Harvard | November 6, 2011 at 7:21 pm

Turkey and the Middle East in the Aftermath of the Arab Spring

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We have all witnessed the rapid societal changes throughout the Middle East over the past year. The revolution in Egypt, the flotilla incident between Turkey and Israel, the uprisings in Syria, and many others. These and the recent death of Gaddafi have raised the question: now what?

On October 26, Mario Zucconi, Lecturer in Public and International Affairs at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School came to Harvard to give a speech about how the recent events in the Middle East, especially the Arab Spring, affect the diplomatic relationship between Turkey and the European Union.

The first thing Professor Zucconi mentioned was the incompatibility between Islam and democracy. He outlined four major obstacles to democratization for Arab States. These include the fact that different social and economic conditions bring about different outcomes, little experience with democracy, the past authoritarian regimes, and the difficulties in gaining acceptance into international organizations. The Islam itself is not an obstacle, but rather the history of these Islamic regions.

All these difficulties explain why so much present attention is given to Turkey. During the last few years, Turkey’s actions have been followed and scrutinized throughout the Arab world. The most obvious reason is that Turkey successfully democratized as an Islamic country, but there is more to the story.

A New Leader, A New Movement

Since their election in Turkey’s November 2002 elections, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) rulers, especially the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, took on various roles that contributed to their attention from the Middle East and changed the perspective of the Arab world on Turkey.

Turkey has always been looked by hostility in the Arab world. The hostility rose to a great level after the conflicts World War I and when Ataturk abolished the Caliphate, the official leadership of the Islam world, in the name of secularism in Turkey. Moreover, the respective military coups, particularly the coup of 1980, reinforced Turkey’s undemocratic character in Arab eyes.

After the election of the present leaders, the Justice and Development Party that was led by former Islamist leaders, the relationship between Arab nations and Turkey took a rapid turn. This was especially evident when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan burst out of the Davos World Economic Forum in 2009 after repeatedly asking to speak and saying “one minute”. Thousands of people all around the Middle East, especially in the Gaza Strip, went out in the streets with Turkish flags and pictures of Erdogan, cheering for the “One Minute.”

Erdogan’s popularity increased with the fact that Arabs view him as a leader who was democratically elected, unlike their own dictators. Erdogan’s popularity increased each time Turkey had an election: He raised his vote from around 35 percent in 2002 to 50 percent in 2011.  The idea of democratic reelection reinforces the image of Erdogan as a strong leader in the Middle East.

Throughout all of these diplomatic ties, Turkey’s Islamic character plays a significant role. As an Islamic country, Turkey stands as an example of a country which achieved democratization and liberalization of economy. When Arabs see Turkey as a country which can have both democracy and an economic boom, they point they fingers and say: I want that too.

From 2003, the average economic growth in Turkish Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was 7%. In the first quarter of last year, it was 11%, even higher than China. Many review this as a spectacular economic accomplishment, and Turkey has been called the “China of Europe”.

“They are one of us!”

Turkey had been the major stabilizing factor in the region for the last decade. The relationship between Turkey and Iraq, as well as Turkey and Syria was appreciated greatly in the Arab world as Turkey contributed critically to the diplomatc stabilization in those regions.

Some argue there is the idea that Turkey can solve the problem that the US was not capable of solving: the Israel problem. The main argument is that now, Turkey is not only one of the most influential countries in the region, but it is also one of the countries he Arab World trusts the most. One journalist expressed the sentiment as: “No matter what, they are part of us.”

In 2002, Arab public opinion was highly negative on Turkey. In the region, statistically Turkey had the third lowest scores among the general public, only after Israel and the US.  In 2010, 85% of the population had a strong positive opinion on Turkey, among the highest in the region. These numbers, even though their reliability is debatable, demonstrates the major influence of Turkish politics on the Middle East.

The Turkish Model

Turkey is the successful model of Islam and democracy. Some even called the process in Turkey “The Turkish Model”. The rising society in the Arab Spring wants to see their country modernize and enter the Modern World. This is a new sector of people, a new generation who want modernization. They desire economic development and democratization. Turkey is a powerful validation of their stand for the direction of their country.

For these reformists, Turkish experience is the best combination of Islam and democracy, because according to them, only an Islamic country with a developed sector which can ascend to power without a catastrophic fear of falling apart can stand still in the violent atmosphere of the Middle. Besides, Turkey is the only exemplary for the Arab world for democracy right now, especially considering the existence of democratic elections, women rights and the extent of civil rights.

However, should the Arab States imitate the Turkish model? Turkey is still not a fully modernized country. Sixty-four journalists are in jail in Turkey now, more than in any other country; violence against women is among the worst in the world; and the last elections led to a huge parliamentary crisis in the country. Turkey is not a perfect nation, but it is the best model of an Islamic democracy that the Arab States have now.

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