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Foreign Policy Program

October 2011

Policy Brief
Turkey and the Arab Spring: Coming to Terms with Democracy Promotion?
by aban Karda
The popular uprising in the North Africa and Middle East caught Turkey unprepared, just as it did many other regional and international actors. Overcoming the initial shock rather quickly, Turkey adjusted its priorities to the new circumstances and pursued an assertive policy to lead the transformation in the region. A conspicuous aspect of Turkeys response has been the increasing salience of democratic principles in the making of Turkeys regional policy. The Arab Spring highlighted once again the complex place of democracy in Turkeys external relations. Each case of successful and unsuccessful uprising has had unique characteristics, and accordingly Turkeys reactions also varied, reflecting both the nature of the contingency at hand and its prior ties to individual countries. Yet, one factor that lies at the heart of the popular uprisings has been the issue of regime change, i.e., the transformation of the authoritarian or monarchic rules into democratic ones. On that score, Turkey over time abandoned its resistance to regime change and embraced and even openly advocated a democracy promotion agenda, which, if pursued consistently, may herald a significant transformation in its foreign policy orientation. Democracy Promotion in Turkish Foreign Policy Traditionally, democratization was largely an item pertaining to Turkeys relations with the West. In recent decades, democracy has increasingly become a subject in Turkeys relations with the non-Western world. Turkeys experiment with democratization has been said to present a roadmap or alternative model for other Muslim or Turkic societies undergoing regime transformation. In other words, Turkey is no longer a mere object of Western democracy promotion policies, but has a potential role to play in the democratization of its neighborhood. Nonetheless, although many actors, especially the current government, embraced democracy as a major principle of Turkish foreign policy, Turkey has eschewed developing an official democracy promotion agenda. Turkeys collegial ties with the authoritarian regimes in the Middle East or Eurasia have been the most obvious indication of its reluctance to adopt a principled position on democracy. Such policies have a risk of leading to frictions in diplomatic relations. This reluctance has also been closely

Summary: A conspicuous aspect of Turkeys response to the events of the Arab Spring has been the increasing salience of democratic principles in the making of Turkeys regional policy. Each uprising has had unique characteristics, and accordingly Turkeys reactions also varied, reflecting both the nature of the contingency at hand and its prior ties to individual countries. Yet, one factor that lies at the heart of the popular uprisings has been the issue of regime change. Although many actors, especially the current government, embraced democracy as a major principle of Turkish foreign policy, Turkey has eschewed developing an official democracy promotion agenda. Nonetheless, Turkeys forthcoming attitude definitely set it apart from other regional countries reactionary policies, and the emphasis it put on popular legitimacy underscored Turkeys Western character.

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related to other factors, such as the high premium Turkey attaches to avoiding instability in the region, its pursuit of nonconfrontational policies with neighbors and its concern to avoid interference in domestic affairs, which usually accompany democracy promotion policies. Overall, Turkeys position on democratization was ambivalent at best, which was partly understandable given the neighborhoods in which it is situated. In areas generously endowed with nondemocratic regimes, Turkeys categorical pursuit of democratization would likely be a recipe for confrontation with neighbors, and so a source of regional instability. As a result, more often than not, Turkey demonstrated a conservative attitude towards prodemocracy popular protests in the region. Turkey Facing the Democratic Wave Following President Zine al-Abidine Ben Alis exit, the Tunisia case did not present many challenges, but the Turkish governments response to the uprisings in Egypt, Yemen, and, to a lesser extent, Bahrain prompted mixed reactions. Although Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoans call on then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to listen to the peoples demands gained him applause, it also came in a somewhat delayed fashion. Many commentators found the governments initial silence incompatible with the new rhetoric of Turkish foreign policy, which is predicated on Turkeys pursuit of democratization at home and quest for greater leadership role in regional affairs. The rapid pace of events leading to the fall of Mubarak apparently saved the day for Turkey, overshadowing the initial ambivalence. More demanding challenges were presented by the spread of popular uprisings into Libya and Syria, which eventually gained a militarized dimension. Apparently concerned with its vested economic interests, Turkey had to tread carefully between the Gaddafi regime and the revolutionaries who gained the backing of the regional and Western powers. After much resistance to the idea of a military intervention, Turkey changed course, joining the international coalition and establishing ties with the Libyan opposition. In Syria, too, Turkey had to choose between a regime with which it had cultivated collegial ties and the people who demanded regime change. Turkey desperately worked to convince Bashar al-Assad to initiate political reforms and lead his country towards democracy to prevent the destabi2

