ANKARA – As the Arab Spring enters its fourth month, it faces challenges but also presents opportunities. Despite setbacks in Libya, Yemen, and Syria, the democratic wave has already begun to change the Middle East’s political landscape.
The national reconciliation agreement in Palestine between Fatah and Hamas, signed in Egypt on May 3, is one of the major results of this sea change. Other substantial developments are certain to follow – and Turkey stands to gain from them. Indeed, the Arab Spring strengthens rather than weakens Turkey’s position in the Arab world, and vindicates the new strategic thrust of Turkish foreign policy.
Turkey’s policy of engaging different governments and political groups in the Arab world has transformed Middle Eastern politics. Turkish officials have stated on various occasions that change in the Arab world is inevitable and must reflect people’s legitimate demands for justice, freedom, and prosperity. Moreover, change must occur without violence, and a peaceful transition to a pluralist democracy should be ensured.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sought to achieve this in Libya before the ongoing fighting in that country broke out. Erdoğan’s quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy sought to ensure a peaceful transition to a post-Qaddafi era. This gradualist approach complements Turkey’s principled position on the need for reform in the Arab world, including Syria, with which Turkey shares a 900-kilometer border.
Over the last decade, Turkey has developed different types of relationships with the countries of the Middle East, targeting improved relations with both governments and the public. Indeed, Turkey is probably the only country that has been able to promote relations at the two levels in the Arab world.
This engagement policy has paid off in several ways, in the process raising Turkey’s profile in the region. Arab intellectuals, activists, and youth leaders of different political inclinations have taken a keen interest in what some describe as the “Turkish model.” Turkey’s stable democracy, growing economy, and proactive foreign policy have generated growing appreciation of the country’s achievements, which has augmented its “soft power” in the region.
This is reflected in the Arab world’s lively debate about how Turkey has been able to reconcile Islam, democracy, and economic development. That debate, more importantly, is about how Arab countries should restructure themselves in the twenty-first century. The growing gap between governments and people in the Arab world has become an unsustainable deficit – a point that has gained new significance as the Turkish experience has gained greater salience in these countries.
As the Arab Spring unfolds at different speeds in different countries, Turkey continues to urge Arab governments to undertake genuine reform. Arabs deserve freedom, security, and prosperity as much as any other people, and Turkey stands to gain from a democratic, pluralist, and prosperous Arab world.
A democratic era promises to give the Arab world a chance to be the author of its own actions. It will also enable Arabs to develop a new paradigm for relations with the West, based on equality and partnership – a position that Turkey has come to symbolize.
Finally, Turkey’s policy of engaging various actors in the Middle East – repudiated by some as controversial, extreme, and even terrorist – has played a significant role in bringing at least some of these forces into mainstream politics. Given the new political realities in Egypt, Tunisia, and the Palestinian territories, as well as in Lebanon, Libya, and elsewhere, the more important of these actors are no longer secret or illegal organizations.
Simply put, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Nahda Movement in Tunisia, and Hamas in Palestine will all play important and legitimate roles in the political future of their respective countries. This means that Americans and Europeans will need to engage these groups publicly and directly, as Turkey has done. After all, they are now part of the emerging political order in the Arab world,
A democratic and prosperous Arab world will make Turkey’s standing in the region stronger, not weaker.