Egypt's newly-elected President Mohamed Morsi has had a remarkable political rise. He became the Muslim Brotherhood's presidential candidate only after the party's first-choice was disqualified. Yet, he has proved an adroit player in the game of civil-military relations, reclaiming powers for the parliament and presidency and sending into retirement key figures from the old army guard. He has walked a tightrope between reassuring Saudi patrons and engaging Iran, which he visited after a trip to Beijing to court Chinese shipping, investment, and tourism. Following up on the deal between rival Palestinian groups Fatah and Hamas brokered by the Muslim Brotherhood, he has called on key regional players-Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia-to come together over Syria, while slipping in a critique of the Assad regime during his trip to Tehran. Morsi's Syrian initiative, even if it fails, affirms Cairo's rekindled ambition to be leader in the Middle East.
Morsi's moves have worried some who fear he may scuttle Egypt's relationship with Israel or the West. But he could also cast a shadow on the efforts of Turkey's charismatic Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to consolidate his country's vaunted potential to lead the region. Morsi appears to be moving swiftly to establish civilian control of Egypt, and, unlike Erdoğan, has yet to squander the support of other civilian factions. As leader of the largest Arab state, which shares a border with Gaza and is treaty-bound to engage Israel and the United States, Morsi can bring more leverage to negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians than can Turkey.
To what extent does the emerging Morsi story challenge the narrative of Erdoğan's Turkey as the "model" for governments that came to power in the Arab revolutions? When Erdoğan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, Turkey was an economic and political basket case and Erdoğan himself was banned from politics. Within weeks, he burst onto the scene, spearheading Turkey's EU accession-oriented reform process. Delivering an average annual economic growth of 6-7 percent and more than doubling per capita income, Erdoğan attracted new voters with every election and built a strong mandate for constitutional reform. This helped the AKP defeat a court case brought by secularist opponents seeking the party's closure and tame the politically meddlesome military. Meanwhile, he converted Turkey's rejection by prominent personalities in Europe into victories on other fronts, tirelessly promoting the country's profile in the Middle East, Caucasus, Balkans, and Africa. This provided a stage for populist performances that garnered Erdoğan a reputation as a champion of the weak in a region prone to a sense of victimhood at the hands of crony governments and foreign powers. Turkey thus seemed well-positioned to capitalize on the Arab revolutions.
Yet, less than a year after a poll flagged Erdoğan as the most admired world leader among Arabs, he and Turkey face serious challenges. The first is the reignited and largely homegrown Kurdish conflict. Kurdish sentiment-previously favorable to the AKP due to its stance on cultural rights-was soured by crises like the Uludere killing of 34 cross-border traders who were mistaken for PKK operatives. Mutual recriminations and violence have mounted. Turkey's second big headache is the willingness of Damascus and Tehran to play the Kurdish card in order to punish Ankara for its support of Syrian rebels.
Caught between a Kurdish rock and a Syrian hard place, an AKP-led Turkey may not be able to act as an impartial and effective broker. To recover its momentum, Turkey must rise to the two greatest challenges facing the region at-large: economic development and meaningful pluralism. Any power in the Middle East that achieves both-especially if it is a trading state rather than an energy exporter-will become a beacon for the region. Having made astounding strides on the economic front, Turkey's path to leadership would seem assured should it resolve its Kurdish problem.
If it fails to do so, Morsi could reap the crop Erdoğan has sown. After all, he has a home-field advantage as an Arab in a region where many still rankle from Ottoman dominion. If, however, Turkey's prime minister lent the full force of his personality to resolving his country's Kurdish problem, he would offer a powerful example of reconciliation across divided communities in a torn region where, to date, winners have taken all. This might secure Turkey's status as the region's rising star, and leave Morsi gasping in admiration.