lization of the country, and hence the region. The continuation of the bloodshed and the failure of Turkeys preferred option of political transition under Assads watch forced Ankara to sever ties with the regime and forge contacts with the opposition. Reluctant Embrace of the Democratic Wave As this brief outline shows, Turkey obviously did not embrace democracy promotion forthright. For some initial critics, especially liberal commentators, Turkeys delay in standing behind pro-democratic forces risked undermining the credibility of its claim of serving as a regional crisis manager and raising questions regarding its commitment to democracy. Many analysts, however, found Turkey acting prudently, by not expressing clear support for the popular protests upfront, since Mubaraks or other regimes comeback could have hurt its ties to key regional actors. Nonetheless, most observers acknowledged that even if Turkeys reactions came late, Turkeys prodemocracy position was significant within its own regional context. Turkeys forthcoming attitude definitely set it apart from other regional countries reactionary policies, and the emphasis it put on popular legitimacy underscored Turkeys Western character.

Most observers acknowledged that even if Turkeys reactions came late, Turkeys pro-democracy position was significant within its own regional context.
Toward Claiming Ownership of the Democratic Wave? Over time, Turkey moved to claim ownership of the democratic wave and tried to lead the regional transformation, which basically took two forms. In the countries undergoing regime change in a relatively peaceful fashion, Turkey accelerated contacts with the groups that stood to gain in the new political structures. In the countries where the regimes have resorted to violence, Turkey increasingly supported the popular opposition, as well as calling on the regimes to heed peoples demands for political reforms.

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Turkeys reaction was largely related to how the causes of the uprisings were interpreted in the debate taking place in Turkish policy circles. Many analysts and representatives from the Turkish government referred to the positive role Turkey played in inducing democratic transformation in the Middle East. They highlighted three interrelated factors in particular that arguably made Turkey a source of inspiration for the Arab revolutionaries: Turkeys representative and participatory government, free market economy, and independent foreign policy. Some commentators even went so far as claiming that with the successful combination of these three factors, which offered a vibrant alternative to the corrupt regimes in the region, Turkey was the source that triggered the Arab Spring. Liberal commentators and those in pro-government circles in particular largely saw similarities in their struggle against the Turkish states authoritarian practices and the Arab revolutionaries fight for freedom. For instance, many analysts drew parallels between the Kemalist establishment and the authoritarian Arab regimes, arguing that Arab people have just launched a struggle that Turkey was undergoing for decades. It was this self-identification with the democratic wave that partly generated pressure on the AK Party government to adopt a more assertive posture in support of the revolutionaries. Although these somewhat idiosyncratic arguments might have over-emphasized Turkeys role and lacked a thorough analysis of the real causes of the Arab Spring, it nonetheless is the case that the AK Party has been uniquely positioned to communicate with the revolutionary wave. The demands for justice, equality, and better governance and economic management, which were the driving motives behind the revolutionary fervor, were not very different in essence from the core values that formed the political platform of the AK Party. Moreover, the ideological affinity between the AK Party and the Islamic movements not only provided added justification for Turkeys closer engagement with the Arab Spring but also facilitated Turkeys gaining access and a foothold in the newly emerging political structures. Even prior to the Arab Spring, there had been a vibrant debate taking place among the Islamist groups on the AK Party model and political transformation in Arab world. Since the AK Party is a product of the transformation of the Turkish Islamist movement through its decades-old experience in operating in a democratic political system, its
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The demands for justice, equality, and better governance and economic management were not very different in essence from the core values that formed the political platform of the AK Party.
model, program, and policies have resonated well with the Islamist groups, especially as far as they valued a democratic regime. The Countries Undergoing Regime Change Now that the Islamist groups realistically stand a chance to come to power through democratic channels, the applicability of the AK Party model has become an issue of immediate relevance. Indeed, the Arab Spring might have, for the first time, created suitable conditions for the replication of AK Party experience. Against this background, though AK Party leaders never claimed official ties to other political groups in the Muslim world, they seem to have welcomed the possibility that their own experience could set an example to other regional countries. Unsurprisingly, an accelerating momentum of interaction with countries undergoing regime change has taken place. Turkish leaders, officials, academics, or representatives from NGOs or think-tanks have been frequently touring those countries, and at the same time, many delegations from the Arab world have been visiting Turkey. President Abdullah Gls visit soon after Mubaraks fall and Erdoans Arab Spring tour, on one hand, and Turkeys hosting of the leaders of the Egyptian youth movement, on the other, are illustrative examples of this multi-level interaction. Unlike the catchy titles of reports in the Western media, many participants in this lively interaction deliberately refrain from using the term Turkish model, which implies that there is a model to be imitated. While Turks emphasize the dynamic nature of Turkeys transformation and caution their counterparts against one-size-fits-all approach, Arab reformists, too, are eager to develop their own systems based on local conditions. What is clear in this interaction

