visit is designed to strengthen Turkey's claim to become a regional leader, analysts say. Turkey, a Muslim nation and western-style democracy with a booming economy, is seen as a role model for Middle Eastern countries after the overthrow of several dictatorships there.
Underlining Turkey's claim to play a leading role in regional matters, Mr Erdogan said it was "unthinkable for us to be indifferent to events in the Middle East".
After his talks in Cairo, the Turkish prime minister is scheduled to travel to Tunisia today and to Libya tomorrow, on the first visit to the three countries by a foreign leader since they shook off repressive regimes in recent months.
Mr Erdogan is popular around the Middle East, not least because of his tough stance towards Israel. Two weeks ago, his government expelled the Israeli ambassador because of Israel's refusal to apologise for the death of nine Turkish activists during the aid flotilla raid last year. Last week, Mr Erdogan said Turkish warships would protect future aid missions to Gaza.
In his speech yesterday, Mr Erdogan said Turkey and Egypt, which recently lost five members of the security forces in an Israeli operation, were in similar situations regarding Israel.
"For us, our nine citizens who became martyrs have the same value as the five Egyptian brothers who became martyrs recently," he said. Like in previous statements about Israel, Mr Erdogan was careful to distinguish between the Israeli government and the people of Israel. "The aggressiveness of the Israeli government's policy is a threat for the future of the Israeli people," he said.
On his arrival in Cairo late on Monday, Mr Erdogan was welcomed by several thousand people at the airport of the Egyptian capital, Turkish media reported.
An adviser to Mr Erdogan called the visit "historic and strategic".
"All the revolutionaries welcome the Turkish government and the Turkish governing party," Omer Celik, a deputy chairman of Mr Erdogan's Justice and Development Party, or AKP, said in a Twitter message from Cairo.
The Palestinian question loomed large on the first day of Mr Erdogan's trip yesterday. Turkey says it supports the Palestinian request for UN membership planned for next week despite Israeli and US opposition.
"Recognising the Palestinian state is not an option, it is an obligation," Mr Erdogan said in his speech.
At the meeting in Cairo, attended by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, Arab foreign ministers agreed to marshal support for the bid for Palestinian statehood. Mr Abbas, who backed out of US-sponsored negotiations with Israel because of its settlement construction in occupied Palestinian lands, is expected to make the request when the UN General Assembly opens on September 20.
Mr Erdogan promised that Turkey "would not keep silent" towards "those who threaten the Palestinian peace process, or in establishing peace in the region".
Arab League chief Nabil Al Arabi said in a press conference after the meeting that "consultations and communications will continue in order to reach the goal" of Palestinian UN membership.
One important dimension to Mr Erdogan's is Turkey's determination to expand its economic reach in the region. Trade with the Middle East and North Africa has surged six-fold since Mr Erdogan's AKP came to power in late 2002, reaching $30 billion (Dh110.18bn) last year, or 27 per cent of all overseas sales by Turkey.
Following a meeting with Egypt's Cabinet of Ministers, Mr Erdogan announced plans to boost Egypt's energy, tourism and banking sectors with $5bn in Turkish investment, as well as the creation of a new business council.
"The economic interest is what counts," said Sahin Alpay, a political scientist at Istanbul's Bahcesehir University.
Mr Erdogan's government has been cautious in its reaction to the changes brought by the Arab Spring. Ankara initially criticised Nato's bombing campaign in support of the Libyan opposition and for months tried to convince the regime of Syrian leader Bashar Al Assad to implement reforms. Only recently, Turkey turned away from Mr Assad. In comments published yesterday by Al Shourouk, an Egyptian newspaper, Mr Erdogan said: "I fear that matters will end with a civil war breaking out between the Alawites and the Sunnis."
Thomas Seibert reported from Istanbul