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HASAN KANBOLAT

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HASAN KANBOLAT
April 11, 2012, Wednesday

Turkey and political transformation in Middle East

The Arab Spring can be defined as a process of transformation and democratization, starting from Tunisia and Egypt and expanding through the Arab world.

As a result of the events that have taken place as part of the Arab Spring, creating a “domino effect,” the authoritarian regimes that had held on for years were toppled. Instead of the state tradition where leaders stayed in power until death, a new period started where governments are transformed by the people.

It has been over a year since the start of the Arab Spring in Tunisia on Dec. 17, 2010. The combination of the recent historical events in the Middle East due to the Arab Spring is unprecedented. And its consequences have been revolutionary. Regimes that seemed impossible to topple started to withdraw from the stage of history one after another. Because popular power started to be effective in the political scene, regional dynamics, which was presumed would stay constant, were disrupted. The region and other countries that have been directly or indirectly affected by the developments have redefined their interests on foreign policy and security. The most important feature of the regional structure in the pre-Arab Spring period was the non-representative and non-democratic character of almost all of the past regimes. The common point shared by Arab countries was the inability of the governments to project legitimacy. Any sort of legitimacy stemmed from past ideologies, the distribution of rich natural resources to the people, the presence of oppressive state institutions and from the creation of foreign enemies.

It has been seen that in the Middle East, the countries where regimes are regarded as legitimate by their people have not been directly affected by the Arab Spring. In these countries, the people did not pour into the streets in order to change the government. Looking from this perspective, Israel, Iran and Turkey are distinct from other countries in the region. Popular movements have not taken place in the countries with governments viewed as legitimate. And in the countries governed by a monarchy, where legitimacy of the regime is rather uncommon, the popular movements did not last long and did not lead to regime change.

The common point of regimes that had the least amount of legitimacy -- such as Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria -- was the fact that the regimes came to power as a result of a military coup. And the fact is that the regimes established oppressive state institutions in order to guarantee their continuance.

Consequences of Arab Spring

Looking at what kinds of consequences the Arab Spring will lead to at national and regional levels, the following overall picture becomes evident.

The most important development at the national level is the end of recent regimes. And the fact is that a process has started where new regimes that directly reflect the preference and expectations of the people are coming to power. It is the first time that Arabs have ever experienced such a rapid transformation at this profound of a level.

It would not be wrong to say that this process will be long and full of ambiguities. And it would be an exaggeration to claim that, from today to tomorrow, the regimes in the region will be transformed in line with the constituent values of liberal democracy. Hereinafter, it will become difficult for the regimes, which cannot account for their behavior to the public or understand that they can continue to stay in power as long as they fulfill the expectations of their people, to stay in power. Therefore, the countries governed by a monarchy in the Middle East have been trying to better manage this transformation process by making democratic and liberal resolutions and providing their parliaments with more mandates.

Another transformation taking place at the national level is the fact that Islamist-based and liberal movements kept out of the game by oppressive secular regimes will be legitimate actors in politics from now on, and they will come to power after democratic elections. This situation will inevitably affect how non-Muslims see Islam. How Islam will coexist with liberal, secular and democratic values will be more frequently discussed. Within this process, Islam-based movements will be able to come to power. And this situation will affect their position among the people.

Another consequence created by the Arab Spring is the risk that transformation processes could incite sectarian, political and ethnic conflicts. The fact that such a situation has not taken place in Tunisia is a source of consolation. However, other than Tunisia, almost every country that experienced a change in regime also runs the risk of civil war. The regime changes in Egypt and Libya unveiled different potential conflicts in these countries. Similar developments are taking place in Syria as well. Even if Bashar al-Assad stays in power, or leaves power, it is highly possible that this situation could lead to bloody internal conflicts. The most important factor posing the risk of civil war in almost all of these countries is the fact that none of these countries is a nation-state in real terms. And it is certain that these possible civil wars would have regional effects.