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is the mutual interest in sharing and learning the Turkish, or AK Party, experience. Almost no week goes by without a conference or workshop on the subject, either in Istanbul, Ankara, Cairo, or Tunis. The Countries with Armed Conflict Obviously, the AK Party had placed special value on relations with the Muslim world, demonstrating sensitivity to the social, economic, and political challenges before the Islamic countries. AK Party leaders, even before the outbreak of the uprisings, had underlined the need for reform in the Islamic world, and warned fellow Muslim leaders about the dangers of failing to meet peoples demands. Nonetheless, given their concern about maintaining good neighborly relations, they refrained from pursuing a clear democracy promotion agenda that would have pitted them against the authoritarian or monarchic regimes. Instead, they pursued an engagement policy with the regimes, prioritizing economic interests and sidestepping the issue of political reforms, hoping that gradually the regimes would move in that direction. The popular uprisings in a sense were the realization of what Turkish leaders had warned other fellow Muslim leaders against. They were concerned that if the challenge of transformation could not be managed, it could lead to regional instability. Turkeys policy in those countries where the regimes resorted to violence was based on a concern to prevent three unwanted scenarios. In Libya, Syria, and to a lesser extent Bahrain, Turkey argued for gradual and controlled transformation in order to avoid civil war, foreign military intervention, and sectarian conflicts. Turkey even seemed prepared to live with the status quo ante for the sake of maintaining stability, since rapid change towards democracy, coupled with military interventions, would unleash inherently destabilizing dynamics. With such considerations, Turkey approached regime change in a rather skeptical and hesitant manner and it did not sever ties with the regimes upfront. However, realizing that the concerns it raised were of no avail, it abandoned its earlier position and advocated more openly democratic principles. Limitations of Turkeys Democratic Appeal Turkeys potential role in the democratic transformation of the Middle East will hinge on many factors. First, the Turkish debate on the Arab Spring exhibits a monopolizing attitude as to the causes and transformation of
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the uprisings, which might generate unrealistic expectations regarding Turkeys potential. These countries have direct relations with the Western world, which may limit Turkeys prospects for leading the democratic wave. Not only do Western actors have accumulated knowledge and experience, but they also are equipped with more extensive resources to promote democratic institutions in the transition countries. After all, Turkey is only recently rediscovering the Arab world, and it has serious limitations regarding resources and human capital. Second, what the Turkish model/experience entails exactly remains another matter of contention. The progovernment circles tend at times to reduce it to the AK Party experience alone, and argue that the gigantic achievements Turkey has recorded in the last decade were the main source of inspiration. Other more nuanced observers, however, prefer to highlight Turkeys experience since the transition to democratic rule in the 1950s, especially the neoliberal reforms of the 1980s, which transformed Turkeys economic and political systems and paved the way for foreign policy activism. The competing narratives might complicate the lessons that can be conveyed, if any. Third, a related limitation pertains to the political groups that will hold power in the countries undergoing regime change. Given the Janus-faced nature of the Turkish or AK Party experience, there also are competing interpretations of the meaning of the AK Partys place in Turkish politics. While some tend to view the Turkish experience as the successful adaptation of Islamists to a democratic political system, others view it as the Turkish political systems accommodation to a party with Islamic sensitivities. Therefore, as the balance of power between the Islamist and secular forces has yet to take shape, it may be too early to decide what aspects of Turkish experience will appeal to the new Arab regimes. The Muslim Brotherhoods reactions to Erdoans emphasis on secularism in his Cairo speech might be just one indication of the limitations on the receptivity of the revolutionaries to Turkeys experience.

