As Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visits Washington this week, he will prod the White House to increase its support for the Syrian opposition and will likely encourage President Barack Obama to consider enforcing a no-fly zone. The powerful prime minister has been a forceful advocate for multi-lateral intervention in Syria, arguing that the international community has a collective responsibility to help oust President Bashar al-Assad and bring the conflict to an end.
Erdogan's request will almost certainly take on a more urgent tone after tragic bombings in Reyhanli -- a refugee filled town on the Syrian border -- killed nearly 50 people. Despite Erdogan's close relationship with Obama, Turkey's requests are not likely to gain much traction with the White House. And, in fact, the meeting is likely to focus more on U.S. requests of Turkey, rather than the other way around.
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The growing reports of increased U.S. support for the armed opposition in Syria with the training of Free Syrian Army (FSA) militias in Jordan and the facilitating of arms shipments into the country through Turkey mark an increase in overall U.S. assistance over two years into the conflict. While such actions are tempting in efforts to bring an end to Syria's deepening civil war, a military solution for either side has not been achievable these past two years. What is needed, instead, is to combine military assistance with a coordinated strategy of capacity building within the opposition, which can then have measurable results and reinforce international efforts to find a political solution to the crisis.
A better-trained, organized opposition that is able to make political and military gains could change not only the situation on the ground, but also the perception of the crisis in Russia and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's inner circle. Based on our conversations with former senior members of the Assad regime and individuals in contact with the regime presently, Assad is still confident that he can manage to suppress the uprisings and bring the opposition to the table to negotiate on his terms.
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After a three-year rupture, one of the most important relationships in the Middle East is on the cusp of repair. It will be a long while before Turkey and Israel can go back to business as usual, and the relationship will remain hostage to Israeli policy toward Palestinians. Nevertheless, last month's Israeli apology to Turkey has far-reaching implications for the region. It clears a path for the two countries to work together, albeit behind-the-scenes, on their most urgent common concern -- Syria -- as well as a host of other issues, including military technology and NATO-Israel cooperation.
The impasse broke two weeks ago when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologized to his Turkish counterpart, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for a 2010 Israeli raid that resulted in the deaths of nine Turkish citizens. The two countries' relationship had been strained in the preceding years, in part because of Israel's war in Gaza, Operation Cast Lead, in December 2008 to January 2009. In the summer of 2009, Erdogan famously stormed off a stage at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland after a clash with Israel's President Shimon Peres over the war. But the 2010 raid gave Erdogan an opportunity to curry favor at home with the MHP, the Nationalist Action Party, and raise his regional stature further.
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After nearly three decades of bloody struggle with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Turkey might finally be entering a post-conflict era. On Wednesday, the PKK's jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan, who has been serving a life sentence on Imrali Island since 1999, called for an immediate cease-fire and for thousands of his fighters to withdraw from Turkish territory. The call followed a round of talks that began in October 2012 between Turkey's National Intelligence Organization (MIT) and Ocalan to convince the PKK fighters to lay down their arms and withdraw from Turkish soil. On Ocalan's counsel and in a gesture of good will, the PKK released eight Turkish soldiers and civil servants last week that had been abducted almost two years ago.
Ocalan's call could mark the first step in ending one of the world's longest running insurgencies. If it were to succeed, it would also favorably impact Turkey's democratization process, as well as possibly change the course of the Syrian uprising.
Only a few years back, the idea of an independent Kurdistan bordering Turkey would have had Ankara up in arms. Not anymore. Past tensions have been supplanted by a new energy partnership and Turkey seems far less worried about the prospect of an independent Kurdistan. In May 2012, Turkey and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) cut a deal to build one gas and two oil pipelines directly from Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq to Turkey without the approval of Baghdad, taking the rapprochement started between the two in 2009 one step further. If realized, the Kurdish pipelines will for the first time provide the Kurds direct access to world markets, bypassing the Baghdad controlled Kirkuk-Ceyhan (Turkey) pipeline bringing the KRG one step closer to the long-held dream of Kurdish independence.
Some pundits have argued that for this very reason Turkish approval of a Kurdish pipeline is a long shot. But the construction seems to be underway. According to Turkish press, the KRG has already begun construction on the oil and gas pipelines which are due to be operational by early 2014.
