Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1127, 20 - 26 December 2012
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1127, 20 - 26 December 2012

Ahram Weekly

Turkey and the Arab Spring

Turkish views of the uprisings and ongoing unrest in the Arab world, especially in Egypt, have gone from approval to alarm, notes Sayed Abdel-Meguid

Al-Ahram Weekly

Turkey, under the Islamist-inspired Justice Development Party (AKP), is now cloaked in winter which arrived late this year amidst muttered curses against climate change. People are flocking to the stores, making their preparations for the holiday season, while Christmas trees bedecking some street corners heralding the approach of New Year festivities. But an eerie gloom hovers. The source is the hour-by-hour news aired over Turkey’s numerous television networks carrying a flood of heartrending images from the Arab region of young men and women being killed and wounded while protesting against the policies of their governments.

What is this resurgence of anger in the countries of the Arab Spring, Turks are asking themselves. Media from Tunisia and Egypt appear constantly on the screens as though the two have embraced to confront the same concern. The iconic Tahrir Square, which not only symbolises the Egyptian people’s uprising for freedom and democracy but was also a harbinger of the Arab Spring, has arisen again with the shouts for “liberty, justice and human dignity”. Large segments of the Turkish public take this renewed cry to signify that no progress has been made towards the realisation of these aspirations. But they also wonder how long the situation can continue and are amazed by how it spread and built up momentum from the protests against dictatorship on Mohamed Mahmoud Street through repeated mass demonstrations in Tahrir and then to the gates of the presidential palace.

Turkish ruling elites are clearly disturbed and apprehensive. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who only a few weeks ago conducted a successful high-profile visit to Cairo, expressed his concern in a phone call to President Mohamed Morsi on Saturday 8 December in which he said that the Turkish government was monitoring developments in Cairo closely and sincerely advised the Egyptian president to hold serious talks with the opposition forces immediately.

The prime minister’s words of caution and advice echoed a statement he issued following the constitutional declaration that Morsi issued on 22 November and in which he urged the new occupants of the presidential palace not to be hasty, to remain balanced, fair and inclusive. Some may have interpreted the remarks as encouragement to the Egyptian rulers. However, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu added an explanatory footnote. Egypt will only emerge from its current crisis if it completes the democratisation process and excludes no one and shows no preference for a particular religion or sect while marginalising others, he said.

Two years in the life of the Arab Spring have brought it to a bleak and murky winter that warns of grave impending dangers for the unity of peoples who all speak the same language of the Quran, including the Christians in Egypt and the Jews in Tunisia. This sums up the current impressions in Turkey whose people long to see those countries move from instability to construction and renaissance beneath a democratic umbrella. At this critical juncture, it is interesting to take a look back at some important articulations of Turkish attitudes towards the emerging signs of freedom in North Africa.

Thirteen months ago, in response to the eruption of violent confrontations between police and protesters against military rule and clashes between supporters and opponents of SCAF, Turkish dailies lashed out at what were described as attempts to reproduce a despotic order. The harsh and vehement tones of the criticism were not without significance to domestic politics in the heir to the Ottoman Empire.

The AKP was glad that SCAF was the object of revolutionary anger in Egypt. It, too, had fought a fierce battle against military brass and eventually was able to shunt them out of power. Developments in Egypt were a vindication of Erdogan’s policies and actions during his terms in office.

Turkey’s most widely circulating national newspaper Milliyet proclaimed, “Popular revolutions are not just about toppling a dictatorship and overturning a tyrannical regime. They are also about a drive to clear the way for a radical transformation in the political and social realms of downtrodden countries and homelands. The popular uprisings that have taken place in three countries of North Africa and the Middle East have overthrown tyrants. Yet, as can be seen in Egypt and Tunisia, the protests are continuing, violently now, in what is a second uprising, this time against counter-revolution. In short, the freedom fighters seek to totally remove the vestiges of three decades of Mubarak rule inclusive of all the corrupt figures in his regime. The events in Tahrir Square are a prelude to that, but this may propel the country into uncharted terrain.” 

The newspaper drew a comparison with the “velvet revolutions” in former European satellites of the Soviet Union. “The revolutions that took place in the countries of Eastern Europe attained their goal in a relatively short time. The reason for this resides in the awareness of the masses and their leaderships which had both strength and sound judgement, qualities that are, for various reasons, lacking in those protest movements [in Egypt].”

