Turkey and the Arab Spring: a challenging winter ahead
Turkey has come out of the on-going Arab Spring as a regional leader, but 2012 will present some serious challenges to regional stability.
By Jonathan Levack for SES Türkiye in Istanbul -- 20/12/11
A little over a year ago, a young Tunisian greengrocer doused himself with petrol and set himself on fire. Frustrated by continual mistreatment by the authorities, widespread extortion and a lack of opportunities in his native country, Mohammed Bouazizi's actions inadvertently triggered a series of protests and revolutions that have radically reshaped the Middle East.
According to a Brookings poll, Erdogan is the world leader most admired by Arabs. [Reuters]
Syrians in Jordan rally in support of Turkey's policy against Syria. [Reuters]
Tahrir Square in Cairo has become the spiritual epicentre of the Arab Spring. [Reuters]
The events that have come to be known as the Arab Spring have consigned regional stalwarts like Tunisia's Ben Ali, Libya's Gaddafi, Egypt's Mubarak and perhaps even Yemen's Saleh to the history books.
The prospect for further change is still very much alive, with tensions still continuing in Syria, Bahrain and Morocco.
Up until the onset of the Arab Spring, Turkey had been enjoying a period of renaissance in the region. Gone were the days of mutual ambivalence: trade quadrupled in the space of just ten years, Turkey became a key regional power from Iraq and Iran through to Syria and Israel, and Turkish soap operas were the talk of the Arab Street.
So popular had Turkey become, that in a 2010 Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV) poll of citizens in the region, 85% had a favourable or very favourable view of the country -- higher than any other country inside or outside the Middle East.
Turkey was also heralded as a model for its successful, if imperfect, democracy that encompassed faith and secularism, a globally competitive market economy and a confident regional power that was part of Western institutions but appeared to act independently as well.
According to TESEV's pre-Arab Spring poll, no less than two thirds of people in the region saw Turkey as a model for the Middle East.
Turkey's star seems to have risen further in 2011. According to a recent Brookings poll, Turkey has been the biggest winner in the Arab Spring because it was seen as playing the most constructive role during events.
Likewise, Foreign Policy magazine's recent poll of leading global thinkers puts Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan third on a list of the most influential leaders behind Barak Obama and Angela Merkel.
Their findings are confirmed by Mustafa El-Labbad, director of the Al Sharq Centre for Regional and Strategic Studies in Cairo, who told SES Türkiye that "Turkey is the clear winner of the Arab Spring."
"When we looked from Europe, there was an expectation that Turkey's popularity must have been shattered by events but when you actually look from the region, it seems that the popularity of Turkey and its political class has actually increased," notes Gunter Seufert of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
Despite originally flip-flopping on Libya, Turkey ultimately came out on the side of protesters and change, boosting the country's popularity and influence. During his September tour of the region, Erdogan was greeted like a "rock star".
For Sanem Güner of the Hollings Centre for International Dialogue, even the sceptics "grew fonder of Turkey after Erdogan called on Mubarak to resign".
The Turkish model, especially the example provided by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), is still in vogue. Indeed, Tunisia's Islamist Ennhada party and Morocco's own Justice and Development Party have said they view the AKP as a model.
Despite misgivings in Turkey, El-Labbad says that "the Turkish model is still inspiring for many forces in the region."
In the eyes of many, Turkey remains the region's beacon in confusing times; the likelihood of it maintaining its newfound role as a regional leader seems, superficially at least, set.
But is another story emerging? As Turkey becomes more influential, the expectations and responsibilities placed on it also increase.
With the post-Arab Spring situation far from stabilised, two of the region's biggest challenges are going to severely test Turkish policymakers' ability to make the right move at the right time.
While the catalyst for the uprisings was a young Tunisian, Tahrir Square quickly became its spiritual epicentre -- Cairo reaffirmed its positions as the Arab world's most important capital.
Yet having extolled the benefits of secularism on Egyptian television, the outcome of Egypt's democratic transition may yet prove a challenge to Erdogan and Turkish policymakers.
With the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party and Salafist al-Noor Party winning a combined two thirds of votes in the first round of parliamentary elections, the rift created by Erdogan's positive comments about secularism has potentially lessened Turkey's relationship and influence over the traditional leader of the Arab region.
According to El-Labbad, "after the first round of the parliamentary elections, the [Muslim] brothers' attitude tended to distance itself from the Turkish model. Yes, the results of the first round of the elections proved that Turkey and Egypt are friends and good neighbours, but not necessarily strategic partners -- as Turkey wished three months ago."
El-Labbad's point was echoed by Seufert who told SES Türkiye that "there are now two axises that matter in Egypt -- the Muslim Brotherhood/Salafists and the army."
"The first sees Erdogan's stance on secularism and the Army sees Turkey's successful deconstructing of their counterpart's position in the country. As a result, both may now not bow to Turkey's advice," he says.
With Turkey's Egypt policy requiring fine tuning, Syria too is proving a major headache for Turkish policymakers. With the regime showing no willingness to reform over the last few years, Turkey has experienced the limits of its regional influence.
"They [the AKP] had been legitimating the Assad regime for the past few years and whenever they got criticised they would talk about interdependency and Turkey's soft power. I think with the Syria episode, the interdependency theory collapsed," Guner says.
Turkey has now turned against its former friend and placed itself at the forefront of international condemnation of Assad, openly embracing the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC).
It is also harbouring the Free Syrian Army, which has recently stepped up armed attacks against security and intelligence forces in Syria, adding a new dimension to the unfolding conflict.
Meanwhile, Iran continues to provide full support to its ally Syria, through which it is able to extend its strategic reach in the Levant through Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. The loss of Syria would be a strategic disaster for Shia Iran, but constitute a victory for the Sunni states that are Iran's regional rivals.
Turkey's position against Assad has placed it firmly on one side of this emerging regional fault line that has serious potential consequences for the country and the rest of the Middle East.
For El-Labbad, this is to be a significant characteristic of regional politics moving forward. "The anti-Iran policy will, most probably, bound Islamists, the Arab Gulf countries and Turkey together," he said.
With Turkey long trying to maintain functioning relations with Tehran, supplier of about 20% of its gas, the impact of failing relations could be felt close to home.
Despite being traditionally wary of sanctions, Turkey is a key driver behind the current round of economic sanctions against the Syrian regime. But with Iran having vested interests in keeping the regime afloat, there is a significant risk that sanctions may not induce Assad's fall.
Further, with the West firmly in the region's Sunni camp, Turkey's reputation as an independent regional actor may eventually be at risk. Having worked so hard to rid itself of the image of Western stooge in the region, "Turkey has to be careful not to be seen as a sub-contractor of the West," says Seufert.
As Turkey is finding out in the wake of the Arab Spring, power and influence bring great responsibility and hard choices. With the aftermath of the Arab Spring far from settled, Turkey faces numerous challenges in 2012 that will test its ability to give direction to events in the region.
A challenging winter awaits.