Looking from a regional level, the first effect of the Arab Spring is increasing instability, ambiguity and chaotic environment. And a polarized atmosphere has appeared in intraregional relations. In Egypt, the end of the Hosni Mubarak regime and the increasing power of the Muslim Brotherhood startled the Israeli administration, and also reinforced Israel’s current feeling of being besieged and isolated. In this context, another factor increasing Israel’s fears is the US’s allowing of an increase of Iran’s regional influence after the withdrawal of the US from Iraq. It is possible for Iran to interpret the US withdrawal within the context of the Arab Spring in both positive and negative senses. In Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, the regimes sympathetic to US interests were forced to leave power, which increased the regional elbow room of Iran. In addition to this, the increasing long-term tendencies toward liberal-democracy can make it difficult for the current regime in Iran to carry on. Besides, the end of the Assad regime in Syria would mean that Iran will lose significant bargaining power vis-à-vis Israel and the West.

Another negative development caused by the Arab Spring in terms of Iran is that Turkey-Iran relations have been negatively affected, especially by the events in Syria. While Turkey has been supporting the opposition forces by criticizing the Assad regime, Iran has tried to support the Assad regime as much as possible. Turkey’s standing by democratic opposition groups in the region in general and in the context of the developments taking place in Syria has been followed by Iran with deep concern. Furthermore, another situation worrying Iran is the fact that Turkey’s liberal-Muslim-democratic and secular identity could be a source of inspiration for the transformation movements in the region.

Saudi take on Arab Spring

It is necessary to state that Saudi Arabia is generally not content with the Arab Spring. The Mubarak regime was discarded by the US administration, and Riyadh has started to think that they could be discarded by Washington should they be faced with a similar popular movement. Saudi Arabia is not comfortable with the rising influence of Iran, both in Iraq and in the Gulf region. Riyadh believes that the Arab Spring has increased the regional elbow room of Tehran. It is believed that Iran’s regional influence will decline after she loses Syria. In order to prevent a possible popular movement in its own country, Riyadh has began to channel money into measures aimed at addressing inflation, housing and unemployment, and has also started to pave the way for women to participate in social and political life, even if within certain limits.

Among the countries in the region, Turkey has been profoundly affected by the Arab Spring. The “zero problems with neighbors” policy that Turkey tried to implement in her relations with Iraq, Iran and Syria collapsed. The honeymoon with Syria has come to an end because of Ankara’s support of opposition groups against Assad, and because of the fact that Assad did not pay attention to Turkey’s warnings and did not make the necessary liberal democratic reforms in the country.

At the beginning of the events in Tunisia and Egypt, Turkey stood by the opposition movements. And in the face of the developments in Libya and Syria, she first pursued a cautious “wait and see” policy. And then, because of the fact that the regimes could not somehow make reforms and could not meet the demands of their peoples, and that they used disproportionate force against opposition forces, Turkey started to support coercive measures, and she defined her side in favor of the opposition. In the example of Libya, while initially opposing an international military operation, afterwards Turkey joined in the international humanitarian intervention force created under the leadership of NATO after Muammar Gaddafi increasingly used violence and did not want to leave power.

The most important effect of the Arab Spring on Turkish foreign policy is that it revealed the necessity of subjecting the “zero problems with neighbors” policy to a serious revision. First of all, Ankara will stand by more democratic formations abroad, in line with the liberal democratic transformation Ankara itself is experiencing. From now on, regardless of how the regimes in the Middle East are governed internally, Ankara cannot be expected to establish close relations. Moreover, in order to shape the events in the face of increasing ambiguity in the region, Ankara will act more actively. No matter how strong the motive may be for Turkey to shape foreign policy based on values, it will become increasingly more difficult to do so in the face of current regional realities. The argument of whether values or interests should shape foreign policy in the future will be seen most in Turkey of all the countries in the region.

In conclusion, it is certain that nothing in the Middle East will be like it was before. Hereinafter, regional actors will define their own fates.