Don't mention the Turkish model
Though initially lauded by the Arabs as a bastion of new Islamist wisdom, as the Arab Spring went bad, in Syria in particular, the failures of Turkish acumen were revealed, writes Gamil Matar
Key officials of some Islamic countries in the Middle East have been visiting each other a lot recently. Most of these visits are enveloped in an air of caution; they invariably are billed as "unofficial" and media coverage is restricted. Cairo has received quite a few of those Islamic leaders and it has dispatched quite few delegates in return, to suss out fellow governments, engage in economic talks with their business sectors, and conclude investment deals. It is not unlikely that those officials also discussed matters concerning the security and future of their ruling regimes.
Amidst all these exchanges, one was struck by the Egyptian president's visit, in a "personal capacity", to Turkey, on the occasion of the general convention of Turkey's ruling party, the Islamist-oriented Justice and Development Party (JDP). In other words, Mursi's visit was a kind of declaration of Islamist solidarity. Perhaps this explains the extra emphasis given to the "personal" aspect of the visit. Visits of this type are made by senior leaders of ruling Islamist parties, not by government officials.
No one has denied that during such visits Islamist leaders consult with one another, and perhaps volunteer advice and discuss experiences. Nor has anyone denied that some of those leaders will stress that the difficulties their Islamist governments face domestically have to do with circumstances that are particular to their own countries, which are different from other countries in the region. Meanwhile, other Islamist leaders -- and here I refer to the Turks -- will ask their Islamist guests to stop reiterating that term, the "Turkish model," and insist that their system of government is not a model that Arab Islamists should emulate without reservations. I know, first hand, that some leaders of the ruling party in Turkey were initially chuffed when -- only yesterday it seems -- the new Islamist leaders in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere lauded the success of the Islamist model in Turkey and vowed that it would be a constant source of inspiration to them. At the time, some Arab leaders aired the idea of encouraging Abdullah Gül and Recep Tayyip Erdogan to proclaim the revival of the Islamic caliphate. That was when Turkish leaders awoke to the dangers of courting Arab Islamist leaders. Their respective backgrounds are truely different, if not antithetical at times.
I was in Turkey when Turkish Islamist thinkers rejoiced at the rise of their country's popularity with the Arabs. I watched as Arab governments invited Turkey to mediate in a domestic crisis that had suddenly cropped up, as other governments appealed to Ankara to be an ally and a party to their conflicts, and as many of these governments rushed to ask Turkey to become an observer member in the Arab League, even though Turkey is already a founding member of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, which includes all Arab countries, while its general-secretary is an eminent Turkish intellectual. The Turks, at the time, must have felt more attracted than ever to the theory of the cyclical nature of history. People have a tendency to go soft in the face of the stories of glory and power in the annals of their history. And, indeed, Ahmet Davutoglu and his disciples were dubbed the "neo-Ottomans" by many of their fellow Turks, including Prime Minister Erdogan himself, who has the greatest respect and admiration for his foreign minister, whom he calls the "Maestro" on the fundamentals of foreign policy and its temptations.
I cautioned those intellectuals against yielding to the general exultation that pervaded scholastic forums, policy study centres, and academic institutes in Turkey. They were all waiting for the appeals and invitations to Ankara to intervene in this crisis and to resolve that outbreak of strife in one Arab country after another. After all, they thought, the Turks have centuries of experience in dealing with the Arabs, and their country is more advanced and stable. Also, theirs is the Middle East country that is closest to Washington's heart after Israel and, at the same time, it is the most modern Islamist-wise. You don't know the Arabs, I told them. It also looks like you're yearning for those imperial days and the power to impose solutions by the sword or the authority of the Caliph. Remember, too, that you will not be the first outsiders to try to reform the Arabs and it is not likely that you will succeed where the US and its allies in the West have failed.
