Looking through the Turkish prism: Attitudes and policies vis-a-vis the Arab Spring

08 - May - 2013

This paper deals with Turkey and the Arab Spring. Its initial question: Can we establish a link between Turkey, Turkey’s changing foreign policy orientation, and Turkish power –soft or otherwise- and the upheavals in the Arab world?

In short, is there a causal relation between policy choices of actors in Turkey and the processes that have lead to the Arab revolutions? The short answer to this question is in the negative. It is fair to argue that Turkey’s policies have had little impact on the “preludes” of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions.

At the same time, the argument for the “Turkish model” has been made repeatedly by analysts, as well as by US and European foreign policy actors, and at times, also by domestic actors in Egypt and Tunisia, so maybe, there is some measure of impact on the Arab revolutions?

Especially think tankers and journalists in the US have suggested that Turkey’s soft power has played a transformative role on what used to be called the ‘Arab street’. The Turkish TV series ‘Noor’ is often cited as one of the catalysts driving Arab women to demand more rights and more equal gender relations. The series came to symbolize the depiction of the ‘so-called’ Turkish model that supposedly combines Islam, democracy, modernity and economic development, and in short, Turkey’s soft power appeal. And as hollow as this argument may sound now, it made is way into respected media and expert outlets.

To critical observers, this praise for the so-called ‘Turkish model’ looks more like a US policy of containment of the revolutionary movements in the region than a meaningful reference model or benchmark of success in times of crisis: The political parties close to the Muslim Brotherhood, which the revolutions brought into power were not the first choice of US foreign policy elites, but the ‘Turkish model’ promised a deal with Islamists that ensures that the cornerstones of US interest in the region can be safeguarded. In this respect, the Turkish model in both US and Turkish narratives stands for a ‘moderate Muslim’ country that

Acts within the framework of US interests
Has (more or less) friendly relations with Israel
Is socially conservative and                                    

 Largely pro-market and neo-liberal in its economic policy

Some Turkish politicians have also insisted that their engagement with the Arab world prior to the uprisings had a positive effect on creating a constituency for change. Of particular importance here are

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s ‘Zero Problems with Neighbours’policy and his ‘Strategic Depth’ doctrine.

Yet, both concepts, Zero Problems and Strategic Depth, are normative projects of Turkey’s place in the world, and in the Islamic world more specifically, and not concepts of democracy or human rights promotion. It is also important to remember that Turkish decision makers of the post-Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) were as unprepared for the events in Egypt and Tunisia, as most western countries and it took them some time to adjust to the new situation on the ground.

So, neither Turkey’s foreign policy, nor its growing trade with the Arab world can be convincingly shown to have had any major impact on the initial uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. Yet, if Turkey was not a major force in the Preludes to the Arab Spring, we have seen the country emerge as a significant actor during and after the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, and most fervently in Syria.

Rather than looking at the non-existing!- precedents Turkey may have created for the Arab revolutions, I will therefore be focusing on the Preludes within Turkey. Turkey in many ways, has experienced a revolution itself, a revolution which was
little heard about, as it was a very gradual gradual process that worked its way through more or less democratic institutions and within the confines of a largely secular and military dominated security state. This is why it has been called, by Berkeley Sociologist Cihan Tugal, a ‘Passive Revolution’ that has transformed national identity, institutions, state-society and state-military relations to a degree that has not yet been achieved in the Arab Spring states, albeit without any large-scale manifestations on the streets of Istanbul and Ankara.

What are the changes, then, in society and politics that have altered significantly Turkey’s national and foreign policy identity, its position vis-à-vis the Arab world and the level of involvement of its leaders. I will do so by first
Exploring the transformation of Turkey’s national identity and foreign policy that map on the formal political party landscape in Turkey.

But before discussing these transformations, let me briefly summarise where and how Turkey got involved in the Arab revolutions as they unfolded:

Table 1: Turkey’s differentiated responses to the Arab revolutions:

  Initial Reaction Military engagement Political engagement
Tunisia No reaction N/A Active support for Al Nahda: Training of party activists
Technical support for the election campaign by the PR agency Arter, which works for the AKP
Egypt “We are all mortal” speech vis-à-vis Mubarak N/A Active support for Adala wa Hourreya: Training of party activists
Technical support for the election campaign by the PR agency Arter, [Tone down the Islamist message, engage Copts!]
Presence with foreign policy journals [Ruiyya Turkiya], Arabic-Turkish academic and diplomacy networks
Joins the bailout initiative by Saudi Arabia and Qatar
Libya No reaction Reluctant assistance for NATO troops (after Turkish citizens had been evacuated) Financial support for the interim government
Syria  Shift from support to opposition  Facilitating transfer of weapons from Saudi Arabia and Qatar
Support for armed groups incl. Al Nusra Brigades
Support for the Syrian National Council now slightly sidelined

What we see here is that Turkey’s response to the unfolding revolutions has been shaped by different considerations and the influence of interest groups (i.e the business community in Libya), but the presence has been considerable.

So, let me return to my core argument and to the preludes of Turkey’s engagement with the Arab world:

Turkey has undergone a shift from a polity dominated by elites uninterested and unsympathetic towards the Arab (and Islamic) worlds to elites that actively seek engagement with (and arguably leadership of) the Arab world.