The resumption of talks between the Turkish government and imprisoned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan has raised hopes for a solution to the Kurdish issue. An advisor to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced a Dec. 31 interview that disarmament negotiations were occurring in Imrali prison, where Ocalan is serving a life sentence. They are the first confirmed state-PKK talks since mid-2011. Nothing is known for certain about their specific content, which only the government has commented on to date. But the fact that Erdogan confirmed and took clear responsibility for the meetings has created hope for a breakthrough. A Jan. 3 visit by Kurdish parliamentarians to Imrali -- the first of its kind in the talks -- was also hailed as a historic.
The Imrali meetings are an important step, but Ankara's repeated failure to follow through on expectations for progress on the conflict counsels against premature optimism. If they are to result in anything more than another wave of disappointment, the AKP must drop its goal of defeating the Kurdish political movement in favor of a genuine, negotiated agreement acceptable to all parties, including the PKK.
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Amidst intense public controversy, Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is moving to ban the widely popular television series Muhtesem Yuzyil (The Magnificent Century). Critics of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's AKP government have been expecting, with a fair dose of cynicism, such a move ever since he denounced the series as an inappropriate characterization of Turkey's ancestry. The series has already been removed from the inflight entertainment system of Turkey's national air carrier; yesterday a Turkish Airlines official cited Erdogan's remarks as the reason for this removal.
Muhtesem Yuzyil, now in its third season and watched by nearly 150 million viewers in Turkey and its neighbors, takes inspiration from the life and adventures of Sulieman the Magnificent, the Ottoman Empire's longest ruling sultan (1520-1566). While Sulieman is lauded in history textbooks for his many battlefield conquests that led to the great expansion of Ottoman-controlled territory and for being the architect of the empire's "Golden Age" of military, legal, and cultural development, the majority of the dramatic content of the series consists of palace intrigues involving assassination plots and competition among women in the palace harem.
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The last time Erkan Yildirim visited his imprisoned wife, Pervin, she told him about her recent meeting with their colleague, Fatma. "Pervin said Fatma was very sluggish, that her eyes were slowly darkening, that two or three people had to bring her to and from the bathroom," says Yildirim, nearly choking on the words. At that time, Fatma had been on a hunger strike for more than a month.
What his wife said next, however, was even more troubling. Pervin informed Yildirim that she was about to begin her own indefinite hunger strike.
The United States must shift the paradigm on Syria. Escalating tensions between Syria and Turkey are the latest indicator that Syria's crisis is spiraling out of control. With Russia now pulled into the fray, the conflict has the potential to escalate significantly. Horrific violence inside Syria has dramatically increased civilian death tolls and sparked an exponential rise in refugee flows. The current policy debate largely focuses on the relative merits of providing (directly or indirectly) more sophisticated weapons to the opposition versus the establishment of a protected safe zone in northern Syria. Yet, these tactical military interventions carry significant downside risks. The deepening crisis between Syria and Turkey amid Syria's worsening civil conflict presents an important opportunity for U.S. leadership and diplomacy. Washington should seize on these latest developments to build a coalition for bringing an end to the violence and establishing a political solution to the Syrian crisis.
Further militarization of the Syrian conflict would exacerbate an already volatile situation on the ground, deepening and protracting Syria's sectarian civil war. Far from providing relief for innocent civilians, fueling the conflict with more arms risks further endangering civilians. The armed opposition's inability to unify and its continued radicalization as well as enduring divisions between key patrons, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, underscore the inherent risks of this option. Differences among Syria's various armed opposition groups, not to mention between Arabs and Kurds, could erupt into open hostilities in Syria's mounting chaos. Meanwhile, jihadist elements, while still a distinct minority, appear to be gaining influence.
As international attention remains focused on the fighting in Syria, Turkey's military has been fighting lethal battles on its southern border with the Kurdistan's Workers' Party (PKK), which has waged a bloody war against Turkey for almost three decades. Just last week, nine people were killed when a car packed with explosives blew up close to a police station in Gaziantep, a city around 30 miles from the Syrian border. In response, the National Security Council (MGK) convened yesterday to discuss the recent PKK attacks and issued a statement vowing to avert the risks to its national security emanating from the violence in Syria. While the government has come under increased criticism for its Kurdish policy, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is placing the blame on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Ankara suspects the PKK is exploiting the chaos in Syria, and that Assad is supplying it with arms in retaliation for Turkey's support for the Syrian opposition.
