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Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan waves upon his arrival on September 14, 2011 in Tunis. (FETHI BELAID/FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images)
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan waves upon his arrival on September 14, 2011 in Tunis. (FETHI BELAID/FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images)

Turkey asserting itself on the world stage Add to ...

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has received a hero’s welcome in Cairo on a tour of Arab Spring hot spots in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia where he’s fired sharp criticisms at Israel and campaigned for UN recognition of a Palestinian state.

At home, Mr. Erdogan’s populist government has clashed with military generals and worried many in Turkey’s elite, who fear he’ll turn his back on the country’s secularist modern history. Abroad, he’s accused of shifting Turkey, a NATO ally and aspiring EU member, to seek more influence in the Muslim world.

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In Ottawa, Turkey’s ambassador to Canada, Rafet Akgunay, is one of those given the task of explaining these developments to the world. So how does he?

He insists Turkey’s role among Muslim and Arab neighbours has grown because of its economic boom and the breakdown of the two-superpower world – but it is not shifting away from the West, from secular democracy, or seeking regional hegemony.

For some Western allies, Mr. Erdogan’s tour has been unsettling. They often saw Turkey as a moderate Muslim country that helped cool Mideast tensions. Mr. Erdogan’s trip coincided with sharp criticism of Israel that seems to have made him a star on the so-called “Arab street.”

The flashpoint was a report on Israel’s raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla last year, in which eight Turkish citizens were killed. Mr. Erdogan responded by vowing to send Turkish warships to escort future Gaza-bound ships and asserting that Israel “must pay for the crimes it committed.”

Mr. Akgunay, however, insists the dispute is not a long-term shift in approach to Israel, but a conflict with the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“It is not anything between the Turkish [people]and the people of Israel. But this is a problem between the two governments,” he said. “Because things have been moving in the relatively right direction for a very long time until the present-day government of Israel came to power. So we have started having problems since then. At the top of this was the flotilla incident last year.”

Still, Mr. Erdogan has become vocal on the Mideast, emerging as a leading advocate of the Palestinian Authority’s campaign to win UN recognition of a Palestinian state, which Israel, Washington and Ottawa hoped to stop. Mr. Erdogan told the Arab League nations they have an “obligation” to back the bid.

“Showing our stance in rather strong terms. That’s our Prime Minister,” Mr. Akgunay said. “He likes using strong terms. It shows a certain leadership. Not only there, though – he said it in the Arab League, but this is a message to the world, it’s not only a message to the Arab countries.”

Mr. Akgunay notes that supporting UN recognition of a Palestinian state is not a break with allies; European countries are split on the question. And Turkey just agreed to allow radar for NATO missile defence on its soil, he noted.

But he concedes questions about Turkey’s direction are legion. “People claim that Turkey is changing its axis. But we have to look at developments in the world in the last decade or two,” he said. The Soviet Union’s collapse opened exchanges with its former Arab client states, and potential markets for booming Turkey, which required good political ties, he said. Turkey’s growth brought it to a different level, he said: “It is not us who are trying to be the power in the region.”

It also gives Turkey a role in helping Arab Spring countries, he argued: “Turkey is a relatively stable country, a democratic country, a country in which governments are voted in and out, which carried out a lot of reforms … plus, economically, we have been climbing,” he said. Mr. Erdogan’s early visit to Egypt, Libya and Tunisia shows Turkey wants to help, not let them decline so Turkey can dominate, he said.

He acknowledges there are criticisms of Turkey’s changes at home and abroad, but said there's another view, that Turkey is becoming more democratic, and with new economic power, is acting more independently in the international sphere.

“But I’m sure Turkey’s secular democratic tradition will prevail. The Prime Minister is using these words – he’s talking about a secular and democratic country,” he said.

Despite that, Mr. Erdogan's tour has his old allies wondering whether he's setting a new direction for Turkey on the world stage.

Campbell Clark writes on foreign affairs from Ottawa

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