Monday, February 14, 2011

Test Driving the "Turkish Model"

There's been a lot written in recent days about how the Turkish experience might serve as a model for post-Mubarak Egypt (here's just one sample). Omer Taspinar and Steven Cook both do a good job at breaking this suggestion down and looking at some of the structural differences between Turkey and Egypt, as well as some of the areas where Turkey's experience might serve as an inspiration for Egypt. And this Foreign Policy piece, by Nuh Yilmaz and Burhanettin Duran, asks the important question of just which Turkish model Egypt could end up following: "The old authoritarian Turkey under military oversight or the new democratic Turkey with its dignified foreign policy?"

A lot of this "Turkey as a model" talk has struck me as somewhat shallow, failing especially to take a look at how Turkey got to where it is today, as if the Turkish miracle was immaculately conceived. None of the newspaper pieces I read on the subject, for example, mentioned Turkey's European Union bid and how so much of the country's successful political reforms (such as reducing the military's hold on the political process) have come as a result of Ankara's engagement with the EU. If we look under the hood, the Turkish model has some significant parts that were made in Europe, which poses interesting questions about how to export it.

But what I've found especially problematic about much of the "Turkey as a model" talk is that it has a premature, "mission accomplished" quality to it. Although Turkey has made historic and laudable strides on the reform front in recent years, it remains a work in progress, with the country still facing huge challenges. A long-promised civilian constitution still needs to drafted and passed (no small task). The Kurdish issue continues to loom dangerously large, as do the stalled initiatives regarding Cyprus and Armenia. Improving a troubled educational system and its outdated, nationalistic curriculum, decentralizing the Ankara-dominated government and finding a way past the country's deep political and social divisions are some of the other significant and thorny items on Turkey's reform to-do list. Failure on any of these issues could pose a serious setback for Turkey's ongoing democratization efforts.

Egypt's and the wider Middle East's Generation Facebook, meanwhile, might also want to take a look at Ankara's recent record on new media and freedom of expression issues. Although certainly not in the same league as some of its neighbors when it comes to controlling and patrolling the internet, Turkey has shown some disturbing tendencies in recent times (there was even at one point a veiled threat to shut down access to Facebook), last year joining Russia and Belarus as countries "under surveillance" by Reporters Without Borders. You can read more about Turkey's problematic internet laws in previous posts here. Likewise, lawsuits by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other government officials against protesters and critical journalists and politicians and the increasingly heavy hand being used by Turkey's state television watchdog have raised some important red flags on the freedom of expression front.

Turkey can certainly serve as a kind of inspiration for the Middle East, but wise shoppers may want to wait for next year's improved model before they commit.

(photo: A 1974 Anadol, the first Turkish mass-produced car. Via Wikimedia Commons)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Talking Turkey

(Note: This talk has been postponed to a later date, yet to be decided. Apologies to anyone who has already registered.)

I will be in New York next week to give a talk about current Turkish affairs at the Manhattan JCC. Along with the current developments in the Middle East and how Turkey fits into them, I will be speaking about Turkey's evolving foreign and domestic policy and the current and future state of Turkish-Israeli relations.

Here are the details:

Date: Thursday, Feb. 17
Time: 7pm
Location: 334 Amsterdam Ave. (@76th Street)
(For more information or to register, call 646-505-5708)

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Turkey's Riddle of the Sphinx

The political crisis in Egypt is proving to be an interesting test for Turkey's desire to play a more influential role in the Middle East and -- like Ankara's still-born attempt to defuse the recent crisis in Lebanon -- is perhaps also showing the current limits and constraints of the country's influence in the region.

Ankara was effectively silent during the recent "Jasmine Revolution" in Tunisia and, until a speech in parliament today by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said nothing about the events in Egypt. Interestingly, the only stated action taken by Turkey up until now was to create a "crisis desk" for Egypt and Tunisia -- not at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, mind you, but at the Ministry of Trade, in order to deal with any problems faced by Turkish investors doing business there. And as Today's Zaman reports, the Turkish MFA has been mostly busy coordinating the mobilization of one of Turkey's most powerful foreign policy tools -- aka Turkish Airlines -- to ferry its own citizens out of Egypt and even those of other countries (talk about building customer loyalty).