The spike in the PKK's terrorist activity in Turkey comes amid mounting concerns in Ankara that the PKK and its affiliates are gaining ground in Turkey's southern neighbor. Particularly alarming was the capture of several towns along the Turkish border by the PKK's Syrian offshoot, the Party of Unity and Democracy (PYD). Turkey watched nervously as Kurdish groups took control of the towns after the withdrawal of Assad forces and hoisted the Kurdish flag over Syrian government buildings, along with posters of the PKK's imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan.
his dazzling blue eyes and angelic smile, 10-month-old Besir lights up any room
he's in. But the only rooms he's ever seen are the insides of tents and cargo
containers. "He's never lived inside a house," says his mother, Hasret, 21,
bouncing him on her knee.
The steel container we're sitting in on this baking August day is one in a sea of 1,120, lined up in rows over a vast gravel field in southeastern Turkey. An average of six people live in each container. Water and electricity are sporadically available, and food is scarce. Most families know they have lost their houses and belongings forever. Most children don't have any toys, or even a change of clothing. Few people know how or when they will be able to move out of the camp.
Talks between Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany resume again this weekend, with Tehran giving hints that it may take a more constructive attitude to negotiations than it did during the previous round in 2011. Iranian nuclear officials have suggested that Iran might curtail its 20 percent uranium enrichment program, which would meet almost halfway the expected demands of the United States and its so-called P5+1 negotiating partners.
The United States and its allies reportedly plan to demand the immediate cessation of uranium enrichment to 20 percent, and a closure of the hardened Fordow enrichment plant, possibly in exchange for promises of no further sanctions. If the United States and its international partners are able to achieve these objectives, they will significantly slow Iran's progress toward having the capacity to produce a nuclear weapon, score a victory for the two-track policy of diplomacy and economic pressure, and provide a template for more fully resolving outstanding issues surrounding Iran's nuclear program in future talks.
As escalating numbers of Syrians flee across the Turkish border to escape President Bashar al-Assad's brutality, Turkey is stepping up diplomatic efforts to exert increased international pressure on the regime. While the international community is inclined to give Assad more time to implement Kofi Annan's peace plan, Turkey feels that the urgency of the situation demands immediate action. Tensions between Turkey and Syria have further escalated after shots fired across the border wounded four people in Turkey's Kilis refugee camp and Syrian forces and Free Syrian Army fighters clashed over control of a nearby border gate. On Sunday, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that Turkey would enact measures against the Assad regime if Damascus fails to abide by an April 10 deadline to cease violence. He did not outline what specific steps his government would take, but the likely scenario being floated by the press includes setting up a buffer zone along the border to protect refugees. No matter how Turkey responds to the Syrian crisis, however, it will not easily extract itself from the ongoing turmoil that the country is likely to experience in the months and years ahead. Syria's geopolitical proximity, its Kurdish minority, and the economic, cultural, and strategic cooperation between the two countries raise the stakes for Turkey in finding a swift and sustainable resolution to the Syrian crisis.
The "Arab Spring" is now over one year old. In much of the popular analysis over the past year the term "Arab Spring" has become the defining characteristic of the "new" Middle East emerging from decades of authoritarian and repressive rule. However, one should be cautious about inflating the importance of the democratic uprisings in several Arab countries in shaping the future contours of the Middle East. This caution applies especially to exaggerating both the prospects of democracy -- particularly the unhindered linear transition to representative rule -- in the Arab world and the role of major Arab powers in determining political outcomes in the Middle East in the short and medium-term future.
As tensions escalate between the West and Iran over the country's nuclear program, some Western analysts cannot help but be excited that Turkey's relationship with Iran also seems to be deteriorating. Indeed, the two neighbors, who only recently appeared to be forging a close friendship, now find themselves on opposite sides of conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Bahrain, with Turkey's decision to host a NATO missile shield as yet another point of divergence. But to suggest that these tensions will lead to a complete breakdown in the Turkey-Iran relationship is to sensationalize the rift, just as earlier fears of an anti-Western Turkish-Iranian alliance misunderstood Ankara's engagement with Tehran.
To be sure, Turkey and Iran's battle for regional hegemony has intensified recently amidst historic changes in the Middle East. In Syria, Turkey has abandoned its close friendship with President Bashar al-Assad, and is leading international efforts to bolster the Syrian opposition and end the humanitarian crisis there. Iran, by contrast, remains one of the few supporters of the Assad regime, and continues to provide arms, surveillance, and training to Syrian security forces as they brutally crush protests.
