Monday, 02 May 2011

Will the Arab Uprisings Result in the Emergence of a Sunni Bloc Dominated by Turkey?

Published in Articles

By Ely Karmon (vol. 4, no. 9 of the Turkey Analyst)

Against the background of the fall of the autocratic regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, the massive demonstrations in Yemen, Syria and Bahrain, the civil war in Libya and first civil disorders in Oman, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, there is growing apprehension in the West and among secular and liberal circles in the Arab world the uprisings could result in the coming to power of Islamist movements.

BACKGROUND: The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s only viable organized opposition  movement, claims it is only a supporting player in the revolt and promised not to field a candidate for president or seek a parliamentary majority in the expected elections. Yet there are increasing signs that the Muslim Brotherhood, which deliberately maintained a low profile during the three-week street protests, is flexing its muscles as Egypt tries to build a new government. Thus, it recently announced that it has formed a political party, the Freedom and Justice party, “independent from the Brotherhood but coordinating with it." Mohamed Morsy, a member of the Brotherhood's politburo who will lead the new party, claimed that the party “will not be Islamist in the old understanding". The group reiterated its promise not to field a candidate in November’s presidential election but declared its goal of winning half of parliament’s 508 elected seats, after an earlier pledge by its leaders to contest just a third of the seats.

One of the arguments in favor of the inclusion of Islamist parties in the political framework of future Arab political systems is that an inclusive policy would increase the likelihood of goading these groups toward acting responsibly and democratically, on the example of the Turkish Justice and Development Party (AKP).

For example, Luxembourg's foreign minister Jean Asselborn, during a recent visit to Ankara, called on Arab nations to take Turkey as a "reference" for democratic reform, based on his convinction that democracy and Islam are not in opposition. Asselborn is not alone: Leslie Gelb, president of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, argued that Turkey will be a model for Arab nations in their process of democratization. Robert Malley, Special Assistant to former President Bill Clinton and an expert on Middle Eastern issues, similarly predicted that Arab publics will wish their governments “to be more like Turkey and less like Egypt.”

These views are not only voiced in the West, but in Arab countries as well. Ibrahim El-Houdaiby, a leading young member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, stated already in 2008 that Egypt and the Arab World can learn a lot from the Turkish experience: accepting the electoral process, the presence of secularism and avoiding violent confrontation with modernism.  Tariq Ramadan, the grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna, stated that “democratic Turkey is the template for Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood.” Osman Mirghani, senior journalist for Saudi Arabia's influential newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat considers that if the Muslim Brotherhood will “support a civil state, without marginalizing Copts or women, and aim to establish a democracy that entails the peaceful exchange of power” it could become the Arab version of the Turkish model, thus proving Islamist movements can be legitimate political actors.

Indeed, in an interview after his return from exile, Rashid Al-Ghannouchi, the leader of the Tunisian Islamist Al-Nahda Movement, said that the best model he “can think of is the one adopted by the AKP in Turkey.” By contrast, Ghannouchi considers the Islamist experiences in Iran, Afghanistan and Sudan unsuccessful. And a recent posting on the website of the Muslim Brotherhood claims that “many young Egyptian activists who fought for the revolution…see their ultimate model in Turkey, a country that appears to them to be fulfilling its economic and strategic potential under a proudly Muslim government, and is an ally, but not a lackey, of the West.”

The Turkish media, especially the pro-government ones, are excited by the prospect of AKP becoming a role model for the democratization of Arab countries as this can serve Turkey’s interests in the region and a source of inspiration and courage for all Arabs. Some see the Arab street “fascinated by Turkey and its leaders” and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan a hero of the Arab world. (See 7 February 2011 Turkey Analyst)

IMPLICATIONS: Yet Turkey’s experience suggests the pitfalls of appeasing Islamism, and the difficulty of co-opting Islamist parties into a democratic political system. It should be remembered that the Turkish military and secular elites already tried to co-opt the Islamists, without success. While the 1980-1983 military government did break up the extreme left and right, it did not similarly target Islamism. In marked contrast to Turkey’s first two military coups, the military authorities in the 1980s emphasized the importance of religion in the nation’s political life and launched a new ideological concept called “The Turkish-Islamic Synthesis,” which represented an attempt to integrate Islamists, and to appropriate the Islamic agenda for itself. This opened the way for Islamic movements to flourish, in other words letting the Islamic genie out of the bottle. Thus, far from being marginalized, the Islamic movement survived and grew in importance during the 1980s and 1990s.

