Ayhan, a lecturer and associate professor at Abant İzzet Baysal University and a Middle Eastern expert in the Middle East Strategic Research Center (ORSAM), told Today's Zaman in an interview that the popular uprisings in the Middle East will grow big enough to engulf all countries without exception.
For him, the biggest risk for the world would be chaos in Saudi Arabia. “If the crisis in Saudi Arabia lasts longer, there will be abnormal hikes in world oil prices. That is, the events in Jeddah will affect the lives of people in London and New York. The main threat for Saudi Arabia will be the Shiites,” he argued.
He also claimed that if Turkey takes constitutional reforms and the democratic initiative processes to successful completion, it has the chance of being a star in the region.
- As a person who has conducted fieldwork in many countries in Middle East and North Africa, how do you explain the uprisings?
In the Middle East, there has always been a huge potential for dissident movements. There were different ethnic and sectarian problems in each country. The Western powers invaded these lands some 100 years ago and created administrations that would act in line with their interests. In the Cold War era, some countries were controlled by the US and others by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). The two superpowers lent military, intelligence and other sorts of support to these administrations. Thanks to such help, the administrations could easily suppress the opposition movements. After the Cold War era, the big guns were no longer able to control the social movements in the region. And the societies turned into highly explosive bombs under a steel vest imposed on them.
- So you say that they are also revolting against the West?
The radicalization of the region has been under way for the past 10 years. The US interventions in the region, Israel's policies and the Palestinian issue have radicalized the people in the region. Israel's policies not only created hatred against Israel, but also urged the people in the region to question their own governments that tended to keep silent about Israel's policies and even supported them.
- Social networks have played a great role in the uprisings.
During the last 20 years, the societies in the region have seen great changes. For instance, about two-thirds of Egypt's population today is young people and nine out of every 10 people are unemployed. About 45 percent of Jordan's population today is Palestinian immigrants. Young people tend to monitor and be affected by the developments around the globe. When they compare the their own systems with the world, they can see the contradictions.
- Is it a new wave spearheaded by young people?
Yes, certainly. But these movements should not be confused with the revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia. The velvet and orange revolutions were nothing but the changing of the administrations with external support. The movements in the Middle East are not something planned or manipulated by the West. They are just natural movements. These protests seek to change not only the people in power, but also the systems. And the Western countries have realized the risks this change may pose and therefore, they advise a controlled transition. It is for this reason US President Barack Obama described the appointment of the head of the military council as the head of the government as a democratic step. Can military rule be considered a step toward democracy? No one questions this.
- Don't you think that the Greater Middle East Project and the moderate Islam projects of the US have a role in these movements?
These revolts have nothing to do with the Greater Middle East Project or any project about moderate Islam. All of these movements originated from deeply rooted social problems. And this is not something that just started in 2010. It should be noted that these revolts came at a time when the tyrants of Egypt, Libya and Yemen were preparing to hand over their posts to their sons. The case of Tunisia paved the way for the opposition movements in the Arab world to rush to the streets for protests.
Even Turkish TV series have had a certain effect
- Did Turkey have an impact on the revolts?
The changes Turkey has experienced during the last 10 years affected the anti-regime movements in Middle East and Northern Africa as well. They have seen how Turkey can develop policies and take initiatives in spite of the influence of the US and Israel. This attitude of Turkey has helped the Arab world boost its self-confidence. The Turkish Parliament's denying permission to US troops to use Turkish territories in an attack against Iraq on March 1, the Palestinian question, and Turkey's attitude concerning sanctions on Iran have caused the peoples of the region to become alienated from their regimes. From a cultural perspective, Turkish TV series have made a great impact for change. Turkish TV series that show a modern lifestyle have led to Arab peoples' questioning their own lifestyles.
- And regarding the deterioration of Turkish-Israeli relations...
Recently, it was only Turkey that raised objections to Israel's policies. Arab peoples who are hostile to Israel have realized that their rulers are hypocritical. The leaders in the Arab world have failed even to see that their societies have been radicalized.
- Where are the revolutions headed for? How many countries will be affected?
These movements will spread to all Middle Eastern countries. This is an indisputable fact. This is because it is a groundswell. Some countries can get rid of it by making some reforms. But some of them do not have any chance but to completely replace their systems.
- What can you say about individual countries?
Egypt may come away from the revolution with relatively fewer problems. Despite ethnic and sectarian differences, the demands for rights and rule of law are independent of ethnic or sectarian differences. The opposition movements in Egypt are not as radical as al-Qaeda. Egypt is relatively free from the cleavages that could lead to a civil war. All opposition movements voice demands for democracy. Therefore, the change in Egypt remains restricted to demands for more democracy, despite the ethnic and religious diversities, and has occurred in a less violent manner.
In Libya, however, the process is much bloodier. It will be difficult for Muammar Gaddafi to maintain his post. But the transition period will be more violent in Libya, being a country consisting of a multitude of tribes. Although the country is largely free from ethnic and sectarian differences, tribes control 85 percent of the country. Therefore, even if Gaddafi agrees to go away, the problems will stay.
In Bahrain, 65 percent of the population is Shiite. The political power is in the hand of the Sunnis while the Shiites are excluded from the political system. The Shiites are allowed to have at most 18 seats in Parliament. Moreover, the existing regime sees the Shiites as a threat. After mass demonstrations, they decided to introduce reforms, but it is unlikely that they will allow the Shiites to control the government. In Yemen, Shiites are at the forefront of the uprisings. It seems that even a leader change will not bring tranquility to the country.
The Shiite decade
- Are things more complicated in the Middle East than in North Africa?
