Monday, 07 February 2011

Turkey and the Middle Eastern Revolts: Democracy or Islamism?

Published in Articles

By Halil M. Karaveli and Svante E. Cornell (vol. 4, no. 3 of the Turkey Analyst)

Turkey’s leaders have embraced the popular revolts in Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries, with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and President Abdullah Gül publicly urging Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to respect the will of the people and resign. Yet where authoritarian regimes are Islamic as in Iran and Sudan, Ankara has propped them up and refrained from any criticism; only where Islamists are in opposition has the Turkish government come out in support of change to the status quo and “democracy”. In fact, the AKP foreign policy is in ever clearer terms motivated primarily by Islamic solidarity and ideology. Contrary to expectations that Turkey will serve as a moderate example to emulate for the forces that clamor for change in the Middle East, the convulsions in the Arab world risk giving further impetus to Islamic radicalization in Turkey itself.

BACKGROUND: After a string of vociferous attacks on Israel the last two years, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has become perhaps the most popular political leader on the “Arab street”. Now, Erdoğan has stepped into the fray to back the protesters in Egypt. The Turkish Prime Minister exhorted Egyptian president Mubarak to step down, stating that “no government can remain oblivious to the democratic demands of its people”. Addressing Mubarak in person, Erdoğan urged him to “know that governments that turn a blind eye to their people cannot last long”. He also saw fit to remind Mubarak that “We are mortals and each of us will die and will be judged by what we have left behind.”

From a Western perspective, statements by Turkey’s leadership criticizing Mubarak and calling for democratic change in Egypt may seem only natural and welcome; at first sight they confirm the widespread perception among international observers that Turkey, ruled by what is generally deemed to be a moderately Islamic party, represents a democratic model for the Muslim Middle East. Indeed, there is no doubt that Erdoğan and Gül sought to reinforce that image by calling for the resignation of the embattled Egyptian leader. However, promotion of democracy is not something that characterizes Turkish foreign policy toward the Muslim world in general.

In fact, the Turkish Prime Minister’s celebration of democracy in Egypt lacks credibility.  The Turkish leadership displayed no concern for democratic reform or human rights when mass protests were brutally suppressed in Iran after the theocratic regime rigged the presidential election of 2009. (See 19 June 2010 Turkey Analyst) Far from asking Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to resign or reminding him of his mortality, Erdoğan was among the first to congratulate him by telephone. Likewise, in interviews, Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu refused to discuss the validity of the Iranian presidential elections, promising “to respect the outcome of Iran’s political process” – in marked contrast to the decision to take sides in Egypt’s internal struggle.

Similarly, far from objecting to the rule of Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir, Erdoğan has repeatedly exonerated him from charges of wrongdoing in Darfur, claiming that Muslims “cannot commit genocide”. When the popular protests in Tunisia and Egypt spread to Sudan, resulting in a violent crackdown on protesters and on the media by Bashir’s regime, no statements urging the Sudanese government to respect the will of the people were issued by Ankara.

IMPLICATIONS: The diverging approaches taken by Turkey with regard to Middle Eastern governments and democratic yearnings in the region strongly suggest that something other than a supposed democratic sensitivity is at play. The common denominator of the Middle Eastern regimes facing popular discontent that have nonetheless been rewarded with the support of the Turkish AKP government – Iran and Sudan – is their adherence to Islamic principles. The Sudanese regime of Al-Bashir is essentially the heir of an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, although there have been political conflicts between the Egyptian and Sudanese Islamists. Hamas, the ruling party in Gaza, with which Turkey has more or less allied itself against Israel even though it has suppressed opposition, is similarly the Palestinian branch of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.

Thus, AKP-ruled Turkey sides with Middle Eastern dictators who are Islamists, while it calls for their resignation in countries where Islamists are the main opposition force. Erdoğan’s exhortation to Egyptian President Mubarak to resign is revelatory not so much of his democratic spirit, as of his Islamist core ideology. Indeed, to the AKP, the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt serve to validate the notion that the Islamists are on the right side of history, and may in that sense work against continued Islamist moderation: pro-government commentators in the Turkish media have notably argued that what is happening in North Africa – popular uprisings against authoritarian, supposedly ”secularist” states – is just another version of what has recently occurred in Turkey, where a popular force – Islamic conservatism, represented by the AKP – has defeated an authoritarian state apparatus.