The general assessment was echoed in other Turkish newspapers at the time. The people who had thought that they had reached their goal by toppling Hosni Mubarak quickly discovered that the change was not profound enough and that the temporary military rulers were not working toward the fulfilment of their aspirations. Therefore, the cry in Tahrir was now for the downfall of Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi and his team. But that left the question pending as to who could steer this people that was split into dozens of different coalitions, political parties and ideological entities. The country was gripped by a new surge in popular anger the actions and outcome of which no one could predict. Yet none of the contending players seemed to have the ability to resolve the discord or the wherewithal to forestall impending anarchy.

As the Turks watched these disturbing developments unfold, their media posed the question as to what Turkey, which, after little hesitation, came out strongly in favour of change, could offer. Ankara had openly asked Mubarak to step down. Should it now ask Tantawi to step aside now that his military administration had unleashed excessive force against demonstrators and dozens were being killed and wounded in Mohamed Mahmoud Street and Tahrir Square?

On 22 November last year, the Turkish Foreign Ministry expressed its grave concern over these events and stressed that Egypt had begun to move towards democracy and should not be turned back. Away from the microphones, in the corridors of government, Ankara was opposed to SCAF’s desire to establish a constitutional order that would safeguard its privileges and preserve a powerful role for the military in political life. As for the arguments of SCAF’s supporters that the army was the only bulwark against upheaval and chaos in the event that extremist Islamist parties took over power, ruling circles in Ankara dismissed them as nothing more than a pretext for excluding political Islam from government.

It is little wonder, therefore, that these circles welcomed the victories of Islamist parties in the Egyptian legislative elections. They rejoiced at this confirmation of the Islamist direction of the winds of change in the Arab world that once again blew from Tunisia where the Islamist Al-Nahda Party had swept the elections in October 2011.

Egypt’s first free democratic parliamentary elections following the fall of Mubarak ushered in a second phase in the post-revolutionary period. It is no secret that Turkey’s AKP had put its political weight behind Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). At the time, the Watan newspaper reported that the Muslim Brothers had sent some of their key leaders to Turkey for insight into the AKP’s electoral campaign experience and tactics and that immediately upon their return to Egypt they put their lessons into effect in their media campaigns up and down the Nile Valley. The Turkish daily justified the AKP’s assistance on the grounds that the MB had been disadvantaged by the pressures and repressive practices brought against them by the Mubarak regime. Even so, they had scored an unprecedented success in the 2005 elections in which MB members, running as independents, won 88 seats in the People’s Assembly.

Heartened by their new surge in optimism, AKP leaders began to scan the rest of the Arab world. Now, they felt, Islamist advances were inevitable and that soon like-minded parties would rise to power elsewhere in the region. Syria, in particular, looked like the next candidate, since the Muslim Brotherhood there was far better organised and more unified than all the other opposition parties and would therefore be poised to assume the reins of government following the fall of the Bashar Al-Assad regime. Meanwhile, in Egypt, the realisation of the Islamists’ dream was just around the corner. Their impetus was growing, as confirmed in the presidential elections that brought the FJP’s candidate to power.

Some Turkish analysts maintained that a major reason for this success was Morsi’s opposition to imperialism. Accordingly, following Morsi’s accession to the presidency the imagination of some corners of the Turkish press flared with scenarios envisioning the united rise of the peoples of the region against Washington. At the same time, there was an unmistakable glee at Israel’s alarm at the results of the Egyptian presidential elections which prompted the Zionist regime into action to create a cordon around the new administration in Cairo by concluding a range of strategic, economic, political and military agreements with countries in the eastern Mediterranean, such as Greece and southern Cyprus.

But as the days passed, none of these daydreams came to fruition. Instead, as seen by the Turks the Muslim Brothers committed one blunder after the other, culminating in the 22 November constitutional declaration and another huge eruption of the popular volcano. Footage of the throngs in Tahrir and in front of the presidential palace fills Turkish television screens again and the front pages of Turkish newspapers blazon such headlines as “The next dictator after Mubarak”. And the Turks are totally mystified and wonder, what new surprises will hail from the complex and unfathomable lands of Egypt and Tunisia?

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