Particularly, in the field of foreign policy, during the invasion of Iraq by the United States in 2003, Turkey opposed Washington, while Arab countries remained silent or their support was missing; when Syria was sanctioned by the Western world for being associated with the assassination of Lebanese ex-Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the only supportive country close to Syria was Turkey as even Russia, a traditional ally, was far away; Turkey was the only country that supported and recognized the legitimacy of Hamas, elected in 2006 in Palestine, while all other countries, including Arab ones, were against it; when Israel attacked and invaded Lebanon in 2006, Turkey actively established dialogue with all related parties while the Arab countries remained silent and failed to develop a common policy; during the invasion of Gaza in 2008, Turkey was the only country that objected to Israel’s policies, as Arab countries were forced to develop an active and common policy, even they continued to be silent and supportive for the Israeli aggressions against Hamas; when the Israel killed nine Turkish people by attacking to the Blue Marmara, a Turkish ship carrying humanitarian assistance (it is known as Gaza Freedom Flotilla) to Gaza in May 2010, Arab leaders hesitated to support Turkey and couldn’t condemn Tel Aviv (even when Turkey withdrew its ambassador from Israel and cancelled joint military exercises).
As stated in an Arab Times article, which compiled the responses of Arab intellectuals in those days, “Turkey has unified its ranks in the face of the Gaza Strip tragedy, while Arabs are divided into moderates and extremists just like in a comic scenario that doesn’t commensurate with such genocide committed against the people of the Gaza Strip.”
At the same time, while Turkey, along with Brazil, were mediating the Iran problem, in the context of a nuclear swap agreement, to support a peaceful resolution without foreign military intervention and for this purpose voted against the UN decision for sanctions to Iran in June 2010, the Egypt-led Arab countries only continued to fortify the Sunni bloc; and finally, Turkey opposed the intervention of NATO against the Arab and Muslim countries in particular into Iran through missile defense system and forced the member countries not to target any specific country. All of these developments influenced Arab intellectuals, leaders of civil society and public opinion because this is the only Muslim country governed by democracy. Inevitably, the political leaders in the region began to be more criticized and demanded to change in the right way to follow an independent foreign policy and having a welfare economy, as well as better living conditions in a free country.
These developments, on the one hand, increased Turkey’s popularity in the region, but on the other hand, eroded the credibility of regional leaders in the eyes of their public. The discomfort of Arab intellectuals and bureaucratic circles over the fact that regional leaders did not come together during Davos crisis in 2009 and Gaza process in late 2008 reached its peak following these incidents. For example, during the Davos days in June 2009, I was in Qatar and was invited to appear on Al Jazeera TV with Abdulbari Atvan, a prominent Arab journalist from the London based Al-Quds Al-Arabi. As I tried to explain the changes in Turkish foreign policy, he harshly criticized Arab leaders and called on the Arab people to respect Turkey for the courage they have shown for the Arab cause.
Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center said in an article published on carnegieeurope.eu last year: “Turkey’s popularity increased after the Gaza War in December 2008 and January 2009 when Ankara was critical of Israel’s war on Gaza, which was an extremely popular position in the Arab world. … Turkey is re-entering the Arab consciousness and many people are looking to Turkey as a cultural model. Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan is increasingly looked to as a champion of Arab and Islamic causes.”
The observations and statements of Amjad Atallah as an Arab intellectual reflect the common sense of Arab civil society leaders. “Turkey, Turkey, Turkey…That was the refrain at the Al Jazeera Forum last weekend in Doha, Qatar, and a clear indication of who was the new rising star in Middle Eastern politics. In panels and in private conversations, Arab, Turkish, Pakistani, American and Afghani analysts, old-school Arab nationalists, members of resistance groups and journalists discussed in mostly positive terms how Turkey was trying to act as a corrective to the general vacuum of leadership among Arab states, how it was acting to balance Iran and Israel as regional hegemons, and how it was trying to compensate for the seeming inability of the United States to fundamentally break with the policies of the Bush administration, especially on Israeli-Arab peace and on Iran,” he wrote last year in an article published in Foreign Policy.
When I visited Kuwait and shared my opinions with academics in early 2009, they didn’t hesitate to praise Turkish foreign policy. Then when I was in Dubai, the deputy editor-in-chief of Al Arabia TV told me that the Egyptian leaders would not leave their country for more than one week for fear of being overthrown. Then I understood how the situation in Egypt was serious. In fact I was in Egypt in the summer of 2008 and when I was talking about Egypt and regional issues, a high-level Egyptian bureaucrat also expressed his worries over Egyptian foreign policy that was being determined by the United States. It was a real signal for Hosni Mubarak that he had lost the support of the people and even of the civil and military bureaucrats.
The influence of Turkey in the region is not limited to the aforementioned issues. Turkey as a Muslim country has accomplished many things; it has developed a democracy, demilitarized the political structure, modernized while preserving its traditions, integrated into the world economy and secured political and economic stability. The same Turkey quadrupled its economy in five years and attracted the Western world through its success. While Turkey’s undisputed accomplishments in the political and economic fields became unquestionable, some other regional states, like Iran and Egypt, failed to achieve such accomplishments.
Moreover, the AK Party has deeply influenced Islamic parties in the region to become more moderate and to review their political discourse to take part in the current political system. In order to be accepted as a legitimate governing alternatives, Islamic political parties could change the methods and political styles that they used. So-called “Islamic radicalism” has been a very important problem for them insofar as it has excluded them from political processes in those countries such as Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere. The AK Party, with its Islamic tradition, was excluded several times from the political process. Finally they took office with the support of a large part of the segment of population and maintained its hold on power by following moderate policies. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Nahda in Tunisia were influenced in this sense by AK Party and they looked to Turkey as an example, not Iran. A journalist I interviewed in 2008 in Jordan made similar observations and emphasized the importance of the AK Party’s success in Turkey as an example for Islamic parties in the region. He noted that if Turkey with its democratic experience failed to give a chance for a conservative party to remain in office, Islamic parties and people in the region would be disappointed and would never become moderate and accept a legitimate alternative in their countries. In short, he pointed out that most probably they would be radicalized and forced to use illegal methods to express themselves. As a result, according to him, the successful transformation in the Arab and Islamic world more or less would depend on the experience of Turkey’s politics .
On the Libyan conflict, Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan denounced any Western intervention as “absurd.” He raised fears of a “second Iraq.” Turkey was fiercely opposed to a coalition led by France setting the agenda. Turkey wanted the operation run under NATO, where it has a role in decision-making and drafting the rules of engagement. During the Egypt crisis, Turkey called on Hosni Mubarak to step down. Many of the Egyptian demonstrators wanted Egypt to be like Turkey — secular, yet certain of its Muslim identity, but with free elections. When the deadly violence started in Syria, Prime Minister Erdoğan was immediately on the phone. “I have made two calls to President [Bashar] Assad in the last three days and I have sent my top intelligence official to Syria. I have called for a reformist approach,” Erdoğan was quoted as saying in Gavin Hewitt’s recently published article on bbc.co.uk.
In short, in the last eight years, Turkey, with its political and economic successes, and through its foreign policy has created important changes, as well as has inspired the people of the region to strive for a democracy.
*Tayyar Arı is a professor in Uludağ University’s faculty of economics and administrative sciences and head of the department of international relations.