The Rise and Fall of Turkey as a Model for the Arab World

Editors Note: On August 16, 2013, Senior Fellow Kemal Kirisci gave an address at the Chautauqua Institution in which he spoke about the state of democracy in Turkey and that country’s role as a model for the Middle East. The below article was circulated to attendees before his speech.

As the Arab Spring spread from Tunisia to the rest of the Middle East early in 2011, the longtime opposition figure Rashid al-Gannouchi, also the co-founder and leader of Tunisia’s an-Nahda party, was among the many leaders who pointed to Justice and Development Party (AKP)-led Turkey as a model for guiding the transformation of the Middle East. Gannouchi maintained close relations with AKP and its leadership, which later became closely involved in Tunisia’s transformation efforts. Yet, after a May 2013 talk on “Tunisia’s Democratic Future” at The Brookings Institution, Gannouchi’s response to a question asking him which countries he thought constituted a model for Tunisia was striking because he did not mention Turkey. It is probably not a coincidence that he responded the way he did because the news about the harsh police response to the initial stages of the anti-government protests in Turkey was just breaking out. Subsequently, in an interview he gave to Jackson Diehl of The Washington Post early in June, he also took a critical view of both Mohammed Morsi and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for their majoritarian understanding of democracy, a view that he said an-Nahda renounces. So what happened to Turkey’s model credentials? What might have led Gannouchi to change his views so dramatically? Are there any prospects for Turkey to reclaim these credentials?

For a long time, Turkish schoolchildren were taught how the 1923 establishment of the Turkish Republic on the ashes of the Ottoman Empire and the reforms introduced by the founder of the republic Kemal Atatürk constituted an example for nearly all the national liberation struggles against colonial powers during the first half of the 20th century. As the Soviet Union collapsed and the question of reform and democratization emerged in its former republics, The Economist announced Turkey to be the “Star of Islam” and a model particularly for the newly independent Central Asian republics. Roughly a decade later, the idea of Turkey as a “model” was raised once again, this time by U.S. President George W. Bush, when he launched the Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative after intervening against Saddam Hussein in Iraq. In both cases, Turkey’s “model” credentials were promoted by the West because Turkey was both a secular Muslim country and a democracy with a liberal market and close ties to the West. But many Turkish leaders were somewhat reluctant to take up the mantle of a role model and some even feared that this could undermine Turkey’s national identity and secularism.

The Arab Spring brought about a different context. This time it seemed that it was the Arab world that was keen to take Turkey as a model. Public opinion surveys run by the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV) between 2010 and 2012 repeatedly showed that approximately 60 percent of the Arab public saw Turkey as a model and believed that Turkey could contribute positively to the transformation of the Arab world. A number of factors made Turkey attractive to the post-Spring Arab public. The most visible one was Turkey’s economic performance. The impressive growth rates that the Turkish economy achieved at a time when Western economies were suffering caught attention. This was accompanied by the growing visibility of Turkish manufactured goods and investments in the region. Furthermore, the Turkish government’s efforts to encourage regional economic integration and the signing of free trade agreements with a string of countries including Syria and Lebanon was welcomed as development that would help the region’s economic development. The AKP government’s policy to liberalize visa requirements also made it possible for an ever-growing number of Arab tourists, professionals and students to come and see this economic performance with their own eyes. The fact that a political party with Islamist roots was in power in Turkey since 2002 and that it had introduced a long list of reforms to improve the quality of Turkey’s democracy was another factor that strengthened Turkey’s model credentials. In the early stages of the AKP’s government, Turkey’s close relations with the EU and its prospects of membership also attracted considerable positive attention and appreciation.

