“First of all, Turkey embarrassed them because they proved that they could say no to Israel. The Israelis were silly enough to commit such a crime, and they forgot that Turkey is different with its elected government, which needs to respond to society's anger over Israeli acts,” he told Today's Zaman for Monday Talk.
The embarrassment Howeidy is talking about is in regards to the latest Turkish stance against Israel after Israeli commandos assaulted on May 31 the civilian Turkish ship the Mavi Marmara on its way to try to break the Gaza blockade. Israeli live fire killed nine peace activists on the high seas and dozens more were injured.
Once rulers of Arab lands during the Ottoman era, Turks are back in the region, not as rulers this time but through their political influence, security alliances and economic interests.
Since the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) came to power in 2002, Turkish exports to its Muslim neighbors have increased sharply. Turkey’s trade balance with all Middle Eastern countries, apart from Iran and Qatar, is positive.
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said Turkey was determined to boost economic cooperation with the Arab world to the highest possible level, saying, “We want a vehicle to leave from Turkey and reach Morocco without stopping at any border gates.”
‘Most of the Arab governments are not happy with the Turkish role in the Middle East. First of all, Turkey embarrassed them because they proved that they could say no to Israel. The Israelis were silly enough to commit such a crime, and they forgot that Turkey is different with its elected government. It has been three years since Israel imposed an embargo on Gaza, and most of the Arab states, especially Egypt, have been participating in imposing the embargo’
Howeidy, who was in İstanbul for a gathering of Turkish-Arab analysts organized by the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA) last week, answered our questions on the Turkish presence in the Middle East and the Arab response.
Regarding Turkey’s new role in the Middle East, what are the views of the Middle Eastern governments? Are they completely content with it?
Most of the Arab governments are not happy with the Turkish role in the Middle East. First of all, Turkey embarrassed them because they proved that they could say no to Israel. The Israelis were silly enough to commit such a crime, and they forgot that Turkey is different with its elected government, which needs to respond to society’s anger over Israeli acts. It has been three years since Israel imposed an embargo on Gaza, and most of the Arab states, especially Egypt, have been participating in imposing the embargo. Following the attack on the flotilla, there was a story in a newspaper close to the ruling party in Egypt.
What was the headline of that story?
There were two stories. The first one said Egypt punished the Israeli ambassador in Cairo. The second story on the same front page stated that this is the way the Israelis humiliated the Turkish people. It was about Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s telephone conversation with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak. They wrote the story as if Davutoğlu was begging him to do something. So the message the paper was trying to convey was that the Egyptians are doing well [in dealing with Israel] but that the Turks were humiliated by the Israelis.
So Turkey’s role in the Middle East has not been liked by the Egyptian government.
Yes, but at the same time the Egyptian foreign minister said that Egypt welcomes Turkey and bilateral relations are very good. The official language differs from the language of the media. And the Arab street is completely different. Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan won the people of the Arab street. Recently, there have been Turkish flags held by people in almost every Arab capital -- Turkish flags, not their national flags.
Do you see a confrontation in the future of Turkish-Egyptian relations?
I don’t expect an open confrontation, but the Egyptian government will be cautious. They will not speak negatively about Turkey because there are economic interests between the two countries. Egyptian businesspeople will not allow it. So I don’t expect an open confrontation, but there could be some under the table messages.
‘Egypt lost its role’
Is this because of the Egyptian government’s perception that they think Turkey is stealing a role from Egypt?
It is obvious that Egypt lost its role. Now Turkey should play its own role. As I said, they were embarrassed. Turks showed that there are things that should be done and that the Egyptians are not there to do it. It’s very embarrassing.
Does the Egyptian government have any explanation for its attitude of supporting the blockade of Gaza?
They don’t explain it; they say they open the border and allow people to leave. This is the official line. Yes, they do allow people in and out, but who are those people? They allow very few people to leave, such as people who are really sick. There are delays; people wait for a long time. There is too much suffering for the people in the process.
Does Egypt perceive Hamas as a terrorist organization?
They don’t say they are terrorists, but they say Hamas is dangerous. They do accept the Israeli perspective and say Hamas is dangerous. The Egyptian government doesn’t want to accept the fact that Hamas is elected and legitimate.
Is it possible at all that the Egyptian government will lift its blockade on Gaza since there is more world attention on the suffering of the people of Gaza in the aftermath of the flotilla incident?
I don’t think so. There are many reasons. As long as Hamas is there, Egypt will not open the border. They think -- not just because of the Israeli pressure -- Hamas has relations with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and perceive the activities of the two challenging the Egyptian regime. Hamas does not accept the so-called peace process. If Hamas was not resisting, they could be a part of the game. Independent television shows and newspapers in Egypt condemned the Egyptian blockade of Gaza during the flotilla incident. After such pressure, they softened the blockage, but Egypt will not go further and lift the blockade. Israel would not accept it, and the United States would not accept it.
‘The number one problem is occupation’
What do you think about finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem? Isn’t it time for a Palestinian state? What do you think of the two-state solution?
