Erdogan gets rock-star reception in Egypt

Turkey’s PM hails Saudi Arabia’s efforts to enhance stability in region

Erdogan: Peoples’ demands are not suppressed by force, Palestinian statehood recognition is a duty

Arab foreign ministers urge end for bloodshed in Syria

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan received an enthusiastic welcome in Egypt at the start of a North African tour which will assert Turkey's role as a friend and helper of the popular movements that have toppled long-standing Arab leaders.

Boosted in the eyes of the Arab public by his sparring with Israel, Erdogan will address the 22-member Arab League and hold talks with the military council steering post-Mubarak Egypt to civilian rule amid rising popular anger against Israel.

"The visit is important," said Mohammed Adel of the April 6 movement of youth activists involved in street protests that saw veteran ruler Hosni Mubarak ousted from office in February. "We need to preserve our relations with Turkey and all the countries that want to help the Arab world and take advantage of them to create a stronger political front to enhance the Arab states' position against Israel."

Erdogan, who has clashed with Israeli leaders repeatedly since the Israel war on Gaza began in December 2008, was met by Essam Sharaf, the head of an interim cabinet that answers to the military council, and a rapturous crowd of several thousand.

They clapped and cheered as the two men came from the tarmac at Cairo airport hand-in-hand to greet them on Monday night.

Many appeared to be from Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, who see Erdogan as a role model because of his success in bringing Islamists into mainstream Turkish politics.

"Erdogan, Erdogan -- a big welcome from the Brothers!" one large banner said, while others had large photos of Erdogan with "Turkey-Egypt hand in hand for future" and "Hero Erdogan" written on them.

"I have come here to say 'thank you' because he says things no man can say," said Hani, a 21-year-old university student.

Erdogan took a microphone set up for the occasion to address the crowd, saying "Peace be upon you" and "Greetings to the Egyptian youth and people, how are you?" in Arabic.

Erdogan, who has led his Islamist-leaning Justice and Development Party to three election victories, will also visit to Libya and Tunisia, the two other Arab countries where the people have succeeded in removing unpopular rulers this year.

But while the Turkish leader has credibility on the Arab street, he could be a headache for U.S.-allied rulers.

"He will use his visit to Cairo as a barometer to measure just how popular he is in the Arab street," said Uzi Rabi of Tel Aviv University. "But some Arab leaders may not be as enthusiastic about seeing him feed on this popularity."

Ankara expelled the Israeli ambassador in a feud over an Israeli raid last year that killed nine Turks on a flotilla bound for the Palestinian enclave of Gaza.

Erdogan told leading pan-Arab broadcaster Aljazeera this month that the incident was a "cause for war" but said Turkey acted with "patience," according to a transcript of the interview, excerpts of which were broadcast last week.

Egypt's ruling generals, overseeing a transition to democracy after Mubarak's ouster, faced a similar dilemma on how to respond after Israel shot dead several Egyptian soldiers last month in border operations.

The government appeared to fumble in its response to that incident, at first saying it had recalled Egypt's ambassador to Tel Aviv then saying it had not.

Protesters attacked the Israeli embassy in Cairo last week, causing the ambassador to flee the country and prompting an embarrassed government to affirm to Washington, its major aid donor, its commitment to Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

Egypt has received billions of dollars in U.S. military and other aid since signing its peace treaty with Israel, so the military council faces a balancing act when responding to public calls for a more assertive policy toward Israel.

Even if Egypt wanted to match Turkey's regional grand-standing, it would be difficult now as the country grapples with deteriorating security, planning for elections, trials of Mubarak and other ancient regime figures, protests and strikes.

Egypt has traditionally seen itself as the leading diplomatic player in the Arab region, but its position has been eroded in recent years as wealthy Gulf countries with small populations such as Qatar increasingly make the running.

"Egypt is not in a position to play such a role at the moment so Erdogan is trying to take advantage of that," said Adel Soliman, head of Cairo's International Center for Future and Strategic Studies.

Soliman played down prospects of Egypt and Turkey aligning policies against Israel, despite the spats.

"I don't think they will have any big agreements when it comes to Israel," he said. "There is a lot of exaggeration. I see it more as theatrics than anything practical."

