“Revolutions” in Egypt and Tunisia Highlight Dilemmas of Turkey’s Democracy Promotion Agenda

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 24

Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak as they pose before a meeting in Istanbul February 11, 2009 (Reuters).

Turkey has been following closely the unfolding popular “revolutions” in Tunisia and Egypt. While the Turkish public expressed support towards the masses demanding political liberalization, the Turkish government adopted a cautious approach initially, indicative of some of the contradictions that have been inherent in its policies towards the Middle East for some time.

Turkey, like many other countries, was taken by surprise over a crisis of this magnitude. Nonetheless, Turkish leaders’ rather delayed response to the popular demands in the region points to larger factors underpinning the government’s foreign policy. Especially, as this development risks straining the delicate balancing act Turkey has been performing in the region, between the Arab states on the one hand and the undemocratic authoritarian or monarchic regimes on the other. The Turkish government has gained the sympathy of the “Arab streets” owing to the successes of Turkish cultural products and to Turkey’s recent foreign policy activism in defense of some Arab causes, such as the Palestine issue. Partly in order to avoid antagonizing many of the regimes in the region, with whom it has been trying to forge closer ties, Turkey at the same time has refrained from pursuing an openly pro-democratization agenda.

Despite the emphasis Turkish government occasionally places on democracy as a foundational principle for its domestic and foreign policies, it has come under criticism on the grounds that it prioritized its relations with these regimes at the expense of people’s demands for greater democratic rights. The most controversial case in point was the Iranian elections in 2009, where Turkey was one of the first countries to congratulate President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and remained silent on the regime’s ensuing violent crackdown on the opposition (EDM, June 18, 2009).

Despite the Turkish government’s rather ambiguous position on democracy promotion, it must be acknowledged what Turkish scholar Kemal Kirisci once called the “demonstration effect” Turkey has in the region. Turkey’s experiment with popular democracy and a free market economy, especially its integration of Islamic groups into legitimate political channels, has been closely followed by many reformists in the Muslim world. The transformation of political Islamist groups in Turkey and their renunciation of non-democratic methods, which culminated in the incumbent AKP Party adopting a liberal-democratic economic and political platform, are taken as the most obvious indication of the success of this so-called Turkish model. Seen from this perspective, it is possible to hear somewhat inflated arguments among many Turkish analysts to the effect that Turkey’s rising profile in regional affairs and its vocal advocating of Arab causes, which demonstrated the failures of the authoritarian regimes, played a role in the recent wave of revolutions. According to different versions of this argument, the Turkish model of democratization inspired the “Arab streets” and precipitated these revolutions. Such views are also raised by the members of the AKP Party (Hurriyet, January 30).

Among Islamists and to some extent liberals, there is a tendency to identify positively with the demonstrators demanding for greater political rights and transparency. This struggle reminds many Turks of Turkey’s experience with democratization, whereby they managed to fight against authoritarianism or military control over civilian politics and move towards a government representative of popular will. For instance, many Islamist intellectuals draw parallels between Turkey’s experience with a one-party regime and the Kemalist ideology and the experience of Tunisia under Bin Ali. By labeling the ousted Tunisian leader’s rule as Kemalism par excellence, they seek to drive home the argument that such authoritarian forms of government are no longer sustainable in the region, including Turkey. Consequently, they use it as a basis to call for further reform of the Turkish political system (Today’s Zaman, January 25). That positive identification of Islamist with the transformations there also might have an ideological dimension to it, as the Tunisian Islamic thinker and the leader of the En-Nahda movement Rashid Al-Ghannushi and the Egyptian Muslim brotherhood have had an intellectual impact on the Islamic groups and intellectuals in Turkey.

As a reflection of such widely-held sympathy towards these revolutions shared by Turkish people and many political groups, there have been protests outside Egyptian diplomatic representations, demanding Mubarak’s resignation. It is increasingly possible to hear arguments calling on the government to play a more proactive role towards the resolution of the deepening crisis Egypt. One Turkish expert on Egypt, Ahmet Uysal, called on the government to give up its complacency, and interject itself more resolutely to prevent Egypt’s descent into instability by showing a way out of this stalemate towards democracy. In this view, only then will the Turkish government be able live up to its promises that it will play a leadership role in the region (www.sde.org.tr, February 1).

Davutoglu, however, denied the criticisms that Turkey has remained silent on the developments in Tunisia and Egypt. Davutoglu rather put the blame on the Turkish media, arguing that despite his statements in support of people’s democratic demands, Turkish commentators largely overlooked them and created such a false image about the government’s policy (IHA, February 1).

Perhaps with such criticism accumulating, Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan finally came out and invited Mubarak to respond to his people’s desire for change. “Hear the people’s outcry and their humane demands… governments cannot stand against people,” Erdogan said (Anadolu Ajansi, February 1). Many Turkish media outlets provided wide coverage of Erdogan’s statement and took it as an indication of Turkey’s emergence as a major actor that could help to resolve this crisis. Nonetheless, during our conversation on the subject in Dubai, a long-time observer of Turkish and Middle Eastern politics, Yusuf Serif of Al-Arabiyya, underscored that Erdogan’s response came rather late. Though finding Erdogan’s statement daring compared to other regional leaders’ silence, Serif draw attention to the fact that Erdogan delivered it only after the United States and other Western actors made similar arguments publicly and US President, Barack Obama, telephoned Erdogan last weekend.

The “revolutions” in the region are still unfolding and it will be interesting to observe as to whether and how the Turkish government will maneuver in a timely and efficient manner in these uncharted waters.