Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan brings to mind the story about the housewife who calls her husband during rush hour. “Be careful driving home on the Beltway, dear,” she advises. “The news says that there’s a maniac driving in the wrong direction.” “What do you mean, ‘a maniac’?,” he replies. “Everybody’s driving in the wrong direction!”
Now that Turkey has threatened Europe with a “freeze in relations” if Cyprus (as planned) assumes the presidency of the European Union in 2012, it must seem to Erdogan that everyone is driving in the wrong direction. Earlier this month Turkey declared “null and void” the United Nations’ Palmer Commission report, which supported Israel’s right to enforce a blockade against Gaza. That was a minor gaffe, because United Nations dicta have the authority of revelation to the liberal media, except, of course, when they support Israel. It’s one thing for Turkey to freeze relations with Israel — we take it for granted these days that everybody hates Israel — but the Europeans? Everybody likes the Europeans, who have replaced their defense ministries with an answering machine that says, “We surrender.” And over Cyprus? Even Russia, Turkey’s key trading partner and the host for millions of Turkish guest workers, is aghast at Erdogan’s tantrum. Russia has strong ties to Cyprus.
The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman blames Israel for not apologizing to the Turks. But one doesn’t want to apologize to Erdogan. You don’t want to talk to him. Don’t make eye contact. We New Yorkers learn that on the subway. It seems mad to take on Washington, Brussels, Moscow, as well as Jerusalem, all in the same week. What is driving the Turkish prime minister round the twist?
The Arab world is in free fall. Leave aside Syria, whose regime continues to massacre its own people, and miserable Yemen, and post-civil war Libya. Egypt is dying. Erdogan’s “triumphal” appearance in Egypt served as a welcome distraction to Egyptians — welcome, because what they think about most of the time is disheartening. What’s on the mind of the Egyptian people these days? According to the Arab-language local media, it’s finding enough calories to get through the day.
Egypt imports half its caloric consumption, the price of its staple wheat remains at an all-time high, and most Egyptians can’t afford to buy it. The government subsidizes bread, but according to the Egyptian news site Youm7 (“The Seventh Day”), the country now faces “an escalating crisis in subsidized flour.” Packages of subsidized flour are not reaching the intended recipients, in part because the Solidarity Ministry hasn’t provided the promised shipments to stores, and in part because subsidized flour and bread are diverted to the black market. A small loaf of government-issue bread costs 5 piasters, or less than one U.S. cent, but it can’t be found in many areas, as the Solidarity Ministry, provincial government, and bakers trade accusations of responsibility for supply problems. Poor Egyptians get ration cards, but flour often is not available to card-holders. Rice, a substitute for wheat, also is in short supply, and the price has risen recently to 5.5 Egyptian pounds per kilo from 3.75 pounds.
Most Egyptians barely eat enough to keep body and soul together, and many are hungry. That is about to get much, much worse: The country is short about $20 billion a year. The central bank reports that the country’s current account deficit in the fiscal year ended July 1 swung from a $3.4 billion surplus in the fiscal year ended July 2010 to a deficit of $9.2 billion in the fiscal year ended July 2011. Almost all of the shift into red ink occurred since February, suggesting an annualized deficit of around $20 billion. Egypt’s reserves fell about $11 billion since the uprising began in February. Who’s going to cough up that kind of money? Not Turkey, whose own balance-of-payment deficit stands at 11% of GDP and whose currency is collapsing, as shown in the chart below:
Not the U.S. Congress, for that matter, nor the hard-pressed Europeans, who have their own problems, nor the Saudis, who can be counted on for a few billion here and there, but not $20 billion a year. I reiterate: Egypt will make Somalia look like a picnic.
It doesn’t occur to liberals that there are problems for which solutions might not exist; the notion that cultures and countries may suffer from tragic flaws does not enter into consideration, because if that were true, there would be no need for liberals. That is why Friedman, the bellwether of liberal opinion, sounds stupider than anyone else when he describes Israel as “alone and adrift at sea.” If only Netanyahu had offered his own peace plan, complains Friedman…to Hamas? A news analysis in the Times meanwhile reports the Obama administration’s consternation that every pillar of its foreign policy is crumbling at once.
If the Obama administration and the New York Times are pulling their hair out over the disintegration of Arab society, consider how Tayyip Erdogan must feel. His economic boom is about to come to a crashing end, and his country is doomed demographically to split up when Kurds outnumber Turks not long from now, as I argued here recently. And his ambitions for Turkish hegemony in the Muslim world have run directly into an existential crisis that is long past solution. That would make anyone crazy. Don’t think of the Turkish leader as an outpatient who lost his meds. In the spirit of political correctness, we might call him “existentially challenged. ”
It would be easy to overestimate just how dangerous Erdogan might become. The estimable David Warren calls him “the man who could trigger a world war.” That seems alarmist. Whom is Erdogan going to fight? Any military provocation would lead to a further collapse of the Turkish currency, and a deep setback for the Turkish economy.