Turkey is emerging as an attractive model for the new generation of democrats in the Middle East and North Africa. Turkey, as a bastion of Islamic moderation, economic dynamism, military might, and foreign policy creativity, has inspired many who envision a prosperous and free Arab world.
Political freedom, accountability, corruption, and economic justice are at the center of democratic protests. Turkey’s record on these issues has drawn the notice of many in the Islamic world. But Turkey’s experience with electoral politics and market economics is unique, a response to the specifics of Turkish history and culture. The example therefore may not be replicable.
The Turkish model is certainly an inspiration. But can it offer practical lessons for the rest of the Islamic world?
Tumultuous Path to Democracy
In Turkey, the march toward democracy only began recently, so the contemporary Turkish political model is only in its infancy.
From the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923, the military has exercised considerable political power that has allowed it to shape, intermittently redesign, and decisively determine the very architecture of civilian politics in the country.
Whenever the military felt that the stability of the nation was in question, it launched coups: in 1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997. After every coup, the military suppressed the opposition — Islamists and left-leaning parties — in order to ensure that subsequent elections favored secularist political allies. This pattern of intervention and interference repeatedly aborted the process of democratization in modern-day Turkey. But the country’s membership in NATO — and desire to join the European Union — also served as a significant check on the military and helped to create at least the semblance of democratic politics in Turkey.
The military, and its secular allies, focused on controlling religious expression and political Islam. According to Turkish political scientist Hakan Yavuz, many Islamists dealt with constant repression by turning inward and focusing on community-level activities and grassroots movements. The constitution severely narrowed the public space for pluralism and religious freedom. But on the margin, in rural areas, and in the quiet corners of many individuals’ conscience, Islam served as an essential element of Turkish identity.
With the introduction of multiparty politics, however, Islamists seized the opportunity to think bigger. Islam-oriented organizations gained more clout with opposition parties — sometimes even from right-wing republicans — seeking their electoral support. Over the decades, despite repeated military interventions, opposition parties increasingly adopted the language or ideas of Islamism. The integration of Islamists into the political process culminated with the election of the Islamic Welfare Party under Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan in 1996.
In the 1980s, with the economy in tatters — thanks to immense corruption, the bankruptcy of state companies, and increasing military expenditures — the legitimacy of the repressive state came under question. The economic liberalization that followed under the auspices of the IMF and other international financial institutions simply accelerated and even deepened the nature of Turkish economic woes.
By 2001, after a decade of political instability and economic chaos, Turkish society was in a precarious state. The recognition of Turkey as a formal candidate for the European Union in 1999 added to the urgency for economic stabilization and political certainty.
In the post-2001 climate, the new Justice and Development Party (AKP), a moderate and pragmatic successor to earlier Islamist parties, represented Turkey’s best chance for long-sought reforms. The AKP not only brought stability to the parliament — by facilitating the creation of a stable two-party system — but it also guided the country through the tough period of economic reform. In less than a decade, Turkey’s economy would grow by a factor of four and soon join the ranks of elite emerging economies, the CIVETS (Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey, and South Africa), as well as the Group of 20 (G-20).
A Decisive Shift
A combination of luck, political sagacity, and boldness transformed the AKP into a dominant force in the country’s politics. Its creativity and dynamism in foreign affairs also boosted the AKP leadership’s international prestige and influence on the Arab street, impressing both Islamists in Iran as well as democrats in the West. Political stability — coupled with the country’s relatively solid infrastructure, successful bureaucratic reforms, strategic geopolitical position, and skilled labor force — made Turkey one of the world’s hotspots for investment and business. With growing confidence at home and deepening interdependence with neighboring countries — from trade to energy transport to investments — the AKP saw fit to overhaul its foreign policy architecture.
In 2003, the AKP turned down Washington’s request to use Turkey’s territory to invade Iraq. Over succeeding years, Turkey adopted a more independent line on thorny issues such as Israeli-Arab peace and Iran’s nuclear program. These bolder stances transformed Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan into the most popular man on the Arab street, the most powerful political leader in Turkey, and one of the world’s most influential men.
Since 2008, the AKP has been on the offensive against the military. The 2008 Ergenekon Trial — implicating prominent individuals from the military and other sectors in coup plots — allowed the AKP to crack down on the so-called parallel state, the network of secular-nationalist political forces opposed to Islamist and Kurdish groups. The 2010 referendum allowed the AKP to introduce sweeping political reforms, which targeted the judiciary as well as the constitutional provisions on political freedom, pluralism, and due process. The passage of the referendum limited the room for military interference in government affairs and its dominance in security-related operations (i.e., war against dissidents and separatists). The effect has been the weakening of the parallel state and the gradual banishment of the military from politics.
Viability of the Turkish Model
Turkey demonstrates how Islamic movements can evolve into moderate, pragmatic, and successful political parties. But Turkey was not exactly an authoritarian state in the 1980s. In this sense, Turkey does not provide much of a model for many liberal democrats in countries like Egypt and Tunisia who seek to establish a secular-parliamentary political system along European lines. Egypt and Tunisia are looking at a more telescoped transition from considerably more authoritarian states.
