Turning a Source of Inspiration into a Regional Power: Turkey’s Middle Eastern Come Back

By Mona Sukkarieh. Published on April 26, 2011.

The various uprisings sweeping the Arab region are a source of hope for many around the world. Some have dubbed the recent awakening of the Arab masses the Arab Spring, many more enjoy comparing it to the revolutions that swept eastern Europe a couple of decades ago.

However encouraging and inspiring these revolts are, a wider sentiment seems to prevail: a cautious optimism resulting from an uncertain outcome. In Eastern Europe, revolts brought down dictatorships and established democratic regimes. In our part of the world, two revolts have already brought down dictatorships but the rest of the story is still uncertain. A few other uprisings are still taking place in the middle of a bloodbath.

For years, autocratic regimes in the Arab world were able to suppress political competition. As a result, many have taken refuge in political Islam, often establishing its base at the social level before harboring any concrete political ambitions. Their pious image contradicting with that of corrupt leaders who have amassed fortune while failing to address such profound problems as poverty and unemployment – particularly youth unemployment – that crippled their societies.

Decades later, these parties seem to be the most prepared and organized, and in some cases, the most popular and able to take on new responsibilities at the event of regime change. The prospect of political Islam dominating the political landscape after the fall of autocratic but secular regimes is a source of anxiety to many in and outside the Arab world.

Perhaps not so surprisingly, these parties are very much aware of such concerns and have tried to address them, with mixed results, by making an effort in reassuring fellow citizens and foreign audience. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has already declared that it won’t seek to obtain the majority on its own in the next parliamentary elections, nor will it impose its candidate for presidency. The Tunisian En-Nahda party made a similar statement. While it is too soon to say whether or not the Syrian uprising will be successful, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, through its Secretary-General Riad Shaqfa, also sought to reassure when it said it did not want Syria to become an Islamic state. All of them have repeatedly declared being inspired by the Turkish experience.

What they are referring to is the experience of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), founded in 2001 and dominating the Turkish political landscape ever since. The party portrays itself as a conservative political formation, advocating liberal market economy and committed to European Union membership. It is widely described as a moderate Islamic party and as such offers an attractive alternative to the sort of political Islam prevailing in countries such as Iran or Saudi Arabia. Turkish leaders, aware of the potential at stake, do not hide their desire to capitalize on the Arab revolts by promoting their own model of governance.

At stake is the potential for Turkey to assert its power in the Middle East. Tired of being snubbed by Europe, Ankara looked elsewhere to establish its influence, perhaps with the aim of rendering itself indispensable for Europe at a later stage. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has been the mastermind behind Turkey’s recent foreign policy, advocating good and friendly relations with Turkey’s neighbors. Davutoglu firmly believes that having “zero problems” with neighboring countries can only help Turkey project its influence abroad. “It is possible to have zero problems” he said in an interview with Foreign Policy, before adding: “it doesn’t mean that we will be silent in order to have good relations with all parties.”

The verbal confrontation between Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Israeli President Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in 2009 and the episode of the Turkish flotilla in 2010 boosted Turkey’s image among Arabs, several surveys even showing Mr. Erdogan as the most popular leader in the Arab world.

Turkey’s reaction to the recent wave of protests in the Arab world has been carefully crafted. Never really backing out on leaders before their ousting seemed inevitable, while strongly urging Arab governments to listen to popular demands thus ensuring good relations with the leadership whatever the outcome of the protests.

Turkey welcomed the ousting of President Ben-Ali in Tunisia, and quickly dispatched its foreign minister – the first to visit the country after the revolution – to establish contact with the new political actors and offer assistance. A month later, it welcomed Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the En-Nahda party, who did not fail to repeat, once again, that the Turkish political experience “inspires the Arab world.”

When Egyptian protesters took to the streets, Mr. Erdogan quickly urged Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to listen to the people and implement reforms. Subsequent comments during the revolution even amounted to direct intervention in Egypt’s internal affairs, particularly when a Turkish statement demanded the resignation of President Mubarak and Mr. Erdogan insisting that the transition period begin “immediately and orderly.”

As events in Libya unfolded, Turkey rushed to oppose UN sanctions and any direct foreign intervention. Hinting at “those who had initially remained silent” during the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, Mr. Erdogan condemned the double standards of some countries in dealing with cases “out of considerations for their oil interests.” Some attributed this vocal position to the billions of dollars of Turkish investments and the large Turkish community working in Libya.

Perhaps more interesting is Turkey’s reaction to the protests in Syria. On one hand, Ankara fears the events might spill over into its territory given the close affinity and cultural interaction between populations on both sides of the borders. On the other hand, it would like to avoid a chaotic scenario in Syria by pressuring president Assad into adopting reforms that would satisfy the people. It did so not only through statements, but also by tolerating a series of events that must have infuriated the Syrian leadership. Among these, a press conference organized in Istanbul by the leadership of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, condemning the Assad regime and supporting the uprising while also praising Turkey and the AKP, and the organization of a peaceful rally in support of the protests in front of the Syrian embassy in Turkey.

By doing this, Turkey is carefully trying to preserve its credentials with both the regime and population in Syria. Ultimately, Ankara will actively seek close relations with its neighbor whatever the regime in place in Damascus, as it perceives Syria as key to establish and expand its influence across the Middle East. Clashes with Iran are therefore expected in order to win over the Syrian ally. The recent warm relations between Turkey and Iran do not hide their rival intentions of exerting their influence in the Middle East.

With inspiration comes influence. Nearly a decade ago, Turkey’s presence was hardly felt in the Middle East beyond bordering countries. The recent years marked a shift in Turkish foreign policy with Turkey increasingly looking eastward instead of looking towards Europe and the West. Ankara now deploys troops in the region (within the UNIFIL contingent in South Lebanon), brokers peace negotiations between Arabs and Israelis, invests billions of dollars, establishes a visa-free zone with its neighbors, exports its culture via its influencing entertainment industry, thus “winning the hearts and minds of populations” across the region.

Scroll to Top