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Arab Spring, Turkish Fall

Author: Steven A. Cook, Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies
May 5, 2011
Foreign Policy


The Arab uprisings seemed tailor-made for the "new Turkey" to exert its much-vaunted influence in the Middle East. Since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power almost nine years ago, Ankara has actively courted the region, cultivating warm relations with certain Arab countries, winning plaudits from Rabat to Ramadi for its principled stand on Gaza, and using its prestige to solve problems in Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria. A central focus of Turkey's so-called "zero problems" foreign policy has been a concerted effort to improve and expand relations with the countries to its south and east. Now, with millions of Arabs standing up and demanding their freedom, Turks are not the only ones to have held up the "Turkish model" -- the democratic development of a predominantly Muslim society in an officially secular political system -- as a possible way forward for the rest of the Middle East.

Yet five months into the turmoil buffeting the Arab world, it is hard to discern exactly if Turkey has a policy to deal with the change going on around it. Indeed, rather than a regional leader with a clear sense of purpose, Ankara has been downright clumsy in dealing with the Arab upheavals.

It didn't have to be this way. The Arab revolutions actually started out pretty well for Turkey. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was way ahead of other world leaders in demanding that Egypt's Hosni Mubarak heed the desires of his people and resign. Whether or not Ankara saw the writing on the wall quicker than most, the position was entirely in keeping with the Justice and Development Party's worldview -- and the role Erdogan and other principle party figures fashioned for themselves -- as promoters of democratic change at home and abroad. Of course, the difficult personal relationship between Erdogan and Mubarak made it easier for the Turkish leader to dump his counterpart in favor of the multitudes camped out in Tahrir Square. And there was a regional rivalry at play here, too: Ankara sensed that Cairo's influence was waning and wanted to fashion itself as a new Middle East powerbroker. It seemed that once again Erdogan and his team had insights into the politics of the region that seemed beyond the grasp of others -- most notably the Obama administration, which, hamstrung by Washington's strategic relationship with Mubarak, was far more cautious and circumspect than Ankara.

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