The Turkish model: neither authoritarian nor Islamist


TODAY’S ZAMAN - For years the people of the Middle East were squeezed between “two ways.” They had to put up with a repressive regime, fearing that the alternative is a totalitarian Islamist state. Or an Islamist regime was tolerated to avoid social and political chaos that would invite foreign intervention.

The latest people movements in Tunisia and Egypt bring up the possibility of a third way for the Middle East. In this context the Turkish experience with democracy shows that Middle Eastern peoples do not have to choose between an authoritarian government and an Islamist regime. There is a third option, which is a representative and accountable government with free and fair elections conducted regularly.

Turkey and the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) represent a third way in the Middle East. The “new Turkey” is certainly a success story with its advancing democracy and flourishing economy under a free market and an open economy. The AK Party with its “conservative” social and cultural outlook but “liberal” political and economic program stands as an interesting case to look up to.

During the revolutionary change in Egypt, the role played by the Turkish government has also positively contributed to this image of being a role model. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was the most vocal in the Muslim world about the demonstrations in Egypt. From the beginning he called on Mubarak to be responsive to the demands of the Egyptian people and to quit. As far as I know there was no other leader in the Islamic world clearly asking Mubarak to leave office. Erdogan was direct when he called on Mubarak and his close associates to “meet the democratic demands of the Egyptian people.” Even before Mubarak’s downfall he called for a transitional government that would supervise the election of a new parliament and president as well as constitutional reforms. He was bold in meeting the expectations of ordinary Arabs on the street. The Erdogan government was engaged in Egypt from the beginning of the demonstrations until the downfall. This was so because, first of all, the government was under pressure by people at home. From the very beginning the people of Turkey sided with the Egyptians who were asking Mubarak to go. The government could not remain indifferent to public opinion in a democratic regime. Besides, it was impossible for the AK Party, as a party that stands for “change” and “people power” in Turkey, to side with an authoritarian government that represented the status quo and the oppression of popular will in the Middle East. Thus the claim of the ruling AK Party to be the champion of challenging the status quo at home and being respectful to people power did not leave any other option but to side with the aspirations of the Egyptian people and take the risk of standing up to the Mubarak regime.

Second, the pressure on the Arab streets was also felt in Ankara. Prime Minister Erdogan had gained the trust and respect of Arabs on the street through his stance on the Iraq war and the Palestinian cause. Speaking out against Israeli atrocities in Gaza before the international community, as in the case of the “one minute” incident at Davos, had turned Erdogan into a hero among many Arabs. Moreover, the fact that Erdogan had a “brotherly” approach to the Arabs as opposed to the “typical” Kemalist-secularist politicians of Turkey, endeared him to the hearts of many people in the region. So, his popularity among the Arab peoples forced him to support the people vis-à-vis the Egyptian establishment.

Third, the Turkish government assessed that democratic change in Egypt would resolve a long-time and structural problem of the region -- that is, the lack of legitimacy. As such, a representative government in Egypt with wider democratic institutions is expected to contribute to regional stability through legitimate governments. The Turkish side assumed rightly that a democratic government is a strong government due to its undisputed legitimacy. It is good that democracy is not regarded as a risk but an opportunity to establish a stable and durable regional system.

Fourth, the Turkish government expects a post-Mubarak regime in Egypt to create a new regional equilibrium of power which would be conducive to resolving the Palestinian question. Israel’s loss of unconditional Egyptian support may be forced to be more accommodating in its approach. Besides, the PLO may feel at unease with a possible representative government in Egypt in which there will certainly be some elements of the Muslim Brotherhood more sympathetic to Hamas. In the end, if and when a democratic government is formed, Turkey expects this would put greater pressure on Israel and push the PLO to diffuse its differences with Hamas, bringing peace to the Middle East ever closer.

I think this is the rationale behind the assertive stance by the Erdogan government in Turkey, which was criticized by some Egyptian officials during the crisis as “unwarranted interference in the domestic affairs of Egypt.”

Well, the “old elite” of Egypt should learn quickly that democracy is a business not only for people at home who demand it but also for the international community that strives for peace and stability in the world. If today we are talking of a deepening of democracy in Turkey, this is in large part due to international interest as well as the people of this country.

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