Those who watched the Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan storm out of a Davos panel on Thursday after a loud exchange with Israeli President Shimon Peres may have witnessed one of the biggest diplomatic brawls of their lifetime.
One Turkish diplomat said, “Not since Nikita Khrushchev##s banging of his shoe at the United Nations  have I seen anything like this on the world stage,” referring to the Soviet leader##s outrage during a U.N. discussion.
But for us Turks, watching Erdogan “lose it” at the World Economic Forum##s meeting in Davos, Switzerland, was nothing new. It was, rather, an Erdogan classic–charismatic yet boorish; ardent but intimidating.
The combustion occurred when the moderator of the session on the Middle East, The Washington Post##s David Ignatius, refused to allow Erdogan more time to rebut Peres## passionate defense of Israel##s recent Gaza offensive. “President Peres, you are old, and your voice is loud out of a guilty conscience,” Erdogan said, red-faced and turning angrily to Peres, “When it comes to killing, you know very well how to kill. I know well how you hit and kill children on beaches.”
He then finished his remarks and left the podium, saying, “Davos is over for me.”
Temper tantrums are not new for the 54-year-old Islamist leader, who rose to prominence through grass-roots politics – despite efforts by the secular Turkish establishment – and seems to have won over the masses with his unique combination of conservatism and street smarts.
He was greeted to a hero##s welcome back in Istanbul a few hours later as thousands of supporters, angry not only at Israel##s 22-day Gaza offensive against fellow Muslims but also at years of being snubbed by Europeans who deemed Turkey unfit for membership in their union. They chanted, “We are proud of you,” and some signs read “Conqueror of Davos!” One man in the crowd said Erdogan “had woken up a giant that has been sleeping for a hundred years.”
Such is Turkey##s complex legacy of having once been an empire across three continents, under the Ottomans, and losing it over a few decades. Modern Turkey is a secular republic and an integral part of the Western alliance, but the Erdogan government##s efforts to increase Turkey##s sphere of influence eastward, into the Middle East and Asia, has stirred up some ancient longing for an imperial global role here. Erdogan, tall and charismatic, has bestowed upon Turks what Vladimir Putin gave Russians: a lost sense of pride.
A friend who grew up in a Turkish immigrant family in Europe, and later got a policy job in Washington, once told me that during one of his early meetings in D.C., he started sobbing–quietly sobbing–when he heard Turkey being praised by Americans. They were tears to wash away years of inferiority and humiliation, and that is what Erdogan##s gesture means to many Turks here.
But the Turkish premier##s angry outbursts are of course very different from Putin##s silent, calculating steps to revive the Russian empire. Here we call Erdogan “Kasimpasali,” from Kasimpasa, in reference to the high-crime neighborhood where he grew up. (It##s sort of like saying “he##s is from the ##hood.”) Never one to master anger management since being elected to his second term in 2007 with a 47% vote, Erdogan has increasingly become more belligerent, lashing out at reporters, columnists, aides or members of the business community.
Nothing is more intimidating to a journalist or businessman than having the prime minister publicly condemning you or calling you a liar, and so Peres, too, must have felt thrown off when he was called in front of a global audience “old” and a “killer” by Erdogan, and later a “liar” by the Turkish leader##s wife, Emine Erdogan.
Temper tantrums often pay off, traumatizing the other side rather than the person who loses control. Westerners hate public confrontation; Erdogan thrives on it. Here in Turkey each of his outbursts has increased Erdogan##s aura of awe and authority. With public rebuke or court cases against members of media, he has effectively silenced major criticism of his policies.
His public feud with Dogan Holding, Turkey##s largest media company, has essentially scared other publishers so much that few want to be–or could afford to be–critical of the government these days. Today 50% of the media has been transferred to or is owned by publishers sympathetic to Erdogan##s AKP party; the remaining half is too cautious to pick a row with Erdogan, who has by far emerged as the most powerful leader in recent Turkish history.
Not bad for an emotional guy. But this is not just a story about power and personality.
Years ago, I had an interview with a junior Islamist parliamentarian who had a very well-articulated position on why he opposed Turkey##s European Union membership. He said to me, “Would you rather be the last of the wolves or the first of the lambs? In Europe, we are the last of wolves. For the Middle East, we can be a leader.”
At the time, this was seen as a crazy idea. My newspaper ran a story “Ottoman Dream,” saying Islamists were trying to revive an Ottoman past. The parliamentarian was called Abdullah Gul. Today, he is Turkey##s president, a largely symbolic post he attained with Erdogan##s backing.
Under Erdogan##s leadership, AKP has not only emerged as the strongest force in Turkey but has also altered the secular republic##s foreign policy orientation away from the West to a more multipronged regional leadership role. During the recent crisis in Gaza, Erdogan has led the most vocal opposition to Israel from the Muslim world, even going so far as to become an unofficial spokesman for Syria and Hamas. Turkey today values its relationships with Russia, Iran and the Arab world almost on equal footing with its traditional ties to Israel and the West.
I imagine Erdogan##s Davos performance will eventually have a cost in terms of Turkey##s alliance with Israel, Europe and Washington, but will make him a hero in the Muslim world. And that may just be what he wants after all.
Asli Aydintasbas is an Istanbul-based journalist and former Ankara bureau chief of the newspaper Sabah. Forbes Magazine