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.]

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