Practically, a two-state solution is not possible. Israel keeps building settlements among Palestinians.
Maybe Israel would return to its previous borders?
They don’t want to return [to their previous borders]; they are establishing new settlements. Practically, there is no point to press a two-state solution. Israel once said that they can exchange land with the Palestinians. Israel would take all nice areas with water and give the Palestinians the desert land. They keep talking about a two-state [solution], but it is not possible with the current map of the area where there are dots of Israeli settlements.
Do Egyptian academics and intellectuals have any solutions to offer to the Israeli-Palestinian issue?
We are talking about occupied land. What is the solution? You have to withdraw from the land. If you don’t, there will be resistance. The number one problem is occupation. To solve the problem, we have to start from the beginning of the problem. But Israel doubled the settlements, they brought Jews from outside, and they attacked Gaza. They use negotiations to have more time to change the map. Now, resistance seems to be the only solution, but how to resist is something that can’t be discussed. You can only say “no.” Syria does not fight with Israelis, but says: “I don’t accept this game. I don’t participate in playing this game.”
A political analyst specializing in contemporary Islamic thought, Arab and Islamic world affairs, he is a daily columnist for the Egyptian Al-Shrouk newspaper. A 1961 graduate of law from Cairo University, Howeidy started his career by drawing cartoons for Al-Da’wa, a publication issued before the 1952 Revolution by the Muslim Brotherhood. He joined Al-Ahram in the late 1960s and became a columnist at the national daily. He is the author of almost two dozen books including “Iran from the Inside,” published in 1987 when it became a best-seller. He wrote the book “Taliban, God’s Soldiers in the Wrong Battle,” and in 2001, he coordinated a visit to Afghanistan undertaken by Muslim scholars and intellectuals in an attempt to dissuade the Taliban regime from destroying the statues of the Buddha at Bamyan in the south of the country.
Do you think Turkey can do something here?
Turkey cannot solve the problem. But Turkey can soften the sides and keep things calm. We can’t expect Turkey to solve this complicated problem, which has not been solved for 60 years. We can’t expect Turks to fight in the name of the Arabs.
‘Not all Arabs are against Iran’
The Arab world is mostly angry at Iran. And it is Turkey that rushes to the aid of the Iranians. Is this a concern in the Arab world?
Not all Arabs are against Iran. Historically, we were not. The ex-shah of Iran was married to the sister of King Farouk of Egypt. The change happened after the Iranian revolution, not because of Arab anger but because of American and Israeli anger. In fact, there is no problem between the Arabs and the Iranians except some disagreements over some small islands in the Emirates. The real fight is of the Americans and Israelis, and since our regimes are loyal to the Americans, they reflected their anger. So we are angry at Iran, but why? Because of the American influence in the region.
Is that what Arab intellectuals think?
They are divided. Some of them say Arabs have no problems with Iran. Some others criticize Iran because of the Islamic Revolution. Some others criticize Iran for not being democratic. In fact, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry is pro-Iranian, but the security circles are against Iran because they say Iran threatens the Egyptian regime by spreading the Shiite influence, organizing the Egyptian youth, etc.
And again about the return of Turks to the Middle East. Are the negative connotations associated with Turks and the Ottoman legacy changing?
You can never say that all Arabs have negative impressions. In the eastern part of the Arab world, yes, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, they don’t like this historical background. But in the western part of the Arab world, in Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, they are welcoming. They think that Turks protected them from French occupation. Secondly, some people are still sensitive toward Turkey’s approach to the Middle East. As you have nationalists, we have nationalist groups, too. But this is changing today as the flotilla incident has had an effect on Arabs in favor of Turkey. The majority now has positive feelings. They like Turks who challenge the Israelis. Also, the economic element is strong between Arabs and Turks. These change the picture very much. We are not talking about only economic activity but also political activity, which is new.
Is the Arab media supportive of Turkey, too?
A large majority is supportive. During the flotilla attack, the independent media kept criticizing the Egyptian regime and said Turkey did what the Egyptian government was supposed to do.
‘Turks are clean and organized’
What would you say about the Arab perceptions of Turks?
Turkish television in Arabic countries is changing Arabs’ perceptions of Turks. Television shows that Turks are human and that they are not as tough as they have been previously perceived. Arabs also observe how clean and organized Turks are at hajj.
When was the first time you came to Turkey?
I’ve been working with Muslim people everywhere for 52 years. I started writing about Turkey 15 years ago. I came here 15 years ago.
What do you find has changed in Turkey since then? What can you tell us about it?
I met Prime Minister Erdoğan when he was the mayor of İstanbul. I also met him when he was the prime minister, and I asked him if I will see him as the president next time. He said he doesn’t know. Great changes have occurred. İstanbul changes every time. Even if you visit every three months, you see that it is changing. Before Erdoğan became the mayor, roads were very problematic. There were water and electricity problems, too.
But personally, what changes do you feel most?
İstanbul is more beautiful and very energetic. People are working hard. But it became very expensive [laughs].