PARIS – Five years ago, when the so-called “Arab Spring” erupted, Turkey’s hour seemed to have arrived. Having been humiliated by the European Union after years of accession negotiations – talks marked by a chain of false promises from the EU – Turkey’s then-prime minister (and now president) Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had the perfect plan for restoring his country’s pride and boosting its credibility: It would help to reshape a Middle East in turmoil. Needless to say, things have not unfolded exactly as planned.
Turkey was certainly in a strong position to make a difference. With its functioning democracy, booming market economy, and rich cultural history, Turkey seemed to offer an attractive economic, social, and political model for the region. Like Indonesia, it was living proof that Islam is, in fact, compatible with both democracy and modernity – an observation that was not lost on the demonstrators in, say, Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
Even then, however, there was cause for concern. Erdoğan was already giving the impression that he might seek to concentrate power in his own hands, thereby undermining Turkey’s democracy and, in turn, its regional leadership ambitions. Unfortunately, that is precisely what has happened.
It began when Erdoğan attempted, with the utmost self-assurance, to demonstrate his regional clout; he insisted, for example, that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with whom Turkey had previously had friendly relations, step down. He was so confident that his call would be heeded, and that he would emerge as an indispensable regional leader, that he felt free to distance himself from the West and toughen his stance toward Israel.