BACKGROUND: The Turkish Prime Minister was one of the first world leaders to urge Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak to heed the demands of the people when the “Arab Spring” broke out. However, when the “Arab Spring” subsequently moved on to Libya, Turkey initially found it much more difficult to keep up with and adapt to the winds of change; anxious to protect its business interests, Turkey at first displayed great reluctance to break off relations with the regime of Colonel Qaddafi. Eventually, however, Turkey joined the international community in deposing the Libyan dictator.
On September 12-16, Prime Minister Erdoğan made a tour of North Africa, visiting Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia. Erdoğan’s North African tour impressed that Turkey aspires to play a decisive role as one of the leading actors in the region, and it demonstrated that the peoples of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya hold the Turkish leader in high esteem.
The positive perception of Turkey in the region has several sources. Turkey has taken a firm stance against Israel, and the Turkish support for the Palestinian cause has become much more outspoken. But above all, Turkey has come to be viewed in a much more positive light – indeed as something of a model – by the peoples of the Middle East because of the internal changes that have been enacted in Turkey during the last decade (chiefly the assertion of civilian authority over the military) and also because Ankara has exhibited a willingness to chart an independent foreign policy, as when it denied the U.S. the use of Turkish territory in the 2003 Iraq war. Turkey is well in tune with popular aspirations in the countries of the “Arab Spring” in those important respects; they underpin Ankara’s “soft power” in the region.
The Turkish Prime Minister is for good reason perceived as a leader who is prepared to speak for the “Arab street” on the international scene, as being particularly sensitive to its concerns. But, concurrently – although perhaps less obviously – Turkey’s Middle Eastern and North African aspirations are also in tune with Western interests. Even though it has by now become a worn-out cliché, the fact that Turkey straddles East and West was indeed something that Erdoğan’s North African tour did demonstrate.
IMPLICATIONS: When Erdoğan spoke at the council of foreign ministers of the Arab League in Cairo, he strongly exhorted the leaders of the Arab countries to respect their peoples’ demands for freedom, democracy and human rights. Indeed, the main theme of Erdoğan’s North African tour was Turkey’s unequivocal support for the Arab peoples’ struggle for freedom; the declaration of the Turkish Prime Minister that he no longer has any faith in the Syrian regime’s promises of enacting reforms and his stern warning to the regime in Damascus caught well-deserved attention and resonated strongly with the Arab public.
In Egypt, Erdoğan significantly made a particular point of defending secularism; he notably urged the Egyptians to adopt a constitution that enshrines secularism, telling them “don’t be afraid of secularism. I hope that Egypt will be a secular state.” These words, uttered by the leader of a political party that has its roots in an Islamic movement, were particularly striking and they did not fail to catch the due attention of the Egyptian public. Erdoğan subsequently repeated the same message in Libya and Tunisia. Erdoğan’s support for secularism was unsurprisingly welcomed by liberals and religious minorities, and it will presumably strengthen their confidence in Turkey, which already enjoys good relations with the Islamic-oriented political forces in the region.
Turkey attaches special importance to developing its ties with Egypt, with a view to ensuring that the democratic evolution of the pivotal country of the Middle East is secured. Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu thus stated that “We desire a strong, very strong Egypt”; Davutoğlu underlined that the regional power balance requires a strong Egypt, and that Turkey and Egypt are going to forge a democratic axis. “This is our strategic decision”, he pointed out, denying that the two countries are engaged in a strategic rivalry. Erdoğan and his Egyptian counterpart Isam Sharaf signed eleven protocols that cover the areas of trade, education, culture and public administration; most notably the two countries expressed their determination to deepen their economic ties. Turkish investments in Egypt are soon expected to rise to US$ 5 billion, from $1.5 billion presently.
Turkey’s rapprochement with Egypt is an attempt to counteract Iran’s ambitions; Iran has reacted sharply to the Turkish support for the deployment of NATO’s missile shield. The Iranian leaders have made clear their displeasure with the Turkish decision to host a radar installation as part of the missile shield known, and have intimated that Turkey will face serious consequences as a result.
Indeed, in several respects, Turkey’s strategic interests have once again come to converge with Western interests and priorities. Turkey’s participation in NATO’s missile shield – which is designed precisely to protect the region from Iran – as well the messages that Prime Minister Erdoğan delivered during his North African tour fit into a larger strategic picture. It was of course no coincidence that Erdoğan made a strong plea for secularism in Cairo; it was in fact a message that was addressed to the “Arab street” as well as to the West. It signals that Turkey is determined to help steering the Arab popular movements away from extremism, while it also serves to counteract the Western narrative of the last couple of years according to which Turkey is a supposedly “Islamist” power “drifting eastward”.
Turkey can also be expected to play an important role in Libya. Ankara’s main priorities in Libya are that the North African country does not become a new Iraq, torn apart by sectional strife, and the protection of its significant economic interests. Indeed, Turkey is well-positioned to ultimately rival the influence that France presently wields in Libya; the perception among the Libyan public is increasingly that France’s Libya policy is primarily driven by oil interests. That can in time have the consequence of circumscribing France’s room for maneuver in Libya. Indeed, the fact that French president Nicholas Sarkozy is known not to flinch from enacting policies that are perceived as being biased against Islam and Muslims, already works to circumscribe France’s political clout in the region.
CONCLUSIONS: Prime Minister Erdoğan’s tour of North Africa has served to impress that Turkey is determined to continue reaching out to the geography that once formed part of the Ottoman Empire, forging ever deeper economic, political, social and cultural ties with the countries of its southern hinterland. It was that imperial past that Erdoğan evoked in his victory speech after the June 12, 2011 general election, as he stated that the AKP’s election victory was something that resonated across a wide geography, from the cities of Turkey to Beirut and Damascus, over to Tripoli, Jerusalem and Gaza. Powers who seek to wield influence in the region, but who disregard Turkey’s sensibilities and expectations, will be opposed by Turkey.
Yet the most important message of Erdoğan’s North African visits is another, non-imperial one, namely that Turkey aspires to promote ideals that are those of the West – secularism, freedom and democracy. Indeed, Turkey may stand a better chance than most Western powers to influence and guide the popular tide that is sweeping away the Arab autocracies. It is of particular importance that Erdoğan makes the case for secularism and democracy in the region at a time when the opposition of the U.S. to the Palestinian aspirations has effectively deprived Washington of the capacity to wield any meaningful influence over the Arab opposition movements. Turkey is doing more than staking out a vast sphere of influence; indeed, it may prove far more consequential that Turkey assumes an ideological role.
Dr. Veysel Ayhan is currently associate professor of international relations at the Abant Izzet Baysal University, Turkey. He is also Middle East Advisor of the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM) and co-editor in chief of the Middle Eastern Analysis.
© 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 (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".