On the top floor of a towering apartment block in Cairo, half a dozen Syrian activists are hunched over their laptops. Each man organized demonstrations in his home town before escaping the Assad regime's intelligence agents in the last few months. Now, armed with a list of trusted contacts that stretches across the borders from southwest Syria to Lebanon and Jordan, they have become a key link in the supply chain of an opposition movement that is struggling to outmaneuver a brutal crackdown. Donations collected from Syrians and well-wishers in Cairo are used to purchase cell phones, satellite communications equipment, medicine, and money, which is smuggled to friends and family members on the inside. In turn, protesters send out video evidence of attacks, which the men in Cairo catalogue, upload to YouTube, and forward to media outlets.
The men work with close contacts in their own villages and neighborhoods, independently of organizing committees or opposition bodies. Abdel Youssef fled from Ad Dumayr, a city northeast of Damascus. Syrian authorities went door to door there searching for military defectors on Wednesday night and he spent the day following their movements through eyewitness accounts. As he tells the story of how he fled, a Skype window flashes up on his screen. A woman he knows tells him that security forces attempting to arrest a man have captured his daughter instead. "Now I'm looking out the window," the message reads. "She is being beaten up by the security forces because she is saying ‘Allahu Akhbar'." Abdel Youssef passes on information like this to a contact in the Free Syrian Army, who he says use this information to block roads and set up ambushes in an attempt to protect demonstrations.
Any time spent in Turkey and one cannot help but be taken in by the country's economic dynamism and political vibrancy that is unique in the region it inhabits. With a 9 percent growth rate in its GDP in 2010, Turkey has become the fastest growing economy in the OECD and is projected to remain so until 2017. Its commitment to democratic governance was demonstrated in the elections earlier this year that kept the ruling AKP in power with almost 50 percent of the votes. That the Turkish democratic process has become irreversible was confirmed soon thereafter by the fact that the resignation of Turkey's top four generals in an effort to unnerve and destabilize the civilian government hardly created a stir in the country. Even a couple of years ago such a deliberately contrived crisis could have provided the military brass with an excuse for staging a coup.
In the midst of all the changes the Arab Spring has brought in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, among others, the intelligent lay, media, and policy worlds have remained largely deaf to the Kurdish question. This is an unfortunate situation because much has occurred concerning Kurdish nationalism, particularly in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. However, the Kurdish version of the Arab Spring did not just begin in 2011, but has been going on for decades: In Turkey (at least since the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) formally began its insurgency in August 1984), as well as in Iraq since the days of Mulla Mustafa Barzani beginning in the early 1960s, but especially since the end of the two U.S. wars against Saddam Hussein in 1991 and even more in 2003. These two wars led to the creation of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, the most successful attempt at Kurdish statehood in modern times.
Tehran initially viewed the rise of the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey with much enthusiasm. It has turned into a nightmare. Turkey's shift against the Assad regime in Syria, and its manifest ideological appeal in a changing Middle East, now has Iranian leaders viewing Ankara as a key part of a U.S. scheme with the Arab States in the Persian Gulf aimed directly at them.
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Turkey's air strikes in recent weeks in search of Partiye Karkaren Kurdistane (PKK) insurgents along the Iraqi Kurdish border have fueled a growing crisis. They have caused civilian deaths and displacements, raising criticisms by human rights organizations, local populations, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and even the Baghdad Parliament. This predicament has not only undermined possibilities for negotiating Turkey's Kurdish problem, but has also heightened tensions among Kurdish groups in Iraq and the region.
Still, complaints against Turkish incursions will continue to be checked by concomitant demands to control the PKK, assure regional security, and guarantee shared economic interests. The military interventions may therefore have less effect than expected on the alliance between Turkey and Iraqi Kurds, but may further fragment cross-border Kurdish groups and encourage regional unrest.
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The trajectory of peaceful demonstrations in Libya and Syria has been impacted by regime violence. The result: large populations of internally displaced peoples (IDP's) have been created inside of those countries as well as great numbers of refugees fleeing to bordering countries. Furthermore, the revolutions of the Arab Spring have serious ramifications for already existing refugee populations, notably the more than one million Iraqi refugees that have settled in Syria since 2006. The possibility of increased large-scale refugee movement from Libya and Syria will not only spur a devastating humanitarian crisis, but could also further destabilize the region.
Considering that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is already working with insufficient funds, Western policymakers should pay attention to these imminent crises. One need only look at the social and economic repercussions of the still unresolved predicament of Iraqi refugees to see the urgency of keeping the current situations from escalating into another protracted refugee crisis. The consequences of a prolonged refugee situation could be dire, especially as many of the countries to which the people are fleeing allow few -- if any -- rights, benefits, or protection for refugees.