A foreign ministry official said there was no rivalry. "The results of Erdogan's visit will show that Turkey cares about Egypt, just as Egypt is keen to have good relations with Turkey," said Amr Roushdy.

At the Arab League headquarters in Cairo, Erdogan will have a chance to talk with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas on the Palestinian UN statehood bid, which is vehemently opposed by Israel and the United States.

Qatar, which won U.S. praise for its backing of the Libyan rebels who succeeded in toppling Gaddafi last month, has taken a leading role in organizing support for the Palestinian bid.

Erdogan had arrived in Egypt Monday for an official visit, as twin diplomatic crises are shaking the foundations of several critical Middle Eastern alliances.

An all-male, cheering crowd of more than a thousand gathered at the Cairo airport to greet the Turkish prime minister on his first visit to Egypt since the revolution that ousted President Hosni Mubarak.

Posters -- many with Erdogan's face on them -- proclaimed sentiments such as, "Welcome Erdogan the hero in his second country Egypt."

As those in the crowd awaited Erdogan, one chant was "Egypt and Turkey are one hand."

A statement from the office of Prime Minister Sharaf said Sharaf received his Turkish counterpart at the airport with a delegation of six ministers and 200 businessmen.

Erdogan and Sharaf stepped before the crowd together, clasping hands and flanked by Erdogan's foreign minister and a contingent of bodyguards in suits and ties.

Erdogan made a brief attempt to address the crowd through a speaker system but the speakers were not loud enough and his words were largely drowned out by chanting. He was heard saying in Arabic, "Peace be unto you, youth of Egypt."

Signs in the crowd identified some of those gathered as members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was long persecuted by the ousted Mubarak.

One banner said, "Muslim Brotherhood welcomes Erdogan."

"We consider him as the Islamic leader in the Middle East," said a young man named Mohamed Fahe, who identified himself as a Muslim Brotherhood member. "And we appreciate what he did for Gaza."

Erdogan arrived in Cairo as part of a three-nation tour that will include Tunisia and Libya, as Turkey expands its diplomatic efforts.

Israeli ambassadors have been forced to abandon their posts in both Turkey and Egypt over the past week, albeit for sharply different reasons.

On Friday, Israel's ambassador to Egypt fled the country along with other Israeli diplomats, after an angry crowd broke down a protective wall around the Israeli Embassy in Cairo and stormed the bottom floor of the diplomatic mission.

Egypt's ruling military council denounced the riot and announced the re-activation a controversial series of emergency laws to restore order. It also vowed to honor the peace treaty it signed with its Israeli neighbor in the historic 1979 Camp David accords.

Egypt’s most powerful Islamist group warned Erdogan Wednesday that his country should not seek to dominate the Middle East despite his enthusiastic welcome at the start of a regional tour.

After his widely praised call for democracy in the Arab world, Erdogan was given a more reserved reception by officials of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose old guard do not share the admiration of the group’s younger generation for the Turkish leader.

“We welcome Turkey and we welcome Erdogan as a prominent leader but we do not think that he or his country alone should be leading the region or drawing up its future,” said Essam al-Erian, deputy leader of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party.

The Brotherhood’s cautious comments contrast with the rapturous reception Erdogan has had so far, including cheering and flag-waving crowds, on the first stop of a tour of three Arab states that is aimed at bolstering Turkey’s regional role.

“Democracy and freedom is as basic a right as bread and water for you, my brothers,” Erdogan told an enthusiastic audience in Cairo Tuesday.

Erdogan’s party, with its Islamist roots and election success, has become a model for much of the Brotherhood and other political groups as they prepare for the first free elections since Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule was ended in February.

But the Brotherhood and other groups are wary of outside involvement in a homegrown uprising. A senior Turkish official said Turkey did not want to dictate but offer help.

“Arab states do not need outside projects … This has to come from the new internal systems of the Arab countries which after the revolutions … will be democratic ones,” said Erian, who was jailed under Mubarak.

Erian, however, praised Erdogan’s domestic political success and his achievement in building a strong economy and supporting Arab causes.

“He has successfully invested in the Arab and Muslim world’s central case which is the Palestinian case,” he said.

