Commentary

A democratic Arab world makes Turkey stronger

As the Arab Spring enters its fifth month, it faces challenges but also presents opportunities.

Despite setbacks in Libya, Yemen and Syria, the democratic wave has already begun to change the political landscape of the Middle East.

The national reconciliation agreement between the Palestinian Fatah and Hamas movements, signed in Egypt on May 3, is one of the major results of this sea change. Other substantial developments are certain to follow – and Turkey stands to gain from them.

Indeed, the Arab Spring strengthens rather than weakens Turkey’s position in the Arab world, and it also vindicates the new strategic thrust that has characterized Turkish foreign policy.

Turkey’s policy of engaging different governments and political groups in the Arab world has transformed Middle Eastern politics. Turkish officials have stated on various occasions that change in the Arab world is inevitable and must reflect the legitimate demands of the region’s peoples for justice, freedom and prosperity. Moreover, change must occur without violence, and a peaceful transition to a pluralist democracy should be ensured.

The Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had sought to achieve this in Libya before the fighting in that country, which is ongoing, broke out. Erdogan’s quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy sought to ensure a peaceful transition to a post-Moammar Gadhafi era.

This gradualist approach complemented Turkey’s principled position on the need for reform in the Arab world, including reform in Syria, with which Turkey shares a 900-kilometer border.

Over the last decade, Turkey has developed different types of relationships with the countries of the Middle East, with the aim of improving relations with both governments and the public. Indeed, Turkey is probably the only country that has been able to promote relations at the two levels in the Arab world.

This engagement policy has paid off in several ways, in the process raising Turkey’s profile in the region. Arab intellectuals, activists, and youth leaders of different political inclinations have taken a keen interest in what some have described as the “Turkish model.”

Turkey’s stable democracy, its growing economy, and its proactive foreign policy have generated growing appreciation of the country’s achievements, which has augmented its “soft power” in the region.

This has been reflected in the Arab world’s lively debate about how Turkey has been able to reconcile Islam, democracy and economic development. That debate, more importantly, is about how Arab countries should restructure themselves in the 21st century.

The growing gap between governments and people in the Arab world has created what is an unsustainable deficit – a point that has gained new significance as the Turkish experience has gained greater salience in these countries.

As the Arab Spring unfolds at different speeds in different countries, Turkey continues to urge Arab governments to undertake genuine reform. Arabs deserve freedom, security and prosperity as much as anyone else in the world, and Turkey stands to gain from a democratic, pluralist and prosperous Arab world in its vicinity.

A democratic era promises to give the Arab world a chance to be the author of its own actions. It would also enable Arabs to develop a new paradigm for relations with the Western world, based on equality and partnership – a position that Turkey has come to symbolize.

Finally, Turkey’s policy of engaging various actors in the Middle East – which has been repudiated by some as controversial, extreme, and even terrorist – has played a significant role in bringing at least some of these forces into mainstream politics.

Given the new political realities in Egypt, Tunisia and in the Palestinian territories, as well as in Lebanon, Libya and elsewhere, the more important of these actors are no longer secret or illegal organizations.

Simply put, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Nahda Movement in Tunisia and Hamas in Palestine will all play important and legitimate roles in the political future of their respective countries.

This means that Americans and Europeans will need to engage these groups publicly and directly, as Turkey has done. After all, they are now part of the emerging political order in the Arab world,

A democratic and prosperous Arab world will make Turkey’s standing in the region stronger, not weaker.

Ibrahim Kalin is senior adviser to the prime minister of Turkey. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate © (www.project-syndicate.org).

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 08, 2011, on page 7.

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