Can Tunisia or Egypt find role model in Turkey?

Turkey has raised its voice for Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak to step aside, as it tries to burnish its credentials as the region’s 'model' democratic, modern, and Islam-leaning state.

Ann Hermes/Staff
The clash between pro- and anti-Mubarak supporters escalated in Cairo's Tehrir Square on Feb. 2.

Turkey has raised its voice for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step aside, as it tries to burnish its credentials as the region’s “model” democratic, modern, and Islam-leaning state.

After days of official silence as violence first began raging across Egypt – and a chorus of complaints in the Turkish media that the ruling party’s ambitions of regional leadership were proving shallow – Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has pulled out the stops.

Mr. Mubarak’s promise not to seek another term in elections was not enough.

“People expect Mubarak to take a much different step,” Mr. Erdogan said on Wednesday, during a visit to Kyrgyzstan. “This is the expectation of the people…. The current administration [of Mubarak] fails to give confidence for beginning an atmosphere of democracy within a short period of time.”

Turkey has increasingly flexed its regional diplomatic muscle under the leadership of Erdogan’s Islam-leaning Justice and Development Party (AKP). Some have referred to Turkey’s robust foreign policy as “neo-Ottomanism.”

Though Turkey has witnessed four military coups since 1960 – the latest, in 1997, pushed from power the overtly Islamist Welfare Party, the precursor to the more moderate AKP – Turkey’s democratic development is seen as a worthy example by some activists from Tunis to Cairo.

As an economic powerhouse with a determined tradition of secular rule since the 1920s that has also found democratic space for a moderate Islamic leadership, Turkey has pushed its appeal on several levels.

“The transformation of Turkey’s political Islam is something which has set itself as a model for the Arab street,” says Cengiz Aktar, a professor at Bahcesehir University in Istanbul.

“The Arab street thinks that if it can happen in Turkey, it may also happen in their countries,” says Mr. Aktar. “This being said … comparing [Turkey’s transformation] – especially in Egypt – we should not be naive. That will take much more time, for the Muslim Brotherhood and other political movements in Arab countries to become another AKP. It’s a long process, but we are on the right track.”

The benefits of the Turkey model

While tens of thousands of protesters in Egypt have rallied to topple Mubarak after 30 years of rule, Egyptian intellectuals have commented on the benefits of Turkey’s model.

The chain of events started in Tunisia, where President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was overthrown by people power in mid-January after 23 years of leadership – the first Arab leader in the modern era to be forced from power in such a way.

Similar protests have erupted from Sudan and Jordan to Yemen, all calling for more accountable and democratic government. In Tunisia, which has a strong and educated middle class, Islamist leader Rachid Ghannouchi returned home after 22 years in exile earlier this week, comparing his banned Ennahda (Awakening) movement to the AKP, and rejecting unflattering comparisons to the leader of Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Poll: Turkey has strong blend of Islam and democracy

On Wednesday, a poll of seven Arab nations and Iran published by the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV) think tank found that 66 percent of 2,267 respondents said Turkey represented a “successful blend of Islam and democracy.”

In the past three years Turkey has mediated – not always successfully – between Syria and Israel, with Brazil on Iran’s nuclear program, in the Balkans, and recently with Qatar on Lebanon’s political deadlock, to name a few regional initiatives.

The TESEV poll found that Turkey’s “Muslim background” was the most-cited reason for its “model” status, followed by its economy, its democratic government, and that it is seen to “stand up for Palestinians and Muslims."

“Until recently, prevailing opinion in Turkey was that Arabs did not like the Turks,” said the report, according to a description of the Turkish-language document in the Hurriyet Daily News. “However, this research challenges this belief; there is now growing sympathy for Turkey and Turks in the Arab world.”

Some 78 percent of respondents said that Turkey should play a bigger role in the region; positive regional opinion has risen from 75 percent to 85 percent about Turkey, which has taken a tough line against Israel over its raid last May on the Gaza-bound "Freedom Flotilla," which killed nine activists from Turkey, one a dual US citizen.

Erdogan set the tone on Egypt earlier this week. He said the AKP “came to power declaring: ‘Enough, the final say and decision belongs to the people.’” He said the AKP “always opposed … oppression,” and stated: “Governments, which close their eyes, their ears and their mind to the people, cannot survive long.”

Erdogan offered a “very sincere warning” for Mubarak, noting that “We are human, we are mortal.… We will all die and be called to account for what we left behind." The Turkish leader added: “In today’s world. Freedoms cannot be postponed or ignored.”

Before those remarks, the Turkish media criticized Erdogan for his silence.

Ankara has always played for stability in the region and this has also meant supporting dictators,” wrote columnist Semih Idiz in the Hurriyet Daily News. “The dilemma for Foreign Minister [Ahmet] Davutoglu is that his vision of an influential Turkey in the Middle East is really contingent on the present status quo in the region.”

But that hasn’t prevented Turkish officials from stating their case, as the pro-democracy confrontation in Egypt enters its 10th day.

“This regional role of Turkey is very much self-attributed, it’s self-declared, [and] they are also learning about their role in the region,” says Aktar. “So I am not very surprised about the lack of enthusiasm [toward the Egyptian protests] in the beginning. [The AKP] have achieved something extremely important, politically speaking, but they are over-cautious sometimes. In a word: Better late than never.”

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