Al-Ahram Weekly Online   16 - 22 June 2011
Issue No. 1052
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Tayyip triumphant sets sights on Middle East

Turkey's AKP is returned to power in a landslide as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan expands his horizons and sets his sights on the leadership of the Middle East, reports Gareth Jenkins in Ankara

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Supporters of the Justice and Development Party wait for Erdogan's arrival during an election rally in Istanbul

Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party's (AKP) renewed mandate gives it the electoral seal of approval on its shift away from Europe, even as its importance to Europe increases. Now Turkey itself is being courted by both NATO countries and, increasingly, the Arab world.

The revolutions in the Arab world have vaulted Turkey into a key role in the Middle East. But this is merely Turkey returning it to its natural roots. A century of European and US inspired intrigue dismembered the Ottoman Caliphate, inserted a Western-inspired Jewish state into the heart of the Arab world, and cut Turkish political and social life off from its Arab roots. “êķThe wave of revolutions in the Arab world was spontaneous. But it also had to happen to restore the natural flow of history,“êç said Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu at the Leaders of Change Summit in Istanbul in March.

And the new assertiveness of Turkey in the region is being met enthusiastically, in Syria and Jordan, but especially in Egypt, following its 25 January revolution, where Turkey is widely looked to as the model of a Muslim country able to keep its faith and adapt to advanced industrial society.

Turkey was for centuries the crossroads of East and West, but reduced to a shadow of itself in the twentieth century. The end of the Cold War should have brought the Turkish and Arab peoples back to their “êķnatural“êç relations, and Turkey to its geopolitical importance, but the West prevented this. Regimes such as that of Tunisia's Zein Al-Abidine bin Ali and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak were close allies of the US and supported by the West despite their repressive nature and unpopularity domestically.

Their overthrow was greeted with alarm in Washington but with joy in Ankara. Elsewhere, the “êķArab spring“êç has been more complex, and Turkey's response has confirmed its important role, independent of its NATO allies. While the West did not call for the Tunisian and Egyptian leaders to flee the palace, it has loudly demanded that Libya's Muammar Gaddafi and Syria's Bashar Al-Assad resign, aggressively bombing the former and demanding sanctions against the latter. However, just as Western enthusiasm for Mubarak and Ben Ali helped seal their fates, active Western backing for the opposition in Syria and Libya has actually given rise to dissent within the opposition and helped to buttress support for the existing regimes. While repressive, they at least left their subjects with a sense of resisting imperial encroachment.

Without any imperial baggage, Turkey's response in both cases has been more measured. In both Libya and Syria, Turkey has called for negotiations, reforms and de-escalation of violence, allowing the countries to maintain their territorial integrity and rebuild without outside interference.

In all the Arab countries now experiencing unrest and change, the West is concerned first of all with maintaining its interests in the region “ê" financial, economic and political. Just as the West was happy to see Mubarak stay in office, its goal in both Libya and Syria has been to get rid of the anti-empire pests and open the countries to Western influence, even at the risk of destabilising those countries. In Egypt, Western leaders have put great pressure on the army to maintain the peace accord with Israel, despite a majority of Egyptians wanting it cancelled immediately. US President Barack Obama and the G8 “êķgenerously“êç offered to exchange Egypt's debilitating debt “ê" incurred under Mubarak “ê" for Western control of Egyptian industry, surely a devil's pact.

Throughout the Arab spring, Turkey has shown that it is more in tune with regional needs than Europe and the US. Erdogan called on Mubarak to resign at the height of the demonstrations in February. He resisted NATO pressures to attack and invade Libya to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi, and now to sanction Bashar Al-Assad in Syria, aware of the differences between the Arab countries. Despite the disapproval of Washington, Ankara firmly condemns Israel's violence against the Palestinians.

Turkey's membership in NATO places it in a key position to influence the West's continued plans for the region. As it increasingly asserts its independence under the AKP, beginning with the refusal to condone the US invasion of Iraq and continuing with the refusal to condone Israel's colonisation of Palestine, as a NATO member in good standing its voice of reason is not being heard from the sidelines, but from the very corridors of imperial power. This gives Turkey a new prominence in Western strategic thinking, and puts great responsibility on the shoulders of the Turkish leadership. With the AKP's popular mandate renewed, the world can expect a continuation of a reasoned and independent foreign policy from the AKP “ê" one with clout.

There are complex and dangerous trials awaiting Turkey. The illegal war waged against Libya is bogged down, and Turkish-Russian-African Union demands for negotiations will continue and hopefully bear fruit. The ongoing unrest in Syria is a worry which requires firmness, intelligence and patience.

Israeli intransigence and recklessness are great challenges to Turkey, with the second Freedom Flotilla to break the siege of Gaza departing from Turkey soon. Israel is desperately lobbying Western powers and Turkey to stop the flotilla, clearly worried that if the Israeli Defense Force repeats last year's massacre on the high seas, it will merely hasten the demise of the country it purports to defend, as the world turns resolutely against it.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has expressed fears about Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood “êķundermining the peace treaty“êç which 85 per cent of Israelis approve of. But he need not fear war. While Egyptians have no love for Israel, none contemplate yet another war against what is clearly a more powerful and ruthless neighbor.

What Lieberman needs to fear is Turkey's calm, principled stance, buttressing the new Egypt as it learns how to walk again. Davutoglu says the US's “êķone-sided“êç approach to the Middle East is not the path to solving the problems and easing the tensions, and that “êķIsrael needs to be treated like any other ordinary country in the region.“êç These are welcomed words to Egyptians and allow the new Egypt to join Turkey in pressuring the Western interloper in their midst into joining the Middle East as an equal partner not as the region's hegemon.

Turkey's own democracy is a heated affair, as protests by and imprisonment of journalists in connection with the so-called Ergenekon military plot to overthrow the government continue. Whatever the outcome of this stand-off between the government and its civil society critics, the demonstrations and the openness of the Turkish press cannot be denied.

When the history of this period is written, imperial schemes in the region will require a chapter to be devoted to Turkey, just as chapters will be devoted to the Arab countries. To achieve a meaningful peace in the Middle East, there must be an end to foreign manipulation. Relations between countries must be based not on pressure, intrigues and invasion, but on dignity and respect. That was Erdogan's subtext during his victory speech when he said, “êķThe Middle East, the Caucasus and the Balkans have won, just as Turkey has won.“êç

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