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March 04, 2012, Sunday

The Arab Spring and the Turks: three views

From its onset, many Turks were quick to hail the Arab Spring as the beginning of great and historic changes in the Middle East. Arab Spring euphoria, especially in its early weeks, was amazing.

The mainstream media and intellectuals hailed the events in Cairo, Tripoli and other cities as the 1989 of the Arab world. But that elation was not generated by intra-Arab politics. Surprising though the suggestion may be, it should be seen as the result of the inner tensions of Turkish politics. The post-imperial trauma, that is, the shock of the loss of the Ottoman Empire, and the inferiority complex of the following decades put the Turks into a kind of eschatological mind frame that awaited the signs of a corrected history that would return the Turks to having prominence in global politics. Thus, for many, the Arab Spring was the cathartic point of a historic chain of events that ended authoritarianism in the region, and opened it to a democratic integration of countries. Indeed, the ultimate expectation was that Turkey would benefit from the process and clinch its leadership. In other words, many in Turkey expected that the Arab Spring would throw up major events that would ease Turkey into a leading position in global politics.

However, the course of events impacted on the Turkish public in different ways and after a while, three different perspectives came to the forefront concerning the Arab Spring.

The first of this stream is the optimists. The optimists believe that the Arab Spring is a turning point in the region’s history. Accordingly, these events are ending the authoritarian regimes in the region and will let the Arab people configure free and egalitarian systems. Moreover, the Arab Spring will ease both Turkey’s regional and global position. At first, the Turkish government took what was largely an optimist line on the Arab Spring, as did various Islamic and liberal intellectuals. Also, several research centers in Ankara and İstanbul championed the optimist view. However, one can observe that the Turkish government’s optimistic stance on the Arab Spring is nowadays gravitating towards a more realistic pole.

The second stream is the pessimists. The pessimists quickly dismissed the Arab Spring as another Western plot to reorganize Arab politics to serve the West’s interests. Thus, the Arab Spring was a Western strategy to weaken Arab politics and enhance Israel’s position. The pessimists also argue that the Arab Spring was devised to limit the influence of Russia and China in the region by turning Libya and other states directly to the American perspective. In general, it is the Kemalists who have adopted a pessimistic view toward the Arab Spring along with some marginal Islamic groups. For instance, the Kemalist Cumhuriyet daily published several pro-Bashar al-Assad opinions infused with values that marginal Islamic groups can espouse.

The final stream is the prudents. The prudents' perspective on the Arab Spring has taken a low-profile position. Their reasoning was that any early reaction, positive or negative, might cause harm and therefor caution is in order. The prudents advised the Turkish government to avoid taking a very high-profile position on the events. They reminded that social institutions like democracy require micro-level infrastructures, so revolts should not be seen as shortcut transitions to democracy. More, the prudents reminded of the intra-elite differences within the Islamic world. The Hizmet movement, inspired by Fethullah Gülen, is a typical example of the prudent stream. One may also argue that Turkish President Abdullah Gül is close to the prudent stream. Since the beginning, President Gül has taken a very careful approach to the recent regional developments. During several visits with him to the Middle East, I personally observed that President Gül is of the view that social change requires a difficult and complex period of transformation.

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