This op-ed piece was published at The National Newspaper on February 2, 2011. The original of the article can be found here.
Returning to Tunisia this week after more than 20 years in exile, the opposition leaderRashid Ghannouchi said Turkey now provided political inspiration. “The best model I can think of is the one adopted by the AKP [Justice and Development Party] in Turkey,” he told reporters. It was an affirmation of what many already knew: the Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his party have exerted considerable influence on recent events that have rocked the Arab and Muslim world.
From Twitter to WikiLeaks and Facebook to Al Jazeera, many social media phenomena have been credited for what has happened in Tunisia and Egypt. Yet the impact of Turkey’s recent actions has not been adequately addressed in the context of the recent demonstrations. In large part, Mr Erdogan and his party have heralded a new political horizon for the people of the Middle East.
Distancing itself from George W Bush’s “freedom agenda” while still maintaining good relations with the West, Turkey has been redefining its domestic politics and regional role for almost a decade. As a result, Turkey has managed to remain democratic, maintain a strong economy, continue outspoken criticism of Israel and, most importantly, reconcile politics with its status as a Muslim-majority country. This model has inspired people across the Middle East and helped to prepare the ground for the chain of popular reactions in recent weeks.
Let’s get the record straight: demands for better governance and a better life have been voiced in the Arab world for a long time, albeit in a fragmented fashion. The “Erdogan effect” does not mean that the AKP is the source of these demands. However, the articulation has never been in the language of democracy and free elections, concepts that have often been identified as synonymous with occupation, grief, violence and poverty. That democracy is now part of the demands for good governance shows that many are looking at Turkey’s example.
This transition has been made possible by two risky decisions made in Ankara in recent years: first, the rejection of the US army’s request to use Turkish territory to invade Iraq in 2003; and second, Mr Erdogan’s open critique of the Israeli president Shimon Peres in 2009.
The first decision proved that a democracy is not required to say yes to every request from America. Turkey can make independent decisions in shaping its own foreign policy. By doing so, Turkey redefined its relationship with the Middle East which had been prejudiced for decades.
The second moment came during the World Economic Forum in 2009, when Mr Erdogan bluntly criticised the Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres immediately after the invasion of Gaza. Even though the western media condemned Mr Erdogan, he never stepped back. In fact, Turkey’s criticism of Israel on human rights grounds, in particular after the fatal raid on the Freedom Flotilla last year, has intensified. This opposition to Israeli policies after decades of uncritical support changed the political balance and extended Ankara’s influence in the Arab world.
Demands for good governance in the Arab world changed dramatically following the Davos moment. It proved that a democratic government did not have to be silent regarding brutal Israeli policies. Mr Erdogan showed that not only autocratic regimes were opposed to Israel and he offered a more legitimate form of opposition.
In the last few years, Turkey has also broken the preconception that the military will continue to dominate politics. In a country haunted by a history of coups, many expected that eventually Mr Erdogan would be toppled by Turkey’s powerful generals. The Turkish army was the architect of the alliance with Israel in the 1990s, which further indicated that Mr Erdogan was treading on dangerous terrain.
Yet the AKP has survived several coup attempts. Mr Erdogan actually emerged stronger after the latest round between the ruling party and autocratic military groups, leading a constitutional referendum in September that forced the military back to its barracks. As the civilian government put the military in its place, it provided a strong demonstration of the integral strength on an accountable, democratically elected government.
These events have led by example in the political dynamics in the Middle East. The “Erdogan effect” convinced many in the Arab world that it was possible to critique unfair western and Israeli policies in the region and remain a Muslim-majority, democratic power.
Of course, every Arab and Middle Eastern country has its own domestic realities and there are limits to the comparison with their neighbour to the north. But the fundamental shift in Turkey’s domestic politics and foreign policy in the past decade has provided an inspiration for the people of the region who demand better governance and a better life.
Nuh Yilmaz is the director of the Washington branch of the SETA Foundation