In this view, Kemalists and secularists are the ones who are swept away from power, from Tunisia to Turkey. Turkey’s secularist founder Kemal Atatürk had indeed once been an inspiration for mid-twentieth century Middle Eastern modernizers like Habib Bourgiba, Tunisia’s first president, as well as for Egyptian presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat. Although the fortunes of secularists and Islamists are reversed, history may nonetheless be repeating itself: Like Atatürk, who was a modernizer, but who fatefully failed to infuse his enterprise with a democratic spirit as he made himself the sole master of his country’s destiny, Erdoğan can claim to be a successful modernizer as Turkey has made significant economic progress during his tenure, but he is also well on his way to establishing an authoritarian one-man rule not experienced in Turkey since the days of Atatürk. As the Turkish example shows, the new power elite is not necessarily going to be inclined to dismantle the edifice of state tutelage. (See 10 January 2011 Turkey Analyst)

The prominent Muslim intellectual Tariq Ramadan, who is the grandson of Hasan al-Banna, (the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, the main opposition force in Egypt) recently stated that the “moderation” of the Turkish AKP represents a model for the Egyptian Islamic movement. Some secularist Turkish commentators have similarly expressed the hope that the AKP will indeed have a moderating effect on the Egyptian Islamists, through the example it sets and through personal contacts. However, contrary to what appears to be a general expectation among international observers – that Turkey is going to serve as a moderate and democratic model which others in the troubled Middle East are encouraged to emulate – it could instead turn out the other way around: that the convulsions in the region give Muslim radicalization in Turkey itself renewed impetus. Indeed, the zeal with which Erdoğan has seized on the occasion to push for Mubarak’s overthrow serves to underline Turkey’s own drift toward Islamism, which has recently caused alarm among Turkish liberals. (See 24 January 2011 Turkey Analyst)

The restriction of the sale of alcohol to “children” up to the age of twenty four, the fact that punitive action has been taken against a television series that hurt religious conservative sensibilities, and Prime Minister Erdoğan’s call for the destruction of a statue of Turkish-Armenian friendship that he deemed to be a “freak” led disappointed liberals – who had lent crucial support for the AKP since it was founded – to conclude that the fine line that separates Islamic conservatism from plain Islamism has become dangerously blurred as the “moderate” Islamists have gained full control over the state.

CONCLUSIONS: In a 1994 book (Civilizational Transformation and the Muslim World) Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu explained that the collapse of socialism was no victory for the West, but “an indication of a comprehensive civilizational crisis”. The problem with the West, according to Davutoğlu, is that it relies too much on reason and experience, “neglecting revelation”. Instead, Davutoğlu explicitly advocated an Islamic world order as an alternative to Western hegemony, particularly in the Middle East.

These works are not simply arcane academic writings, but appear to strongly affect the AKP leadership’s worldview and thinking. A summer 2010 dialogue between one of this article’s authors and a deputy chairman of the AKP is most illustrative. When asked why Turkey had a stronger rhetoric on Israel than even the Arab countries, the deputy AKP leader answered that “you should never confuse the Arab leaders with the Arab populations. These monarchies – and I include Egypt in that term – will all fall, and democracy will come to the Middle East. Policies will change then.” Such comments, Davutoğlu’s writings, and Erdoğan’s inflammatory rhetoric targeting the “Arab street” strongly hint at an expectation on the part of the AKP leadership that a fundamental remake of the Middle East is inevitable, one from which Islamist forces are believed to be destined to emerge victorious.

In that light, the conclusion that imposes itself after the official Turkish reactions in the wake of the eruptions in Tunisia and Egypt is that Turkey is indeed positioning itself to assume a leadership role in this future, illiberal configuration. And as his recent, dismissive remarks about his liberal critics who had called for greater respect for freedom of expression and cultural tolerance – “the language of the intellectuals is not that of the people” – suggest, Prime Minister Erdoğan has not come out in support of the popular revolt in Egypt because he believes that such people power will give birth to freedom and an open society.

Halil M. Karaveli is Managing Editor of the Turkey Analyst and a Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint CenterSvante E. Cornell is Research Director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.

© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2010. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (, a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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