"Enough we say, the decision belongs to the people of the brotherly Egyptian and Tunisian nations… Turkey shares the grief of these nations as well as their hopes." So-declared a self-confident Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday in his prime-time speech on recent events in the Middle East that received broad coverage regionally. While commentators point to the protests and revolutions in the Arab world as being the most recent example of the crumbling vestiges of the Cold War, the more significant long-term global trend is strangely familiar to the Turks. Protests in Tunisia have already overthrown the rule of a 23 year-old regime and inspired a similar uprising in the form of Egypt’s ongoing protest movement. Lebanon’s continuing instability and threats of Tunisian-inspired revolutions in Yemen and even Jordan further add to the significance of the moment we are witnessing in the Arab world.
The unprecedented levels and inter-linkages of the protests against the traditional authoritarian regimes represented most starkly by President Mubarak, has brought the Middle East back to a period more reminiscent of the breakup of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of Arab nationalism than anything seen in recent memory.
The declarations and prognostications of analysts across the Arab world in the wake of these events has focused on the grassroots movements and pent-up resentments that led to the protests along with debates about the level of US involvement from twitter feeds to President Obama’s statements. However the effect of this on the regional dynamics that has ushered in the remarkable arrival of a new player to the game of Middle Eastern great-power politics and the sidelining of traditional players is equally important to pay attention to.
At no time since their days at the helm of the Ottoman Empire have the Turks been as actively involved diplomatically (record number of visits bilaterally to Arab world in the last month alone with multiple visits to Lebanon and Syria for the foreign minister), economically (greatest increase in trade volume over any two year period), or politically (inclusion of Turkey into the Arab League and head of the Organization of Islamic Conference) as they are in the Arab world today. While this imperial baggage continues to cast a shadow over Turkish-Arab relations, the expediency of the present seems to have overcome the past. The almost immediate involvement of Turkey and Qatar in brokering a compromise after the government of Saad Hariri collapsed demonstrated the countries’ interest in fostering regional stability. Prime Minister Erdogan’s most recent speech, in which he warned President Mubarak to "step down" and "take steps that will satisfy his people," is a clear indicator of Turkey’s arrival as the Middle East’s self-appointed kingmaker.
Having waited for close to a week to make a grand proclamation on the events taking place in his neighborhood, Erdogan responded clearly and forcibly to his domestic critics of his foreign policy by placing Turkey on the side of the anti-regime movements throughout the Middle East. Proclaiming that, "Turkey is playing a role that can upturn all the stones in the region and that can change the course of history." Erdogan shone a spotlight on his Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) pursuit of "foreign policy with character." Critics quickly pointed to Erdogan’s hypocrisy when it came to his embrace of Iranian President Ahmadenijad’s oppression of the Green Movement in 2009 and President Omar Al-Bashir’s regime in Sudan, but few Turks seem concerned.
As seen from the region, Turkey’s strategy of diplomatic and economic engagement has been a welcome one. With its non-sectarian and pragmatic focus, Ankara offers the greatest economic incentives to find a political and sustainable as opposed to violent solutions to the problems of the Middle East today. The opportunity for Ankara comes in part because of the lack of Arab leadership and in part because of its own proactive policies in a region that it once ignored. While leading Arab states, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have been less enthusiastic about the protest movements and Turkey’s emerging role, particularly in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and intra-Arab affairs, fearing a loss of primacy in these areas they have little choice. Their very weakness in comparison to the economic opportunities and popularity of an indigenous democracy led by a freely elected legitimate conservative Muslim party makes the case for Turkey even stronger. On the whole, the Turks have been embraced by both the Arab states and street that welcome the pragmatic and business-savvy nature of Turkish diplomacy. As a gateway to both Europe and America, Turkey has already established itself an important player and convening spot for the actors of the region.
The popularity of Turkey and Erdogan within the Arab world has already allowed the AKP to turn traditional Turkish foreign policy on its head by drawing strength from its common heritage and history with its Middle Eastern neighbors rather than being a handicap. Turkish foreign policy under the AKP has come to articulate a vision for improving relations with all its neighbors, particularly by privileging its former Ottoman space in the Middle East, such as Lebanon, Jordan, Iran, Iraq, and Syria where agreements are being negotiated for a free-trade zone and an eventual Middle Eastern Union. The growing economic and political engagement of Turkey with the Middle East has already lead to a significant realignment in the region.
Turkey offers the prospect of realigning the region by countering revisionist and securitizing trends rampant in the Middle East geopolitically while serving as an economic engine to propel the region. In today’s Middle East, states like Iran and Israel through their rhetoric (particularly in the case of the former) and actions (more in the case of the latter) raise suspicion, anxiety and fear of revisionism, triggering an accelerated securitization in the region and do not offer a compelling sustainable economic or political model of success. By contrast, Turkey as an entrepreneurial free marketplace is trying to foster relations with all parties through bilateral relations and regional integration.
With the fastest growing and largest economy in the Middle East, Turkey is uniquely placed to play a decisive role in providing alternatives models for the newly emerging governments of the region. As a longtime ally of the West and new partner of Iran and Syria, Turkey has been seeking the role of mediator and model in every available arena including Egypt, Lebanon, and Tunisia. As a G-20 founding member, holder of a seat on the UN Security Council, European Union aspirant, and head of the OIC, Ankara has transformed itself into an international actor, capable of bringing considerable clout and influence to its regions. Turkey did not transform itself from a defeated post-Ottoman state led by Ataturk’s military to a flourishing market-democracy overnight, it has been almost a century in the making, however the lessons learned and the opportunities offered by Turkey to Egypt and the rest of the Arab world should be cautiously heeded. The Turks are poised to return as the Middle East’s most important and influential kingmaker.
Dr. Joshua W. Walker is a post-doctoral fellow at the Crown Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Brandeis University.