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Turkey's Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdogan, greets people upon his arrival at a rally in Tripoli on Sept. 16, 2011.SUHAIB SALEM/REUTERS

From the moment he stepped off his jet in Cairo Tuesday night to find thousands of Egyptian fans shouting "God is great," this was far more than a routine visit by a foreign leader.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish Prime Minister, toured the newly liberated capitals of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya this week with the sort of popularity usually reserved for pop stars. He is polling as the most popular politician, by far, in virtually every country of the Middle East, and for the revolutionary generation who turned to the Middle East's only Muslim democracy for inspiration, he is a conquering hero.

Not since the Kurdish sultan Saladin recaptured Egypt, Syria and Jerusalem from the Europeans in the 1100s, some commentators remarked as Mr. Erdogan filled TV screens across the region, has a non-Arab held such widespread popularity and uncontested influence in the Arab world.

But it is exactly those sort of imperial analogies that have Westerners worried about Turkey's new assertiveness. It has become popular to call Mr. Erdogan's tactics "neo-Ottoman," after the Turk-led Muslim empire that conquered much of Europe, the Middle East and north Africa between the 14th and the 19th centuries. The worry is that Turkey is now turning away from its European roots – after being shunned by the European Union in its bid for membership – and using the power vacuums to its south to link up with the region's Islamist parties and form a network of Islamic power to threaten the West.

It is a misleading analogy, mistaking Mr. Erdogan's bold but self-interested mission for some sort of Islamic imperialism, but it is a popular and understandable one.

After all, Mr. Erdogan, a former Islamist and devout believer, launched this tour after turning a minor spat with Israel, Turkey's traditional staunch ally, into an outright conflagration. After Israel refused to apologize earlier this month for its army's killing of nine Turkish civilians aboard the controversial aid flotilla to Gaza in May of 2010, Mr. Erdogan responded furiously by withdrawing Turkey's ambassador, suspending its military co-operation with Israel, and freezing all trade ties with the Jewish state.

His Arab tour has been laced with fiery criticisms of Israel, glowing support for the Palestinian cause, and macho statements suggesting a military showdown: "Israel will no longer be able to do what it wants in the Mediterranean," he told an audience in Tunis on Thursday, "and you'll be seeing Turkish warships in this sea." That was only one of several such alarming sabre-rattling statements, suggesting that the spat with Israel is in large part intended to send a message of solidarity to his country's Arab neighbours.

That, combined with the warm mutual embrace between Mr. Erdogan and leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood (who tend to tell Western reporters that they see Turkey as their role model), has led some to fear that Europe's largest Muslim state is turning to the dark side. It's an alarming prospect, given that Turkey has Europe's largest standing army and has become wealthy enough, from gas pipelines and industrial exports to Europe, to become a major power.

Yet most informed observers of Turkish diplomacy would say that's a serious misreading.

"Yes, Turkey has been engaging its neighbourhood, and not just in the Middle East, and building its influence with Muslim states," said Joshua W. Walker, a Turkey specialist who is a fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, "but it would be a mistake to think that this is a move away from the West or from democracy or secularism. They're making a shift from a French style of secularism to an American one, where you're allowed to be religious and still be in government, but there's no sign that Turkey is moving away from the West."

Indeed, many Western diplomats, including those from the United States, quietly say that Mr. Erdogan's eastern turn is a welcome and beneficial development – in good part because it could herald the eclipse of Saudi Arabia's and Iran's much more dangerous influence over the Arab states, but also because what Mr. Erdogan is doing is hardly imperial or Islamist.

His key message to Egyptians, delivered in a national TV interview, is that they should get rid of their old sharia-based constitution and become a secular state. "In Turkey, constitutional secularism is defined as the state remaining equidistant to all religions," he said. "In a secular regime people are free to be religious or not."

And if there was any ambiguity, he then told Egyptians that the most important thing Arabs should learn from Turkey is secularism – a word that is close to unmentionable in Egypt these days.

"I recommend a secular constitution for Egypt," he said. "Do not fear secularism because it does not mean being an enemy of religion. I hope the new regime in Egypt will be secular. I hope that after these remarks of mine the way the Egyptian people look at secularism will change."

That message was heard loudly across the Arab world, and provoked angry responses from the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups (who nevertheless still sought to associate themselves with the Turkish leader).

And it came alongside a number of other signs that Turkey is far from turning eastward. Just as he was falling into his feud with Israel, Mr. Erdogan struck a bold deal with the United States to use his country as the staging ground for a missile defence system that uses huge radar installations to protect against Iranian missile attacks. A senior U.S. official told the New York Times that it is "the most significant military co-operation between Washington and Ankara since 2003" and it was widely seen as part of a major boost in the country's 59-year-old membership in NATO. At the same time, Turkey joined a major antiterrorism initiative with the United States. And its trade and political relations with European states have been growing strongly.

"If you actually examine what is happening," says Fadi Hakura, head of the Turkey Project at London's Chatham House, "you realize that this is the best possible situation for the United States and Europe – you have a strongly allied country that can exercise a tough position with Israel without promoting the kind of violence that other regional actors like Iran did." In other words, Turkey may play the bad cop with Israel, but unlike Tehran, it won't be interested in bankrolling terrorists groups like Hezbollah.

Mr. Ergdogan's eastern thrust, accompanied by large aid expenditures across the Middle East, North Africa and Somalia, is part of a strategy engineered by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to build Turkey's regional influence in order to avoid the multiple crises Turkey faced before 2000 when it was surrounded on all sides by menacing, unstable authoritarian states.

Mr. Davutoglu's strategy is based on what he calls a "zero problems" relationship with Turkey's neighbours, designed to minimize expensive confrontations. Given the bellicose standoff with Israel this week, and Mr. Erdogan's own drift back into military conflict with his own Kurdish minority (whom he'd previously spent a decade granting impressive minority rights), it's obvious that the problems with Turkey these days are far from zero. But they might be a lot fewer than you'd think.