Moreover, Turkey’s market-oriented economy provides little inspiration for many of the protest movements, which seek to build a more egalitarian and welfare-oriented economic system. The revolutions in North Africa were built on deep popular frustrations with the amoral and distorted market economies established by their autocratic leaders. Most Arab countries do not enjoy the unique combination of economic assets that Turkey possesses. It is a giant energy transit point and a colossal agricultural power. It has a well-educated population, is close to the European Union, and possesses a vast industrial-scientific base built over a long period of time.
There is also a tendency to overestimate Turkey’s success on multiple fronts. For instance, youth unemployment — similar to Arab countries — is in the double-digit territory, and Turkey’s per capita income levels are barely above the global average. Despite a decade of relentless growth, Turkey still remains a highly unequal society in terms of income distribution. Moreover, Turkey has a lot to do to bridge the development gap between the Kurdish-dominated southeast and the cosmopolitan areas in the West.
The AKP is also running the risk of creating its own political patronage system as it tries to weaken the military’s hold on the state. The party’s fierce crackdown on journalists is not a positive sign in this regard and certainly not an example for the Arab world to follow. In 2010, Turkey ranked below autocratic countries such as Singapore and Egypt in the Press Freedom Index. In 2011, according to an Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe report, Turkey led the world in jailed journalists. According to Akif Hamzacebi, a senior member of the main opposition Republican People’s Party, “The detentions of journalists has just one goal: to silence voices of opposition that criticize the government.”
Unique Arab Path
While Turkey’s path to democratization has been built over decades of experimentation with electoral politics, the Arab spring is a byproduct of a spark that started with the self-immolation of a Tunisian vegetable vendor, Mohammad Bouazizi. According to the eminent historian Perry Anderson, what is happening in the Arab world is similar to the Hispanic American Wars of Liberation that began in 1810 and ended in 1825, the European revolutions of 1848–49, and the fall of the regimes in the Soviet bloc, 1989–91. The Arab spring is simply a region-wide, transnational, and world-historical event, a response to a long period of imperial interventions and predatory autocracies that have haunted the Arab world for almost a century. In certain countries, such as Tunisia and Egypt, it represents a total discrediting of the old order.
Turkey’s recent transformation was not so radical. The AKP built a postmodern Turkey on the foundations of a U.S. client state with formal democracy and a modern society. Islamists and democrats did not seek regime change but instead chose to reform the Turkish state from within.
The Arab protestors are also venting their frustration against a world order that has prioritized corporate interest, economic globalization, and undemocratic stability. Turkey, meanwhile, made the best possible use of its linkages with the global neo-liberal order. It’s no surprise, then, that a great number of Turkish companies register among the fortune 500 companies. The promise of EU membership has served as a springboard for reform in Turkey, but no Arab countries can count on such an external impetus for change.
The Turkish model simply represents a democratizing Eurasian country under the flagship of a moderate Islamic party, while the Arab world seeks wholesale social change that includes an overhaul of bankrupt autocratic systems. The leaders of the Arab Spring should cast their net widely to learn from the experience of other regions, such as Latin America and Eastern Europe. They should also look at Indonesia, the world’s third largest democracy and a country transitioning from its autocratic past.
Even if the Turkish model is not the right fit for the Arab world, the country has other things to offer. Many Arab Islamist parties and associational bodies, which seek to introduce democratic politics based on principles of Islam, into their respective countries, can look to the AKP for inspiration. The AKP’s pragmatism and commitment to play within the confines of the law could indeed serve their counterparts in the Arab world well.
Turkey has also been playing a very prominent role in supporting, at least rhetorically, the demands of the Arab Street for political change. On a logistical level, Prime Minister Erdogan has invited Arab leaders, such as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, to come to Turkey and learn from their democratic experience. Rather than projecting itself as the model for the rest of the region, Turkey has volunteered itself as a mediating force. Turkey is playing it safe by encouraging Arab leaders to listen to their people and at the same time exploring channels of communication with opposition forces.
Instead of following the Turkish model, the Arab world should focus on its own unique path to liberal reform and democratic opening. The rich cultural and intellectual history of the Arab world can be traced back to the Middle Ages as well as the Arab renaissance of the 18th-19th century when many Arab scholars proposed a distinct social project based on modernity, freedom, and Islamic identity. Elements of this intellectual capital could be used as building blocks for a new Arab world. Ultimately, the social project that emerges from the Arab Spring should rest on the Arab world’s ethno-linguistic, cultural, and unique geopolitical and economic foundations.
The United States could learn from its relationship with Turkey. Instead of automatically discrediting Islamist movements as extremists and potential threats to its national security, the United States should use its dynamic relationship with the AKP as a basis to justify and design a more conciliatory and strategic approach with the more moderate elements among Arab Islamists, such as the Muslim Brotherhood. The United States should not steer the direction of democratization in the Arab world but instead help to create the conditions for actors in the region to create their own post-autocratic future.