The optimism there was overwhelming, until the revolutions of the Arab Spring flared into civil wars. Libya delivered the first shock when the revolutionaries chose the Turkish flag as the first flag to be burned in our revolutions. The reason was that Turkey opposed the NATO intervention against Gaddafi. The rising tide of political Islam in Egypt further deflated the dreams of the neo-Ottomans. Egypt's Islamists were the most precipitous of all Islamist trends and factions to urge the revival of the Islamic Caliphate in Istanbul. Egyptian Islamists had not realised that such a call could spark the flames of civil war in Turkey and put paid to all the inroads the Erdogan government had made in clipping the wings of the military and the secularists in Turkey. Then came the turn of the Syrian revolution, which would become the shoals upon which the Turkish foreign policy order would run aground. Davutoglu had constructed his foreign policy on the principle of zero-problems with any country. The idea was that if a problem should arise, Ankara would work to smooth it out as quickly as possible. But suddenly, within only a few years after launching its policy of drawing closer to the Arab world, Ankara has found itself besieged by problems, some of them the gravest it has faced in modern times.
The biggest problem by far was the Kurds, especially the flare-up of hostilities between the Turkish army and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). At one point, Erdogan was making considerable headway towards overcoming this problem. He had introduced some significant reforms in the predominantly Kurdish areas in eastern Turkey and recognised a number of Kurdish cultural rights. He also succeeded in securing Turkey's borders with Syria through an agreement with Damascus that ensured cutting off all support for the PKK in Syria. But with the revolution, the Kurdish dilemma has reared its head again and in a way the Turks had never anticipated. The Syrian Kurds are on the verge of declaring autonomous rule for their region, which is just next to the border with Turkey, and they are receiving huge amounts of military aid from the Barzani government in Iraqi Kurdistan. The PKK militias have moved to the offensive again, taking advantage of the absence of hundreds of Turkish military commanders and officers who are now in prison, and of the preoccupation of other military leaders with monitoring the tense border with Syria.
The Syrian civil war and Turkey's part in it have been instrumental to the decline of Turkey's regional status or, at least, they are the major cause of the frustration that Turkish diplomacy is now facing after years of exhilaration and over-optimism. If the Kurdish problem is at the root of the floundering ship of Davutoglu's "zero problem" policy, Iran has not helped. Once the object of Ankara's sympathy for its ambitions, Iran now has become a source of extreme anxiety for Ankara. Contributing to this development are enormous pressures on the part of Gulf countries and other Arab states to persuade Turkey to assume -- "in theory" -- the helm of the so-called "Sunni world's" "hoped-for" conflict with the "Shia world". It is not clear whether Egypt, which had wavered in accepting the invitation to assume the leadership of the former camp, will take part in the drive to persuade Ankara or whether the Egyptian president will shortly discover that Ankara has already accepted the mission.
It is impossible to imagine that Erdogan's Turkey is pleased at the current state of its foreign policy system, or at the fact that a neighbouring country is in the grips of a civil war that looks unlikely to resolve itself anytime soon without dragging Turkey into the mire of sectarian strife, and perhaps war. Ankara is certainly not happy with the US position in the Security Council, especially after Turkish intellectuals stressed in numerous forums in Western countries that Turkey would not be another Pakistan. Turkey will do its best to keep the Syrian crisis from becoming a protracted war, like most of the US's recent wars in which Turkey has been a passageway for arms and foreign armies and volunteers, and forced to pay an enormous price for this, just like Pakistan, the greatest victim of the war in Afghanistan.
Turkey cannot be pleased with Erdogan's foreign policy. It has been distanced from Europe and brought closer to the brink of sectarianism and tribal warfare. It also looks like Erdogan is preparing Turkey to act as Big Brother to Arab Islamist governments, even though it lacks the skills, capacities and plans to govern countries awash in social problems and political immaturity, and more ominously, to handle a more dangerous phenomenon, which is the extremism that generally comes with, or follows, in the wake of the advent of Islamist regimes.
The writer is a political analyst and director of the Arab Centre for Development and Futuristic Research.