Warning signs are on the rise: Increasing social disquiet in Turkey is inevitably affecting perceptions in Arab minds of its attractiveness, role as a guiding force and its light as an inspiration for democratic evolution.
A main ingredient in Ankara's new foreign policy has been its de facto role in building bridges between the long-suppressed Middle East and Maghreb and the West, building a path toward open societies, civilian rule, justice for everyone and the build-up of strong middle classes as a guarantee for pluralist stability. Soft power and constant dialogue is the means, and that approach has very high value.
But many of the opinion shapers in Egypt -- to take a key country in bumpy transition -- do make a link between how the Justice and Development Party (AKP) does in terms of domestic policies and Turkey's “brand value” as a magnet for ideas on good and credible governance. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's pledge to be “the prime minister of the entire people of Turkey” was not lost in translation into Arabic. Respect has to do with self-respect.
The decade-long Turkish experience under the AKP remains vital to a better future for the entire Arab domain. The latest data reminds us of that fact once more. In a study conducted by liberal think tank the Turkish Economic and Social Research Foundation (TESEV) and pollster KA Research, Turkey is the most “positively considered” country in the Arab domain, at 69 percent. It is regarded as the “strongest political power” in the region.
The value of the report, titled “Perceptions on Turkey in the Middle East,” lies in its continuity. This one is the fourth since 2009. The research was performed in August with 2,800 people from 16 countries, including the Gulf through Libya, but more interestingly Iran and Syria. So it gives us a chance to compare the changes in perception of the content of Turkey's policies as well as their impact.
Turkey still ranks highest in popularity at 69 percent, but it has fallen by nine points in a year. It has come closer to Egypt, which seems to be attracting more positive attention. Two points are linked to this: It could be noted that Turkey's Middle Eastern policies are seen as less effective (a fall from 70 to 61 percent), and it is viewed more cautiously as a “successful amalgam of democracy and Islam” as compared with last year's results, a fall from 67 to 58 percent.
What about the “model country” discourse? There, the trend is similar. Turkey ranked last year at number one, with 61 percent support, but this figure has fallen to 53 percent. The highest regard for Turkey is to be found in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt. Unsurprisingly, the most negative perceptions belong to Iran and Syria; but the sharpest fall has been noted in Iraq -- almost 20 points -- which should act as a warning call.
Equally important has been how the respondents in 16 countries have been ranking their priorities. To the question, “What is the biggest problem?” the economy topped responses, up to 47 percent in some countries. This was followed by “security.” (In the case of Syria, “stability” was the priority.)
What to make of this study? One aspect may concern the notion of identity in foreign policy. Although Turkey does not rank very high as a nation perceived to be chasing a sectarian line, responses reveal the complexity of concerns in these countries. Therefore, Ankara's sensitivities in reaching out to all civilian actors, regardless of belief, ethnicity or ideology, must be diversified.
Second, the management of the Syrian conflict seems also to have been a factor in changing perception. The Arab domain has remained highly sensitive to “regime change” since the events in Iraq, and Ankara should be on the alert that the adoption of a role as regime changer would push Turkey in Arab minds from “one of us” to “one of them.”
A third aspect has to do with Turkey's domestic policies. In a technologically connected world, Arab opinion does not miss the chronic problems that occupy the AKP. Many of them identify themselves and their countries with problems as well as solutions. That is what makes Turkey's domestic scene a crucial part of its image, whether you like it or not.