Turkey’s popularity was also strengthened by the “zero problems with neighbors” policy of Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmet Davutoğlu. In the Middle East, the cornerstone of this policy was Turkey’s ability to improve its relations with neighboring countries and to talk to all parties involved in the region’s disputes. In Lebanon, Turkey was able to engage with Hezbollah as well as with the Christian and Sunni leaderships. The same was true of Iraq, where Turkey maintained close contacts with Sunni, Shi’a, Kurdish and Turkmen parties during much of the 2000s. Longstanding tensions with Syria over territorial disputes, water rights and the Kurdish issue were replaced by much closer and warmer relations. Additionally, Erdoğan’s critical stance toward Israel and his support for the Palestinian cause galvanized the Arab street even if it did raise some eyebrows in diplomatic circles.

However, this positive climate did not last very long and, as a result of at least two important developments, Turkey’s credentials began to weaken. Firstly, as the excitement over the region’s prospects of transformation from authoritarian to more democratic regimes waned and peaceful revolutions were replaced by civil war, sectarian strife and instability, Turkey increasingly became embroiled in the regional conflicts rather than an arbiter of them. The worst of this turnabout occurred in the case of Turkey’s relationship with Syria, once presented as a resounding success of Turkey’s “zero problems” policy at its best, which has deteriorated into virtual undeclared warfare. Practically all the gains achieved with respect to visa liberalization and economic integration has collapsed. The free trade agreement with Syria was suspended in December 2011, the one in Lebanon could not be activated and relations with the Nouri al-Maliki government in Iraq entered an impasse. Most recently the new Egyptian regime appears inclined to reassess Egypt’s relations with Turkey in reaction to Erdoğan’s bitter criticisms of the military intervention and pro-Morsi stand. As a result, many commentators have come to characterize this dramatic transformation in Turkish foreign policy as “zero neighbors without problems.”

Secondly, the brutal police repression used against the anti-government protests in Istanbul and across Turkey coupled with Erdoğan’s choice of denigrating language toward the protestors raised doubts about the quality of Turkey’s democracy. Even before the protests broke out, these doubts had already started to be expressed, particularly with respect to press freedoms and the freedom of expression. Turkey had increasingly been cited as a country that had a greater number of journalists in jail than did China, Iran and Russia. Furthermore, Turkey’s inability to resolve its Kurdish problem — ironically at a time when the prime minister was launching an effort to address the problem — began to be seen as yet another weakness that engendered views critical of Turkey’s model credentials. The coup de grace came as Erdoğan in his third term of office, after a resounding electoral victory in 2011, began to adopt an increasingly authoritarian style of leadership in his third term of office, grew unwilling to accept criticisms and displayed a majoritarian understanding of democracy. His discourse and policies became more and more at odds with a country characterized by diversity in all senses of the word: culturally, ethnically, religiously, socially and politically. It is then not surprising that Gannouchi should have reconsidered his views about Turkey’s model credentials for Tunisia’s transformation and taken a critical view of Erdoğan’s own democratic credentials.

Is this then the end of the road for Turkey as a model for the transformation of the Middle East? The answer will clearly depend a lot on the lessons that Erdoğan and his government will draw from the protests in Turkey as well as the loss that Turkey’s role-model status has suffered recently. It is difficult to see how Turkey could revitalize these credentials if Erdoğan maintains his current domestic and regional courses of action. It is also difficult to see how, under these circumstances, Turkey would be able to finally resolve the thorny Kurdish issue, continue to keep the economy growing, maintain Turkey as a major attraction for tourism, raise new generations of youth capable of keeping up with the challenges of globalization and, perhaps most importantly, manage the Syrian crisis in a manner that does not draw Turkey into it. The alternative course of action would revisit the pragmatism and inclusiveness that characterized the first two AKP governments. Such a course of action would revitalize Turkey’s democratic transition and credentials as a model capable of reconciling Western liberal values with a religiously conservative society. Indeed, such a Turkey would regain its constructive role in its neighborhood and also energize its relationship with the EU. Yet, if the current course of action is maintained, it may well drag Turkey into turmoil and the kind of instability and polarization that could cause Turkey to look more like the post-Arab Spring Middle East rather than an inspiration for pluralist democracy, consensus building and tolerance.