The ‘Turkish Model' and the Middle East by Hugh Pope*

May 16, 2011, Monday/ 11:15:00

The Middle East's season of popular revolts for greater freedoms has thrown a critical spotlight on Turkey's ambition for a leading role in the region, whether as an actor pursuing a ‘zero problem' foreign policy or through the gravitational pull of its ‘Turkish model'.

The region's commercial giant was caught dramatically off balance by the wave of unrest. Some 25,000 of the 110,000 Turks who work in the Middle East lived in Libya, and had to be evacuated from projects worth at least $15 billion. For weeks, Turkey hesitated to call for Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's ouster, jarring with Turkish leaders' rhetoric in Egypt that had sought to portray Turks as firmly on the side of youth, change and democracy.

Syria's troubles have embarrassed Turkey too. For more than a decade, Damascus has been the fulcrum of Turkey's re-entry into the Arab political system, a relationship that was focused on the Assad family regime. Turmoil in a country with an 877-km border with Turkey also showed that Ankara's one-size-fits-all ‘zero problem' approach could at best only hope for a long-term impact on the Middle East's traumatized status quo. And a multilateral free-trade zone for Syria, Jordan and Lebanon will take longer now, along with its promise of greater regional integration, stability and prosperity.

But it is too early to dismiss Turkey's role in the region. Even while threatened with refugee flows from Syria, Turkey has not blinked from its no-visa policy for several Middle Eastern states. And unlike the state-to-state relationships of many outside powers active in the Middle East, Turkey's engagement is also backed by dense business relationships, four flights per day to most capitals and the sale of scores of soap operas to the local broadcasters.

Turkey's regional prominence may partly have been due to Egypt's fading appeal under ex-President Hosni Mubarak. But Turkey was a prime mover in persuading world powers to aim for the ultimately successful transition of power to the Egyptian army, and not to former intelligence chief Omar Suleyman. And Ankara has also moved from a prickly relationship with Mubarak to warm relationships with all parts of the new Egyptian political spectrum.

In the triangular crisis involving Bahrain's Sunni-Shia friction and the threateningly angry war of words that resulted between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Turkey has managed to keep lines open to all sides. Turkey pursues a similarly well-balanced role in Iraq, acting to lessen sectarian divides in March, for instance, as its Sunni Muslim Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited Shia shrines and leaders.

In short, Turkey has buried its Cold War image as a poor and inward-looking cousin, a cat's paw of Western power run by militaristic secularists who had turned their back on Islam. Instead it has become a commercial hub and dynamo, fashionable enough for Istanbul to attract the weddings of grand Middle Eastern families. Another dynamic is often called the ‘Turkish model', a concept that is as hard to define as the country itself.

In fact, this Turkish model doesn't fit into any regional or ideological bloc. Erdoğan's government has pro-Islamic factions, for instance, but it is by no means Islamist. Indeed, Turkey's key achievement has been a rough-and-ready balance between authoritarianism, militarism, statism, religious fundamentalism and nationalism -- all dynamics from which it suffered for decades, and which still plague the Middle East.

One guarantee of these Turkish checks and balances is a broad democratic legitimacy. Turkey has moved from one-party authoritarianism to a multi-party system, a bumpy and continuing journey over the past 60 years. More needs to be done, as with its patchy record for freedom of expression. But, unusually in the region, elections are fully recognized as free, fair and legitimate.

The Middle East cannot easily copy the Turkish model, however, because of unique factors. Turkey has enjoyed 90 years largely free of war and revolution. Reforms have benefited hugely from an EU accession process that no Middle East state can hope for. While oil income both blesses and curses many regional governments, Turkey has little and has been forced to develop a pluralistic economy and openness to the world. Finally, Turkey is anchored by a state rooted in the Ottoman and even Byzantine empires, a situation that only Egypt and Iran can come close to.

All these have helped Turkey find momentum and a path forward, while its neighbors are still seeking one. Like many of the Middle East's partners, it is suffering setbacks in the latest unrest, and many aspects of its own ethnic Kurdish problem still need closure. But all the signs are that Turkey will be able to adapt, and that its system is more in tune with the positive new forces of the Middle East than the oppressive ones of the old.

[*] Hugh Pope is Director of International Crisis Group's Turkey/Cyprus project and author of three books on Turkey, the Turkic World and the Middle East. He was a Bosch Public Policy Fellow at the Transatlantic Academy in 2010.

[**] This article was first published in the German Marshall Fund's Transatlantic Academy Blog on May 13.

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