Erian said Erdogan had met members of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party.

A senior Turkish Foreign Ministry official said Erdogan had offered help if requested. “We are not saying we will come and teach you what to do, we are saying we can help if you want,” he said.

Erdogan has won plaudits from many Arabs for his tough line in a feud with Israel. He is also respected for overseeing rapid economic expansion and democratic credentials in a region where democracy has been lacking.

“The freedom message spreading from Tahrir Square [in Cairo] has become a light of hope for all the oppressed through Tripoli, Damascus and Sana’a,” Erdogan said, receiving several standing ovations.

Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf said they sought to boost annual trade between the two states to $5 billion from $3 billion, as well as to increase Turkish investment in Egypt to $5 billion from $1.5 billion in future.

Erdogan’s stance toward Israel has earned him the most Arab accolades. He demanded an apology after nine Turks were killed in an Israeli raid on a Gaza bound ship. When he did not receive one, he expelled Israel’s ambassador.

“We can learn from him how to deal with the enemy … So many things were done by Israel, but we stayed silent,” said Rabab Abdel-Khalek, a university student.

Egyptians are angry that their ruling generals did not act with the same decisiveness when five Egyptian border guards were killed last month by Israelis when they were chasing cross-border raiders.

To express their dissatisfaction, furious Egyptian protesters stormed the Israeli embassy in Cairo, prompting Israel to fly its envoy home.

Meanwhile, Arab League states want Syria to use dialogue, not arms, to address a five-month-old rebellion that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has tried to crush with tanks and troops, the League's chairman told a foreign ministers' meeting on Tuesday.

But Arab ministers will also consider a call to reject unilateral U.S. sanctions against Damascus, according to a draft resolution obtained by Reuters.

The United States, which has imposed limits on trade with Syria under its 2004 Syria Accountability Act -- referred to in the draft as "a violation of international law," has stepped up sanctions to include Assad, several aides and businesses.

Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby said he had agreed a series of measures with Assad on Saturday after a visit to Damascus, and would present them to ministers at the meeting in Cairo that was called to discuss Syria and other Arab issues.

"We think the solution must come through ending the use of arms, putting an end to bloodshed and resorting to wisdom and dialogue," said Sheikh Hamad, who is also Qatar's prime minister and foreign minister.

In one of Syria's largest country-wide military assaults against pro-democracy protests, Assad forces shot dead five mourners on Tuesday when they fired at a funeral for villagers killed the day before near Hama, local activists said.

Security police snipers began shooting from the roof of a school and a municipal water tank in the town of Kfar Nubouzeh, when hundreds of mourners began chanting slogans demanding Assad's downfall, activists in contact with residents said.

One of the activists said Kfar Nubouzeh was among the regions hardest hit by the assaults, which killed at least 15 villagers and drove thousands from their homes, because it is the hometown of Hama's attorney general, who announced his defection ten days ago and has not been heard from since.

"Kfar Nubouzeh has been also a meeting point for protesters from surrounding villages," he said.

The military operation focused on villages and towns north of Hama and on the al-Ghab Plain, farmland to the east.

The area has seen regular protests and serves as a supply centre for army deserters who took refuge in the adjacent region of Jabal al-Zawiya near the Turkish border, residents and activists said.

Most of the deserters, who are estimated to number in the hundreds, are from the Sunni Muslim rank and file, which is dominated by an officer core from Syria's minority Alawite sect, the same sect as Assad and the ruling hierarchy.

In his opening address, Sheikh Hamad also urged the international community to back a Palestinian bid for statehood, which Arabs will support at the United Nations this month.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Arab states had agreed to push for Palestinian membership of the United Nations despite a U.S. threat to block such a move.

Arab foreign ministers, who began efforts in July to organize backing for the Palestinian bid, decided to set up a team comprising the Arab League head and six League members to further pursue the controversial application, due to be submitted when the U.N. General Assembly opens on September 19.

Elaraby said Arab states were in contact with various parties to ensure widest recognition of a Palestinian state.

The Palestinians decided to seek U.N. recognition of statehood after years of negotiations with Israel failed to deliver the independent state they want to establish in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.