Monday, March 21, 2011


One best case scenario to the current upheaval in the Arab world foresees the emergence of Turkish-style political systems in places like Egypt and Tunisia in the event Islamic parties come to power by democratic means. In Egypt, a plebiscite over the weekend approved amending the constitution in a way that strengthens the prospects of the Moslem Brotherhood in forthcoming parliamentary elections. As for the depth of Turkey's own commitment to democratic principles, that may only begin to clarify itself after elections on June 12th.

Polls predict the Islamic AKP (Justice and Development Party) will easily achieve its third consecutive victory. AKP's strongest challenger, the CHP (Republican People's Party) is not expected to garner more than 20 percent of the vote. The CHP and its new leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu carry the mantle of the country's founder and architect of Turkey's secular path Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. AKP's platform pledges to amend Turkey's constitution, but doing so could further entrench Islamist control. Customarily, the Turkish army had served as a (self-interested) guarantor of the country's faithfulness to Ataturk's path.

Paradoxically, as Turkey became more democratic, more committed to joining the EU, as its government became more religiously parochial, the principle that the army had a homeostatic role to play if the nation drifted from Ataturk's ways has become delegitimized.

Meanwhile, the AKP's go slow, Islam-friendly, conservative approach begs the question: What is its ultimate destination? It has deftly reworked the ideas of the late Necmettin Erbakan, who trailblazed non-violent Islamist participation in Turkish politics; breaking with his anti-free-market principles – by, for instance, favoring accession to the EU – while modulating his anti-Western, though less so his anti-Zionist, line.

At a recent conference at Hebrew University's Truman Institute to discuss the Middle East in transition, Prof. Umit Cizre of Istanbul University pooh-poohed concerns that AKP had a hidden Islamist agenda or intended to introduce Sharia law. Instead, she criticized Turkey's secularists for harping on the Islamist threat without presenting a coherent political platform of their own. Yet Cizre described the AKP as having "deliberately" positioned itself "ambiguously" on the political spectrum.

Why, though, is the secular camp so weak? Voters are uncomfortable with hard-line secularism. A new class of Islamic business elites has arisen alongside their secularist counterparts. Also, secularists have also been blamed for mishandling their management of the state when they were in charge. Moreover, while the moderate tone pursued by AKP has made it difficult to mobilize non-Islamists, ideological and personal differences have riven the secularist camp.

It may also be true that nowadays secularists are less committed to pure democracy than the Isalmists. Last but not least, secularists have been undermined by the so-called Ergenekon affair, which the government asserts has exposed a vast plot by the military and their allies in the media to overthrow the regime. A good number of serving generals have been arrested on "flimsy" even "fabricated" evidence, say the generals' defenders.

No one disputes that the AKP has helped make Turkey a success story and engineered the world's 15th largest economy. Unparalleled political stability has contributed to economic boom; GDP is up to $10,000 compared to $3,000 at the start of the decade. Turkey's economy would be still better if it didn't need to import 95% of its energy needs.

As befitting a regional power with grand aspirations, Turkey recently hosted an alternative "political" Davos in Istanbul. Unfortunately for Erdogan and his political rival President Abdullah Gül the gathering was a complete flop as unrest at home kept expected guests – including Syria's leader Bashar Assad and Egypt's Gamal Mubarak (invited before his father was ousted from the presidency) from attending. Even Spain's Socialist Workers' Party Premier Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who is in the forefront of an effort to paper-over differences between Western civilization and the Islamists, was a no-show.

Abroad, Turkey's distancing from Israel exemplified by Erdogan's periodically staged outbursts against the Jewish state and by a sharp deterioration in bilateral relations in all fields -- save trade -- is now a well established feature of Ankara's foreign policy.

Turkey may claim that its warmth toward Hamas and its instigation of the Gaza flotilla crisis is intended to somehow promote peace. But Israelis can't imagine how and wonder if Erdogan is tapping into the kind of anti-Semitic sentiment that has propelled such despicable films as Valley of the Wolves into blockbusters.

Actually, foreign policy signals out of Turkey are jumbled. For instance, Turkey opted not to stop the Victoria from leaving its port bound for Gaza via Egypt with Iranian weapons in its hold. But it grounded two Iranian planes in search for arms. Ankara denounced the Itamar massacre but in the same breath asserted the community's existence was a breach of international law. So far, it has had nothing to say about Hamas's intensified bombardment of Israel.

Other aspects of Turkey's foreign policy are equally troubling. Erdogan's chauvinism and Islamic assertiveness has led him to accuse Germany of pushing its 3.5-million-strong Turkish minority too hard toward acculturating into their adopted country. Teach your children Turkish before German, he told a Dusseldorf rally.

But with countries it borders, including Iran, Syria and Iraq, Ankara professes to pursue a "zero problems" policy. Sure enough there has been a substantial increase in trade and exchange of high-ranking visitors with Iran and mutual cooperation against the Kurds. Nevertheless, the geo-strategic rivalry between Iran and Turkey is undeniable even if camouflaged by talk of pan-Islamic solidarity. Dr. Gallia Lindenstrauss, a Turkish foreign policy specialist at Tel Aviv University told the Truman conference that the Turks see a nuclear-armed Iran as destabilizing. Nor is it a coincidence that an Erdogan visit inevitably follows one by Ahmadinejad around the globe. The two countries are destined to balance each other's power. For instance, while Iran will oppose a Syrian peace with Israel, Turkey favors one (albeit on Syria's terms). Or take Turkey's warning that it would not "remain silent" if the IDF retaliated against Lebanon for Hezbollah attacks on Israel. Some analysts interpret this as a challenge to Teheran's hegemony over Beirut as much as a cheap jab against Jerusalem.

Indeed, Lindenstrauss makes the case that if any country can pull Syria away from Iran it will be Turkey. Sure enough, Ankara, which was once on the brink of war with Damascus, now helps train the Syrian military. As for Iraq, Turkey is now its number one trading partner and recently opened a consulate in the Kurdish city of Erbil. And while Iran wants a Iraq weak, Turkey prefers Iraq to remain unified and stable.

At home, Turkey is still a free country where television can show a series about Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent that jars Islamic sensibilities, but not without a warning from regulators at the Radio and Television Supreme Council.

Freedom of the press is mostly unfettered but secular voices have been increasingly targeted; some have been arrested in connection with the Ergenekon conspiracy and one journalist critical of the regime was murdered in 2007 under suspicious circumstances. The AKP has not even hinted at imposing Sharia law, but the authority that oversees religious affairs is coming under greater government control and there are signs it is moving in a more traditionalist direction.

So is the Turkish model a paradigm for democratic rule in Moslem-majority countries? The jury is still out but the signs are not encouraging. In advance of Turkey's elections, one thing is for sure, in the words of the Turkey-sympathetic Economist: Erdogan "is getting bossier and less tolerant by the day."

-- March 21, 2010

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