So where does Turkey fit into all of this? On the one hand, Ankara and PM Erdogan have increasingly spoken of Turkey's desire to see democracy flourish and justice prevail in the Middle East. Indeed, in his speech today, Erdogan continued with that line, telling embattled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to "listen to the shouting of the people, the extremely humane demands. Without hesitation, satisfy the people's desire for change." Added Erdogan: "If there is a problem, the place for solution is the ballot box."

But as my Eurasianet colleague Nicholas Birch points out in a very good analysis piece, Ankara's position on Egypt is undercut by its close support for some of the region's more autocratic regimes, especially Syria and Iran. From his piece:
Far from being a spokesman for the oppressed, [analyst Soli] Ozel argued, Erdogan has more often than not taken the side of regional leaders: Ankara, for example, defended Mahmud Ahmedinejad’s administration in Iran during election-related upheaval in 2009 and continues to maintain close relations with Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who is charged with war crimes by the International Criminal Court.

"Of course, Erdogan is not going to call for Mubarak's resignation, but a country which claims to be a moral leader does need to show some sort of principles," Ozel said.

A foreign affairs columnist for the daily Milliyet, Semih Idiz thinks the hesitation of Turkish leaders to take a stance on unrest in the region reflects the conservatism inherent in the policy of good neighborliness that has guided the AKP’s regional diplomacy. "Recent events risk capsizing [Foreign Minister Ahmet] Davutoglu's 'regional vision' because it was based on deepening relations with neighboring powers by getting along well with them," Idiz said.

He adds that there is little the AKP government can do with a Middle East shaken by popular rebellions, at least, not until the new representatives of regional order are in place.

Echoing Ahmet Davutoglu, Erdogan on February 1 repeatedly emphasized democracy's role as a stabilizing agent. The difficulty he faces today, argued Bulent Aliriza, an expert on Turkey at the Center for Strategic and International Relations in Washington, is that the regional road to democratic stability looks set to bring instability right to Turkey's borders....

...."If you are pursuing the end of a more democratic Middle East, that is laudable," said Aliriza. "But you get to a point where supporting that creates instability in countries you have close relations with. It is a dilemma Turkey is struggling with, and it explains why, beneath all the brave rhetoric, Erdogan trod a very careful line today."
(The full piece can be found here.)

The crisis in Egypt still presents Turkey with some opportunities. It's no secret that Mubarak is not a fan of Ankara's recent efforts to expand its influence in the region and had previously told the Turks to butt out of Egypt's traditional spheres of influence, particularly regarding Palestinian affairs. And before the Mavi Marmara, Turkey had another Gaza-related diplomatic crisis, this time with Egypt, when a land-based Gaza aid convoy that included several Turkish MP's and NGO's ended with a violent confrontation on the Egypt-Gaza border that left an Egyptian soldier dead and Turkish Islamists burning pictures of Mubarak in the streets of Istanbul. So, a diminished (if not gone) Mubarak could mean that Turkey will have more space to operate in the region.

The general turmoil in the Middle East could also give Ankara a chance to again put forward the new "Turkish model" -- democratic, Islamic, economically vibrant and rapidly shedding the influence of the military -- as one for other countries in the region to emulate. But for this to happen, Turkey has to overcome the obstacle put forward by it not being an Arab country. The best (and perhaps only) way to do this is to is to emphasize its Islamic identity, which may explain why in his parliament speech, Erdogan use a distinctly religious tone in his appeal for Mubarak to step down.

"Mr. Hosni Mubarak: I want to make a very sincere recommendation, a very candid warning... All of us will die and will be questioned over what we left behind," Erdogan said. "As Muslims, where we all go is a two cubic meter hole."

This may yield dividends in the Middle East, but at a time when Ankara is accusing European Union countries of stalling on Turkey's membership bid by turning the EU into a "Christian Club," attempts at expanding influence through overt calls for Islamic solidarity could create problems elsewhere.

[UPDATE -- I have uploaded an official translation of Erdogan's speech, which can be found here.]

New Location, Same Great Flavor

This blog is now coming to you from the latest outpost to be served by the ever-growing Turkish Airlines: Washington, D.C. Despite the new location, the blog's focus will remain on Turkey and Turkish foreign and domestic affairs, perhaps with a bit more of the view from Washington. Stay tuned for more.