Turkey’s increased involvement in Middle East conflicts after the AKP came to power in 2002 was initially seen as a bridge between the West and the Muslim world, but reversed since its reelection in 2007 towards support for Muslim causes against the West. In parallel, the AKP’s domestic stance grew increasingly authoritarian. This evolution was entirely predictable: the Turkish Islamists moderated their anti-Western rhetoric and recognized secular democracy only after the military intervened to remove the Islamist Welfare Party from power in 1997, and the Constitutional Court shut down both the Welfare Party in 1998 and its successor the Virtue Party in 2001. With these checks and balances gradually neutralized, the AKP has turned authoritarian.

The policy of the AKP government with regard to developments in the Arab world is speaking for itself in its inconsistency. (See 21 March 2011 Turkey Analyst) Prime Minister Erdoğan adopted a hypocritical posture by calling on Egyptian authorities “to relinquish power and secure a transition of power” while continuing to endorse Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad; in early February, Erdoğan met with Assad, agreeing “to rally efforts regarding unrest in Egypt so to spare the people from any more suffering.”  Of course, Syria is the most repressive regime in the region, as has been made clear by the events of the past several weeks. By late April, Erdoğan  seemed to have discovered this, urging Assad to show restraint and implement reforms – but falling far short of his earlier rhetoric on Egypt.

Suggesting that Turkish policy on Syria may be changing, Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood leaders Riad Al-Shaqfa and Mohamed Tayfur recently visited Turkey “to meet with Turkish non-government organizations and to get their message out to the media” and in late April, Istanbul has hosted a meeting of members of the Syrian opposition leaders in exile.

Needless to say, there is no Turkish criticism of Iran. Turkish President Abdullah Gül has found these days of regional turmoil the best time to visit Iran and enhance economic cooperation with the ayatollahs. During his meeting with Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei, Gül indeed mentioned the importance of popular legitimacy of governments; but he did not meet the Iranian opposition leaders. In fact, the AKP’s policy during the past several years has consistently supported Iran and tried to mitigate Tehran’s isolation, either through economic cooperation, political dialogue or fierce opposition to international sanctions against its nuclear program.(See 17 February 2010 Turkey Analyst)

Behind the scenes, however, the neo-Ottoman aspects of Turkey’s activism in foreign policy have raised the specter of a future rivalry with Iran’s regional and global aspirations on the historical model of the Ottoman Empire vs. Safavid Persia.

If Egypt and Syria follow the Turkish model, the real beneficiary of the uprisings would be Turkey, with its historical Ottoman heritage of control of the Levant and North Africa. Indeed, as Israeli expert Efraim Inbar has observed, one could envisage a scenario in which the growing islamization of governments in the Middle East leads Turkey in an increasingly Islamist direction, creating a strong Muslim revisionist state at the edge of Europe, with aspirations to extend its influence toward the West, the Balkans and beyond.

It remains to be seen how the relationship between Iran and Turkey would evolve in such a scenario. On the Iranian side, voices warning about the possibility that the improvement of Turkey’s status in the region may come at Iran’s expense have already been heard. Indeed, during Gul’s visit, some Iranian media outlets voiced concern over Turkey’s intentions and attempts to improve its regional status at Iran’s expense. Although the expansion of ties with Turkey may be beneficial for Iran and prove that the international sanctions policy has failed, Turkey has more to gain than Iran from a rapprochement, these Iranian observers claim. The economic daily Donya-ye Eqtesad  noted that the long-standing relations between the two countries were not based solely on friendship but also on rivalry and paradoxically “the rise of Islam only further intensified the competition between the two countries.”

CONCLUSIONS: One of the strategic consequences of the uprisings and turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa is Turkey’s newly regained predominance and its transformation into a regional power.

Indeed, the AKP government had positioned itself very well for the current events, bolstering its credibility in Islamist circles by actively supporting Hamas in its competition with the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority and against Israeli attempts to isolate it in Gaza; by supporting Sudanese Islamist President Omar al-Bashir; by maintaining excellent relations with the Syrian regime; and by improving its position in Lebanon by courting all the parties in conflict.

Turkey’s new regional status, and the admiration it raises in the Arab world, will be an asset to Prime Minister Erdoğan in the June 2011 elections, and may serve to push the ambitious and domineering AKP leader to accelerate the Islamization of the country.

If Islamist parties in the major Arab states indeed succeed to gain power in the near future, this would likely lead to the emergence of a Sunni Middle Eastern bloc dominated by Turkey, whose economy and global standing would make it a natural leader of this grouping. This would further reduce incentives for Turkey’s leaders to align with Europe, pursuing instead a position of regional power in the Middle East. But should this happen, this bloc will sooner or later challenge the Shi’a theocratic regime in Iran, and would be likely to seek to expand its influence among the Sunni majority in Syria and the Sunni community in Lebanon. As often in the Middle East, this competition for regional hegemony could incite more radicalization and violence, rather than cooperation and stability.

Dr. Ely Karmon is Senior Research Scholar at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) and The Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS) at The Interdisciplinary Center (IDC), Herzlyia, Israel.

© 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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