CAIRO — Israel's increasing isolation in a changing Middle East became clear Tuesday when the prime minister of Turkey, once one of the Jewish state's most dependable allies, kicked off a state visit here with a series of fiery speeches in which he branded Israel a criminal and demanded U.N. recognition for a Palestinian state.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's denunciations of Israel won him a hero's welcome from both ordinary Egyptians and senior politicians. Egyptians who gathered by the hundreds at each of his stops said Erdogan's defiance was a welcome break from decades of acquiescence by their leaders to U.S. and Israeli interests in the Middle East.
"Israel establishes legitimacy and, at the same time, it commits irresponsible acts. It crushes human dignity and international law, and violates international convoys," Erdogan told Arab foreign ministers at the Arab League, which is widely viewed as weak and ineffectual when it comes to Palestinian issues.
Egypt was Erdogan's first stop on a tour of Arab nations that have been transformed by popular uprisings. Next come Tunisia and Libya, where he'll shore up relations with interim governments as Turkey seeks to expand its influence in the Arab world. Throughout the region, Islamists and other opposition groups say they'd like to replace authoritarian governments with the ruling Turkish party's model of an Islamist-led democracy.
Ziad Akl, an analyst at the Cairo-based Ahram Center for Strategic Studies, said Erdogan's anti-Israel stance is sure to influence the political class emerging from the North African uprisings and will lead to a more united front pushing for Palestinian statehood.
"The balance of power will change," Akl said.
Erdogan's harsh public remarks on Israel would have been impossible in Cairo just a few months ago, under the rule of now-deposed President Hosni Mubarak, a harsh defender of his country's peace treaty with Israel.
But both Turkey and Egypt now are embroiled in diplomatic crises with Israel.
Outraged over Israel's refusal to apologize for deaths on a Turkish aid flotilla to Gaza last year, Turkey suspended military ties, expelled Israeli diplomats and warned that it would send the Turkish navy to escort future humanitarian ships.
Egypt, meanwhile, is facing its worst diplomatic crisis with Israel in a decade in the aftermath of what Israel said was the accidental shooting of up to five Egyptian border guards last month. Last week, thousands of protesters besieged the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, pulling down concrete barriers and storming into the building. Israel evacuated its diplomats in response.
"Israel killed nine Turkish people in international waters and killed five Egyptian soldiers at the border. Israel has no right to speak about peace," Erdogan said.
Unlike Turkey, the Egyptian caretaker government that replaced Mubarak has wavered on its response, first threatening to expel Israeli diplomats and then backtracking. But the waffling infuriated activist groups whose demand for a more sovereign Egypt was a cornerstone of the uprising that toppled the regime.
Erdogan met for 30 minutes with the chairman of Egypt's ruling military council, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi. There was no word on what the two men discussed.
But Erdogan's tough words won praise from Egyptians, who urged their own government to take a tougher line.
"I came here today to pay the Turkish prime minister the respect he earned. He stood in the face of Israel and was not afraid to speak the truth," said Mohamed Adel, 32, an Egyptian engineer who joined hundreds of supporters, mainly members of the Muslim Brotherhood, outside the Cairo Opera House where Erdogan spoke.
"Since the attack on the flotilla, he hasn't stopped fighting for the people that were killed, and he reclaimed their rights by kicking out the ambassador and canceling the treaties they had with Israel," Adel said. "We didn't do anything and are afraid to touch one treaty. It causes Egypt to lose its men on the border, and they still call it a peace treaty."
The Muslim Brotherhood, in particular, was galvanized by Erdogan's visit.
Thousands of the Islamist group's members greeted the Turkish premier at the airport with chants of "Brave Erdogan, welcome to your second home!" Hundreds more rallied outside the opera house, some carrying banners that read, "We welcome the Islamic Leader Erdogan."
Erdogan is expected to meet with senior leaders of the Brotherhood, which is now Egypt's best-organized political force.
"I liked his reference to the Islamic identity and his call for increasing trade relations between the two countries at a time where everyone is running away from Egypt," said Huda Abdel Monem, a senior female leader of the Brotherhood and a founding member of its new Freedom and Justice Party.
She called Turkey "a model for fighting corruption" — another of the battle cries of Egypt's evolution — and for establishing "free and fair elections."
Critics of Erdogan's early remarks Tuesday noted that he'd failed to mention Syria, where his onetime close ally, President Bashar Assad, is using lethal force to crush a popular rebellion with a death toll that's already climbed past 2,000. But Erdogan finally broached the subject in his last speech, saying outright that Assad's bloody crackdown had cost him the legitimacy to rule.
"The Syrian people don't believe in Assad and I don't, either," Erdogan said in one of his most blunt criticisms to date. "The power that kills its people has no friend."
(Sabry is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Arwa Ibrahim contributed from Cairo.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY