ISTANBUL // The pledge by the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, to stand down in September is not enough and he should leave his post immediately, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's prime minister, said yesterday.
"It is very important to get over this period with a temporary administration," the state-run Anatolian news agency quoted the prime minister as saying during a visit to Kyrgyzstan. "People expect Mubarak to take a much different step," Mr Erdogan said.
Turkey's regional role and attraction as a Muslim democracy that can deliver both political freedoms and economic well-being to its people has strengthened amid the unrest in Tunisia and Egypt, observers say.
Mehmet Sahin, a political scientist and Middle East expert at Ankara's Gazi University, said: "Turkey is being seen like a trademark. People do not want to live under a dictatorship, they want to live [in a country] like Turkey."
Led by a religiously conservative government under Mr Erdogan, the prime minister, Turkey has undergone democratic reforms designed to take the country into the European Union while enjoying an economic boom that has almost doubled the average per capita income in the past five years.
The prime minister said he had watched Tuesday's events in Cairo on television late into the night, and it appeared to him that the Egyptian people would be satisfied only when a plan for an early transition of power was announced.
"This is the expectation of people. I think this process should start, and its road map and schedule should be announced," Mr Erdogan said. "I don't think it is possible to satisfy the people without a schedule."
Turkey has seen the rise of a new elite whose members are pious Muslims like Mr Erdogan himself, but who compare their movement to Christian Democratic parties in Europe and reject the label of Islamism.
Those developments, described as the "Turkish model" by the media here, have been attracting the attention of reform movements elsewhere in the region. Even though democracy in Ankara is far from perfect, Semih Idiz, a columnist for the Milliyet newspaper who is often critical of the Erdogan government, said: "Turkey provides some kind of model." One lesson people in Egypt and elsewhere could draw from Turkey's experience was "the importance of some kind of representative democracy", he added in an interview. Also, Mr Erdogan's government had shown "that you can be an Islamist party and operate in a democratic system".
The protests in Tunisia and Egypt demanding more political freedoms, an end to widespread corruption and economic progress has put the spotlight on Turkey, Professor Sahin said. In terms of regional politics, this could be an asset for Turkey.
"There has been a vacuum in the Middle East recently because of a lack of credibility of the regimes themselves and of the United States", the traditional power broker in the region, he said. "Two countries stepped into that vacuum: Turkey and Iran." Because the government in Tehran is seen as a threat by many in the West and the Middle East, especially in the Gulf, Turkey is emerging as a focal point, Professor Sahin said.
Turkey, with a functioning democracy with a western outlook and a Muslim population, may also hope to gain more importance in the eyes of the West because of what is happening in the region. "If you do not want to strengthen Iran, you will have to strengthen Turkey," Professor Sahin said.
Mr Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, an organisation with roots in political Islam that regards itself as a conservative and democratic group, says it has received many requests for guidance from other parties in the Muslim world. Current events in the Middle East could boost that role of the AKP, Ihsan Dagi, a columnist, wrote in the pro-government Zaman newspaper yesterday.
Radical Islamist groups are in crisis because they have not succeeded in bringing down governments in the Middle East, Mr Dagi wrote. Given that the region was seeing a "'post-Islamist' wave" of demands for democratic rights within a Muslim context, the AKP could offer a blueprint for political movements there. "For this wave, the AKP's experience is important."
Some of Mr Erdogan's domestic critics have accused the prime minister of exhibiting dictatorial tendencies. One opposition party has even issued an appeal for a "popular resistance" against the government, in reference to events in Tunisia and Cairo. In a speech on Tuesday to AKP parliamentary deputies, Mr Erdogan rejected the comparison between Turkey's democratic system and a dictatorship. "If there is a problem, the place to solve it is the ballot box," he said. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for June 12. Mr Erdogan's AKP is ahead in the polls, with about 40 per cent of the vote.
Mr Erdogan is sure to campaign on Turkey's growing international role. Last weekend, the Turkish prime minister was among regional leaders consulted by the US president, Barack Obama, about the developments in Egypt. In the telephone conversation, Mr Obama stressed the prime minister's and Turkey's democratic credentials, Mr Erdogan's office said. In an apparent reference to the lack of democracy in many other countries of the region, Mr Obama praised Mr Erdogan as a leader who had won several elections in Turkey, a country "with strong democratic traditions in the region", the statement said.
This is exactly what Turkey wants to hear. Under Mr Erdogan, Turkey has developed a vision of the country as a regional power broker. Despite some setbacks, like the recent breakdown of international talks about the Iranian nuclear programme at a two-day meeting held in Istanbul, the country has acquired a reputation as a regional heavyweight.
But Idiz, the Milliyet columnist, cautioned that the crisis in Egypt had also revealed Turkish weaknesses. It was clear that Ankara, just like the Europeans and Americans, had been surprised by events in Tunisia and Egypt, he said. "That means Turkey may not have read the region as well as the government said it did."