The next decade will be that of the Shiites. In 1979, the Shiites of the region revolted, but they could not make it. But no Middle Eastern country can ignore the Shiites now. In Lebanon, the Shiites rule the country. In Iraq, political stability cannot be ensured by ignoring the Shiites. The Shiites in Iran have always opted for adopting a Persian identity. Iraq will be the center of the new Shiite wave. In Iraq, Arab Shiism woke up from a deep sleep and has the potential to make an impact on the entire region.
- Which country will be next?
There will be no country in the region that will be unaffected by the uprisings. It seems that Saudi Arabia is the next country in line. The biggest risk for the world would be chaos in Saudi Arabia. If the crisis in Saudi Arabia lasts longer, there will be abnormal hikes in the world's oil prices. That is, the events in Jeddah will affect the lives of people in London or New York. The main threat for Saudi Arabia will be the Shiites.
- Then, Western intervention will come, won't it?
Any intervention from Western or other countries in the crisis in the region will deepen it further. What happened when the US and its allies intervened in Iraq? What happened when NATO meddled with Afghanistan? Interventions will make the situation all the more inextricable.
- Rebels do not trust the West, do they?
All of the administrations in the region's countries had been Western-centric and were established to serve to the interests of the West. The West will still try to impose solutions that best serve its own interests. Currently, the demands voiced by the public do not go well with the interests of the West. New administrations will have to rely on their own public for legitimacy, but not on the West. No solution offered by the West will be deemed sincere or credible.
- What do you expect will happen in Syria and Jordan?
Some political and economic reforms were made in Jordan. But there is still potential for civil war in the country. In Syria, everyone is dreaming of a revolution. Still, we cannot expect a change in leadership in this country. There is social consensus that Bashar al-Assad should continue to rule the country. People with diverse religious and sectarian backgrounds live in Syria. Druzes, Shiites, Kurds, Arabs, Christians and Armenians want the Assad government in office. It may be difficult to avoid street demonstrations in Syria. An ethnic or sectarian civil war may erupt. Therefore, all groups will be happy with the continuation of the existing administration in Syria.
Kuwait is another country that has the potential for political turmoil. There are serious rifts and disagreements within the ruling al-Sabah family. Some members of the Sabah family were removed from office, but they have established serious contacts with the Shiite groups in the country.
- Will Morocco and Algeria face similar unrest?
Morocco and Algeria will find themselves inevitably engulfed by the process. Algeria had seen similar processes before, but this time, there will be an uprising against the army as well. Because of the violent character of the change in Libya, opposition movements in Morocco and Algeria are taking it slow.
- Will Turkey's time come?
Whichever country has barriers to political participation and the freedom of worship will be ultimately be affected by this wave. What distinguishes Turkey from other countries is that it holds elections on a regular basis. Elections tend to prevent bursts of social movements. Kurds and Alevis pose big risks for Turkey. If we fail to lift the 10-percent election threshold and if we do not implement the constitutional reforms after the approaching elections and if we do not maintain the democratic initiative, the streets will start to be filled with protesters after a while. I believe that there will be some preliminary protests in March.
- What distinguishes Turkey from other countries?
If the democratic initiative launched by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), had not been blocked, then I could say that similar uprisings would not be seen in Turkey. But the initiative was suspended. The groups that have problems with the system will start to hold street demonstrations in March. Turkey is likely to witness similar incidents. Bu if it drafts a new constitution after the elections and abolishes the roadblocks to freedoms, then it will become not only a source of inspiration, but also a center of attraction for the Middle East. Turkey may become the most influential country in the region as it will take some time before the US and other Western countries recover their former strength in the region.
- What if Turkey fails to implement the reform process?
If Turkey cannot handle this transformation, it will begin to revert into a repressive regime just like others in the region. Unhappy and marginalized groups will take to the streets. The powers within and outside the region will start to meddle with this internal sensitivity of Turkey. For this reason, Turkey must complete the reforms as soon as possible. When Turkey completes its reforms, then these countries will take the Ankara criteria as their model. And in 10 years, Turkey will be the most influential country in the region. Turkey is facing a historic opportunity.
- Is it likely that democracy will take hold in the Middle East in relatively short period of time?
I don't agree with the argument that it will take some time before democracy arrives in the Middle East. Actually, democracy is highly compatible with the peoples in the Middle East. Groups with diverse religious beliefs and faith have been living together in the region. Historically, they are tolerant of each other. If suitable systems can be established, their transition to democracy may take a shorter route. It is true that there were tyrants in the region, but there were never blood thirsty dictators like Hitler, Mussolini or Franco. Even today, one can see that a leader like Sarkozy has fascist ideas.
Biggest loser: Israel
- Who will suffer from the biggest damage in this process?
If we are to draw a list of the countries which will be the losers of the wave of change in the Middle East, Israel will certainly be in the number one position of this list. While it may not be visible in the short term, but Israel will suffer the biggest harm from this wave of change in the medium term.
- How will Palestine be affected?
Thanks to these riots, the process of the establishment of a Palestinian state will be completed. Thus, the biggest winner will be Palestinians. In my opinion, these developments offer a good opportunity for an independent Palestinian state.
- Will Iran emerge as a more important country with Shiites gaining power all across the region?
If Iran can introduce some reforms inside, it may survive the process unaffected and become a center of attraction for the Shiites. There are serious internal problems in Iran, and the country has many ethnic and sectarian groups. These groups do not want a radical change in the system; they just want to reform it. If these reforms cannot be implemented, then Iran will certainly be hit hard by these revolutions in the region. The news indicates Iran has already been impacted by the unrest.