It may be too early to decide what aspects of Turkish experience will appeal to the new Arab regimes.

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Challenges The growing emphasis on democracy promotion will present several domestic and foreign policy challenges. First, in regard to foreign policy, since democracy promotion policies usually involve interventionist ramifications, Turkey will have to reconcile it with other principles of its regional policies, such as the zero-problems-withneighbors policy or reliance on soft power. Turkey might be forced to soften its emphasis on democracy, if, for instance, it wants to prevent counter-balancing dynamics and maintain the current level of bilateral relations with the Gulf monarchies, which clearly remain determined to set a shield against the revolutionary wave. To the extent that it remains committed to democratization, however, Turkey will be forced to walk a tight rope between an interventionist approach and noncoercive ways of spreading democratic norms. In that context, a related foreign policy challenge is the precedent effect. As the references to peoples legitimate demands are fast becoming an integral part of Turkish leaders foreign policy rhetoric, it might build pressure on Turkey so that it is expected, or forced, to act consistently in the near future. For instance, Turkey might find it difficult to maintain the same conservative policy it pursued in Iran in 2008 if the regimes suppression of opposition reaches a similar level as the elections approach. In any case, given the enormous diplomatic costs of confronting regional countries over democratic ideals, Turkey will likely apply democracy promotion in a selective manner. Second, on the domestic front, the Arab Spring might affect Turkeys own political transformation, which needs to be managed carefully given the enormous domestic challenges. On the one hand, Turkey will have to overcome several obstacles if it were to truly engage in a sustained dialogue with the democratization experiences. Given the decades-old disconnect with the Arab world, Turkey will need to invest in building up human capital with language competence and knowledge of the region, which, as some analysts close to the government argue, might have an immense transformative impact on Turkeys domestic practices. As much as the opportunities presented, the potential costs of the drift towards the Middle East will have to be carefully assessed. On the other hand, a somewhat opposing effect of the Arab Spring might be on the stalled EU integration process. Liberal commentators especially have argued rather persuasively that what made Turkey unique and a source of inspiration for the Arab streets was its integration into the European and global economic and political networks and its own democratization experience. They seek to drive home the argument that if Turkey is intent on continuing to serve as a model or source of inspiration abroad, it has to remain committed to the path towards deepening democratization at home, especially when it is getting ready to discuss rewriting its constitution. If this last analysis is correct, it might, ironically, be the case that Turkeys road to Brussels passes through Cairo or Tunis, as much as Ankara and Diyarbakr.

About the Author


Dr. aban Karda works as an assistant professor of international relations in the Department of International Relations at TOBB University of Economics and Technology in Ankara.

About GMF
The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) is a nonpartisan American public policy and grantmaking institution dedicated to promoting better understanding and cooperation between North America and Europe on transatlantic and global issues. GMF does this by supporting individuals and institutions working in the transatlantic sphere, by convening leaders and members of the policy and business communities, by contributing research and analysis on transatlantic topics, and by providing exchange opportunities to foster renewed commitment to the transatlantic relationship. In addition, GMF supports a number of initiatives to strengthen democracies. Founded in 1972 through a gift from Germany as a permanent memorial to Marshall Plan assistance, GMF maintains a strong presence on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to its headquarters in Washington, DC, GMF has six offices in Europe: Berlin, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade, Ankara, and Bucharest. GMF also has smaller representations in Bratislava, Turin, and Stockholm.