The issue of leadership is critical for the region. States with prestige and financial, diplomatic, and military resources can drive events in the Middle East – hopefully for good, but potentially for bad. In the 1950s and ’60s, for example, Egypt’s leadership under Gamal Abdel Nasser shaped regional politics around the myths of Arab nationalism, which led to intra-Arab conflict and regional war. The Arab Spring provides an opportunity for a power or group of powers to usher in a new era of peace, prosperity, and perhaps democracy.
In the spring of 2011, some observers believed that Turkey was a model for countries in the Arab world that aspire to democratic politics and successful economies. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s triumphal tour of Cairo, Tunis, and Tripoli in September 2011 reinforced the idea that Ankara was the natural center of a new emerging regional order.
Turkey certainly has much to offer the region. It is more democratic than any country in the Arab world and boasts the 16th largest economy in the world. The din of various Arabic dialects spoken by Egyptian, Libyan, Saudi, and other tourists at passport control at Istanbul’s Ataturk International Airport or in the famous Grand Bazaar speaks to Turkey’s regional pull.
However, a little more than a year after Mr. Erdogan’s regional tour, Turkey’s popularity – while still strong – is softening. In a recent poll, the respected Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation uncovered a creeping ambivalence among Arabs about Turkey’s regional role.