Although it is still early to evaluate the ultimate impact that Turkey's June 12 parliamentary elections -- which resulted in a landslide victory for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) -- will have on the direction of its foreign policy, there are several likely outcomes. The electoral victory of the AKP under the leadership of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan demonstrates again that the Turkish electorate is satisfied with the assertive foreign policy that has been a concomitant feature of the party. In fact, part of the explanation for the victory of the AKP was the rise of Turkey's stature in its region and in world politics over the last nine years. The support for Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu's electoral campaign by the candidates of opposition parties in his district -- and the tendency of opposition parties not to bring Turkish foreign policy to the election agenda -- was a further sign of public support for the government's outlook. From Erdogan's victory speech on election night, moreover, it's possible to tease out a number of possible changes (as well as continuities), in the tone, means, and goals of Turkish foreign policy.
In the AKP's next government term, Turkey will continue to extend and deepen its ties with different political actors and the people of the Middle East, which was indicative in Erdogan's salutation in his victory speech to the people of Damascus, Cairo, Beirut, the West Bank, Ramallah, Gaza, and Jerusalem. As such, and in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, an Erdogan government will likely aspire to a more integrated Middle East where Turkey occupies a central role more attuned to the political developments of the region. The prime minister realizes that only having a good posture, being a favorite leader in the region, or maintaining good ties with the people in the upper echelons of governments is no longer sufficient. To solve this problem, it would not be surprising to see a Turkish diplomatic outreach going forward focused on a "civilian surge" that aims to be more active on the civil-society level in the Middle East in order to build the groundwork for deeper ties with the region.
The surprise of Turkey's parliamentary elections on Sunday was not that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) effectively won its third term of single-party rule by sweeping 49.89 percent of the national vote. The most unexpected, under-reported and encouraging aspect of this election was the 5.9 percent of national votes won by the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). These votes, augmented by the independent candidates supported by the BDP, secure the party an unprecedented 36 seats in parliament. This ensures the Kurds a say in the drafting of a civilian constitution which holds the potential of changing the very conception of Turkey's national identity.
Leading Western publications, such as the Economist and the New York Times, have been recently editorializing in a sensational vein that the return to power of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) with an enhanced majority could be the beginning of the end of the Turkish democratic experiment. The Economist has gone to the extent of endorsing the CHP, Turkey's main opposition party and the standard-bearer of Kemalism with its mix of authoritarianism and militant secularism, as if it were endorsing a candidate in the mayoral elections in London. The New York Times has editorialized that it would be better for Turkey if the voters did not give the AKP what it calls a "supermajority" as it would erode the basis of Turkish democracy.
These apprehensions regarding an AKP victory in the June 12 Turkish elections have their roots in two sources. On the one hand, they are the products of overblown concerns about the future of democracy in a country undergoing democratic consolidation, which is hardly ever a unilinear and smooth process. A second cause for such apprehensions, which undergirds the first, is related to the Islamist pedigree of the AKP -- though the party has moved quite a distance away from its roots and repackaged itself as a conservative democratic formation akin in spirit to the Christian Democrats of Europe. Nonetheless, the fact that many of its leaders belonged to the Islamist Refah (Welfare) Party at one time and that it continues to draw support from some of the same elements that supported Refah conjures up images of a staunchly Muslim Turkey under the AKP that will be reflexively anti-Western.
To most observers witnessing events in Syria, the goal is clear-cut: end the killing, support democracy, and change the Assad regime -- hoping it will be removed or reformed to an unrecognizable degree. State actors looking at the same reality will often bring a different set of considerations into play, especially if they happen to be neighboring Syria. Israel has had a complicated relationship with the popular upheaval in its northern neighbor -- and, indeed, with the Baathist Damascus regime in general over the years.
As of Sunday, that complexity entered a new dimension. Of course the popular uprising in Syria is not about Israel, nor will it be particularly determined by Israel's response. Nevertheless, Israel's leaders, like those elsewhere in the region, will have to position themselves in relation to this changing environment, and this will, in part, impact Syria's options.
