Ready for new Erdogans in the Middle East?

8 Min Read

By Yuksel Taskin

Right after the landslide victory of the AKP in the 2007 elections, the government led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan felt secure enough to follow a very active and more independent foreign policy under the supervision of Ahmet Davutoglu, appointed minister of foreign affairs in 2009. Even before the outburst of the “Arab spring”, Turkey was vigorously trying to return to the Middle East — a region that the Kemalists had deliberately stayed away from in their westernization zeal. This new foreign policy discourse does not content itself with being a regional power but seeks to make Turkey a global player, which is justified by the legacy of the Ottoman Empire.

As Davutoglu lucidly described his vision to the Daily Zaman in May 2010: “The new global order must be more inclusive and participatory. . . . Turkey will be among those active and influential actors who sit around the table to solve problems rather than watching them.” This self-celebratory rhetoric cannot be understood apart from a wounded nationalism that has a love-hate relationship with “the West”. When Davutoglu was praised by the journal Foreign Policy as “the Turkish Henry Kissinger”, even ardent anti-Americans in Turkey felt reassured to see their grandeur in the mirror of the hated yet envied superpower.

Nevertheless, Turkey has been caught unprepared by the shock waves of the Arab spring (like many actors, including the US and Europe). Perhaps it arrived too early for Turkey, which was following a soft power strategy of “zero problems with neighbors”, accompanied by a restless army of exporters. Visa restrictions were lifted, trade boomed, and millions of tourists including the citizens of Iran and Syria poured into Turkey to see the places where popular Turkish TV series were shot. Turkey’s impressive economic boom seems to have attracted Middle Eastern entrepreneurs who might be expected to exert greater influence in the new Middle East, together with a new generation of populist leaders.

Despite fluctuations and setbacks in Turkey’s response to the Arab spring, I contend it will play a crucial role in the Middle East in the coming decade. It is not difficult to anticipate the coming of “new Erdogans” — populist Muslim leaders — out of the ballot boxes of the new Middle East.

Will these new populist leaders have a clear map of action after they win the elections? I do not think so. Their political choices will be largely dependent on the strategies of secular-modernist rivals, on the one hand, and their more radical Islamist contenders, on the other. Last but not least, the attitudes of international power centers will be very decisive in opening or closing a space for these leaders to move. An Orientalist-Islamo-phobic discourse will immediately spark off a similar Occidentalist reaction by these populist leaders, who would successfully manipulate these issues in times of domestic political and economic crises.

It is natural for Muslim populist leaders to look to the experience of Erdogan, as they will likely face similar political tensions. Erdogan also represents a conservative Islamic populism that blends some authoritarian and democratic ideas and attitudes. The legacy of democratic struggles in Turkey underway since the 1950s, and its international alliances have a moderating effect on the AKP. But Turkey’s influence in the Middle East could be positive (encouraging a democratic consolidation) or negative (exporting an illiberal democracy) depending on the outcomes of the country’s own ongoing democratic struggles.

Marketing Turkey as a model that has successfully synthesized Islam, democracy and capitalism is misleading. It is true that Turkey has undertaken significant political and economic steps under AKP rule. However, it is also true that Turkey has not yet completed its democratic consolidation. Erdogan can be said to have amassed enormous power at his disposal after his party finally captured the control of the judiciary and military — once formidable fortresses of the Kemalist elite. If he manages to realize his dream of crafting a presidential system under the new constitution, Turkey could be an example of an illiberal democracy. Then, Turkey’s impact on Middle Eastern countries might not be very positive.

There is also a related problem that could garner popular support for authoritarianism in Turkey: the Kurdish problem. The recent tendency of the AKP government to follow a hawkish policy, accompanied by a nationalist discourse of “one nation, one flag, one fatherland, one state” risks revitalizing the notorious legacy of the 1990s national security state. Hence, the Kurdish problem is the most significant litmus test for a possible democratic consolidation in Turkey. Besides, if Turkey can democratically and peacefully resolve this problem, it will also have crucial repercussions for overall democratization in the Middle East.

As the largest minority of the Middle East, the Kurds are dispersed throughout Syria, Iran, Iraq and Turkey. Until recently, the seemingly rival states of Turkey, Syria and Iran were collaborating in violent suppression of the Kurds. The Arab spring has abruptly ended or shaken this uneasy alliance against the Kurds. Syria and Iran are further distancing themselves from Turkey due to the latter’s increasing assertiveness in favor of the democratic movement in Syria. If Turkey chooses the option of a peaceful and democratic settlement of the Kurdish issue, it will have a boomerang effect in the region, making it increasingly difficult to use violent means against a people experiencing an awakening. It is clear that this move would erode the legitimacy of Syria and Iran by further isolating their anachronistic regimes.

However, some state-centric analyses tend to exaggerate Iran’s prospects for becoming a regional power. The Iranian ruling elite is becoming more paranoid and, hence, fractured due to the perceived dangers of the Arab spring. Such an internally destabilized state cannot assume the role of regional leadership. Despite some contrary analyses, Turkey and Iran are not allies but inevitable rivals due to the different models that the two states represent. For the reformists of Iran, the AKP model is inspiring as a case that has synthesized Islam and democracy. For the secular-minded people of Iran, the model of Turkey has secured the basis for peaceful coexistence between the pious and others. Can a regime that its people find anachronistic and illegitimate survive in the new Middle East?

Last but not least, if regime change in Iran could be realized in a relatively peaceful way, and if the Arab-Israel conflict could be settled peacefully, so-called Middle East exceptionalism will finally come to an end/

Yuksel Taskin is associate professor of politics at Marmara University in Istanbul. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with


Share This Article
Leave a comment