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February 26, 2011, Saturday

Turkey’s rise to the occasion

I do not believe you can successfully use the Turkish template or replicate the Anatolian model in Middle Eastern and North African countries, where anti-government protests are spreading rapidly and taking down authoritarian leaders who have failed to live up to the expectations of their people.

There is simply a wide array of differences among Turkey and these countries, ranging from economy, social class, culture and history. Even when Turks ruled many of these countries for centuries during the reign of the vast Ottoman Empire, they did not disrupt the local characteristics of these nations, leaving them to enjoy great autonomy and independence from any interference. If the Ottomans had done what colonial powers like the French and British did in these countries, we would hear many of them speaking Turkish today instead of French and English.

That being said, Turkey can certainly be an inspiration for a lot of people in these countries and can rise to the occasion to help these troubled regimes make the transition as smoothly as possible. The men and women on the Arab streets look to Turkey and feel close affection for what Turkey represents today. The increasing popularity of Turkish soap operas across the region is a testament to that fact. If the new and existing regimes in the region are in a desperate search for a boost to their legitimacies, Turkey could assist them in building a platform for channeling the aspirations and expectations of people to reflect better governance and transparency.

There is no doubt that any change must come from within and a strong sense of local ownership is needed to sustain the democratic change in these countries. Besides, Turkey has a lot of shortcomings of its own and needs to pursue a vigorous reform agenda to better align itself with democratic ideals, fundamental rights and the rule of law. Nevertheless it has come so far with many bitter experiences in the troubled past and learned a lot about how to play out the reforms without disturbing the fundamentals of the state and always averting the risk of a “failed state” syndrome.

Over time, a strong middle class has flourished in Turkey, helping remove huge income disparities between the rich and poor. A relatively competitive educational system has given hope to citizens of the lower and middle classes, creating access opportunities for their children. Although thwarted by military interruptions and stymied by chronic problems in the functioning of democratic institutions in the past, the country has been able to stand on its own two feet, always taking two steps forward when it was forced to take one back. In the last decade, the stability and huge reform drive, aided by the EU process, helped the country secure a place in the prestigious G20 major economies club and increased its clout in the region and the world.

Consequently, there are a lot of best practices Turkey can enthusiastically share with countries in the Middle East and North Africa using a “soft power” position that is more convincing than many others. The people in the region by and large welcome Turkish suggestions and do not have deep-rooted reservations and doubts about Turkey’s motives. One of our reporters accompanying Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu during a trip to Tunisia last week told me how the Jasmine revolutionaries in Kasbah Square were cheering twice as loud for Turkish reporters.

He also recalled the sharp contrast in terms of the security outlook between the French Embassy and Turkish Embassy in Tunisia, saying the former was heavily fortified with barbed wire and sandbags while the latter was pretty much open to the public. “Out of respect for Turkey, Tunisians were saluting the Turkish Embassy when they passed by the embassy building,” he said. The same stories can be found in many other trouble spots in the region. During the mass evacuations from Libya for example, both the government forces and rebels were extending protection to Turkish expats. In the Darfur region of Sudan where I visited with State Minister Faruk Çelik last month, I heard stories that most people were seeking treatment at Turkish-run medical centers because they did not trust to the ones run by Westerners. The rumors, albeit unsubstantiated, of medical experiments by doctors from the West were widespread among the Sudanese there, making the jobs of the aid workers from Western countries more difficult.

If you are looking a niche for a competitive edge in the markets of these countries, Turkey certainly has one than can be employed with ease. There is strong backing for such initiatives from the Turkish public as they can closely relate to the difficulties encountered by people in the Arab world. Surely Turkey cannot remain indifferent to developments in the region, but it should play its cards very carefully and patiently to avoid the very risk that it may blow back in the face of Turks if pressed too hard. The transition in the troubled countries will take a longer time than many anticipate and, as such, Turks should be patient and keep a low profile, letting the locals lead and avoiding pitfalls along the way.

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