On Sunday, June 5, marking Naksa Day (the Arab "setback" in the 1967 war), protesters -- mostly Palestinian refugees and their descendents -- marched to the Israel/Syria disengagement line representing the border between Syria and the Israeli occupied Golan Heights. According to reports up to 22 unarmed Syrian-Palestinian protesters were killed when Israeli forces apparently resorted to live fire (Israeli laid mines may also have been detonated and may have caused causalities, the exact unraveling of events remains sketchy). In most respects, this Sunday's events were a repeat performance of the outcome of May 15's Nakba Day commemorations (which Palestinians mark as the anniversary of their catastrophe in 1948).
President Obama's Middle East speech last week laid out a policy of support for the growth of democracy and peace in the area. He challenged all the players in the region to support self-determination, equal opportunity, democracy, political and civil rights and religious tolerance. He stated that democracy requires a free press and right to assembly. He called for a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders. The President has a clear vision of U.S. policy in the Middle East.
It is not obvious that the Turkish government could make the same declarations.
Under the Justice and Development Party (AKP) Turkey is having a tough time adjusting its much heralded foreign policy of "zero problems with neighbors" to the new realities of the Middle East. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu says Turkey wants good relations with the people and regimes of the region. However the people of the Middle East are challenging their own dictators today. Tomorrow they will remember the states that supported the brutality of these regimes. Turkey must therefore realize the soft power they extol in their active diplomacy as a regional leader is not just about trade and diplomacy. It also calls for active support for democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.
Necmettin Erbakan was not the most loved politician in Turkey, but his death on February 27 at the age of 84 will be solemnly marked by many. For many more, it will be a cause for reflection on the state of Turkish democracy and on the substantial evolution of Turkish politics since Erbakan first began making political headlines in the 1970s. Turkey has dramatically changed both because of, and in spite of, Erbakan's political legacy. Indeed the state of Turkish politics today is an indirect, and in many ways unintended, result of what Erbakan himself did to the Turkish political system.
Political demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt have sparked a century old discussion: Is Turkey a model for the Middle East? Two contemporary examples of the "Turkey-as-a-model" debate show how this issue can play out: Turkey was presented as a moderate Islamic, democratic model for the Middle East as part of George W. Bush's "freedom agenda," and more recently as part of Barack Obama's democracy promotion efforts in the Middle East. It is ironic that in 2010 the debate revolved around concepts such as a "shift of axis," "torn country," and "drifting away," but now Turkey has transformed from a "lost" ally to a "model" country.
Interestingly enough, Islamist actors such as Rachid Ghannouchi of Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt declared their intention to emulate the Turkish experience in order to differentiate themselves from the examples of Iran and Taliban. How is it that Turkey is presented as a model country by political actors as varied as high-level U.S. officials and Islamist groups? To make sense of this irony, one needs to consider the questions: whose model and which Turkey?
In fact, there are three main political groups with competing narratives on what the Turkish model means.
"Enough we say, the decision belongs to the people of the brotherly Egyptian and Tunisian nations... Turkey shares the grief of these nations as well as their hopes." So-declared a self-confident Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday in his prime-time speech on recent events in the Middle East that received broad coverage regionally. While commentators point to the protests and revolutions in the Arab world as being the most recent example of the crumbling vestiges of the Cold War, the more significant long-term global trend is strangely familiar to the Turks. Protests in Tunisia have already overthrown the rule of a 23 year-old regime and inspired a similar uprising in the form of Egypt's ongoing protest movement. Lebanon's continuing instability and threats of Tunisian-inspired revolutions in Yemen and even Jordan further add to the significance of the moment we are witnessing in the Arab world.
The unprecedented levels and inter-linkages of the protests against the traditional authoritarian regimes represented most starkly by President Mubarak, has brought the Middle East back to a period more reminiscent of the breakup of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of Arab nationalism than anything seen in recent memory.
The center of gravity in the Middle East has shifted dramatically in the past few decades from the Arab heartland comprising Egypt and the Fertile Crescent to what was once considered the non-Arab periphery -- Turkey and Iran. The exciting era of Arab nationalism in the 1950s and 1960s, especially Nasser's nationalization of the Suez Canal and the all too brief union of Egypt with Syria, had made the Arab heartland the symbol par excellence of the reassertion of the Third World's dignity and its aspirations for autonomy from the great powers. Since the 1970s, that air of excitement and hope has given way to the moribund nature of Arab politics and the perpetuation of autocratic and kleptocratic rule, which have contributed in large measure to the diminution in the regional role of major Arab states such as Egypt. Regimes that were once considered "liberalizing autocracies", such as Egypt with its controlled elections and Jordan with an increasingly vocal parliamentary opposition, have now reverted to an unalloyed autocratic model.
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