It has also changed from a society educated within a ethno-nationalist and secular ideology in the mould of Mustafa Kemel (Kemalism) that was permeated by orientalist and Anti-Arab sentiments to a society that is more positively inclined towards values of religious brotherhood and cultural proximity.

How has this shift come about? Until the early 2000s, i.e. until the ascent to government of the Justice and Development Party, people in Turkey were educated into the founding ideology of Kemalism, which included Anti-Arab myths and fantasies. These included:

• The stab-in-the-back legend in World War I
• The anti-Ottoman and anti-Islamic self-definition of the early Turkish Republic
• The cultural project of turning all Muslims in Turkey into Turks and all Turks into Europeans
• And finally, the idea that ‘Arabs’ somehow deserved to be colonised by the Europeans.

In this Kemalist imaginary, Ottoman and Islamic cultural and religious markers of identity – forms of hijab, religious attire, the public celebration of religious festivals and even the Ottoman-Arabic script – were first devalued as culturally backward and then ethnicised and otherised as Arabic.

These were the foundational values, on which modern Turkish political identity has been transmitted through education and institutional practice. Yet, these values had already begun to erode from the 1980s onwards, going through a number of shocks to the system, such as the earthquake of 1999 (killing 30,000 or more), the peak of the Kurdish War (leading to the death of at least 40,000 soldiers, guerrilla fighters and civilians) and the collapse of markets in 2001, all of which undermined the Kemalist regime and its identity that excluded above all the country’s Kurds from full participation in Turkey’s political and social life.

But it was the almost complete replacement of administrative and educational elites and the strong assistance from the AKP’s key support base –small and medium sized businesses in conservative central Anatolia- that effectively ended the Kemalist Republic and its ideological foundations. What it has been replaced by is not so clearly named yet, but it can provisionally be called a post- or neo-Islamist merchant state with post-Ottoman delusions of grandeur and conservative social policies at home. This shift in the foundations of national identity has been demonstrated in a few studies carried out by leading Turkish think tanks.

Table 2: Attitudes towards Arabs

Talip Küçükcan, Arab Image in Turkey, SETA Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research, Report No. 1, (Istanbul: June, 2010).Talip Küçükcan, Arab Image in Turkey, SETA Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research, Report No. 1, (Istanbul: June, 2010).

Table 3: Generational differences in attitudes

  Generally positive Niether positive nor negative Generally negative Undecided TOTAL
Female 32,8 22,4 36,2 8,7 100,0
Male 33,6 19,1 42,1 5,3 100,0
Between 18-25 35,3 22,8 33,7 8,3 100,0
Between 26 - 35 33,8 20,4 39,4 6,4 100,0
Between 36 - 45 35,9 23,4 35,2 5,6 100,0
Between 46 - 60 30,6 20,8 42,8 5,8 100,0
61 and over 25,9 11,1 52,5 10,4 100,0


Even in 2010, we can observe that 40% of respondents in Turkey see ‘Arabs’ in a mostly negative light. Yet, there is a clear generational difference, with older people, who tend to be more firmly rooted in Kemalist notions of identity and the youngest cohort, who have been educated in the decade of AKP rule.

I can confirm this trend with a study I have carried out with university students and foreign policy experts in 2012. So how has this shift translated into the realm of formal politics? In the following table 4, let me give you an overview of Turkey’s most important political traditions and families.

Table 4: Major political families and their perspective on Arabs and the Arab uprisings revolution

Kerem Öktem, 2013, based on my book Angry Nation. Turkey since 1989, (London: Zed Books, 2011).

The following Table 5 gives an overview of the ideological foundations, the support base and the initial reactions to the Arab Spring in the most important six political ‘families’, that is the

• AKP, representing the centre-right, socially conservative, neo-Islamist free-market oriented middle ground,
• CHP, the Kemalist, nationalist-secularist Republican people’s Party (CHP),
• MHP, the extreme Nationalist Nationalist Movement Party,
• BDP, the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, as well as the
• Liberals and Socialists.
It then presents some of the most expressive statements of party leaders vis-à-vis the Arabs and the Arab Spring.

Table 5: Turkey’s political traditions: Support base, ideologies, and perceptions of Arabs


In concluding, I would like to repeat that

• Turkey did not play a substantial role in the prelude of the Arab Spring. Yet,

• it was its own historical transformation from Kemalism to a post-Kemalist polity that enabled it to become interested in the Arab world and play a role in the region.                                                                                                         

• In terms of party politics, there is a wide range of diverging views on the Arab world and the Arab revolutions.

• But the dominant and most relevant one is the mildly patronising embrace by the Justice and Development Party

• For almost 80 years, Turkish political elites have been largely disinterested in developments on its eastern borders. After the breakdown of the Kemalist project of secular modernisation and under the Justice and Development party, Turkey has become decidedly more interested in developments in its Arab neighbours.
• Much of this re-discovery of the Arab world has been erratic and clumsy and it has been marked by moments of hubris and overstretch, followed, yet again, by closer relations with the Western and pro-Israeli security alliance. Instances of Neo-Ottomanist statements from Turkish foreign policy actors have not helped and the AKP’s pro-Ikhwan bias has been criticised for being too short-termist.

• And nevertheless, independent of the government in power,it can be stated with some degree of certainty that Turkey has returned to the Middle East. The Arab revolutions have significantly expedited this process of ‘homecoming’. If not in the preludes, we will need to take into consideration the Turkish factor as one of the important players in the region, and particularly in the evolution of Ikhwan-based governments.

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