Is Turkey still a “role model” for the MENA?

By Aylin Unver Noi, Associate Researcher at MEDEA Institute and Assistant Professor at Gedik University, Istanbul, Turkey

The AKP whose image was built on being a clean party has faced the biggest “corruption scandal” of Turkish Republican history on December 17, 2014. The investigation on corruption deeply damaged the image of the AKP not only in Turkey but also in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) where Turkey was seen as a source of inspiration. Furthermore, the acts of AKP give the impression that it is backtracking on each and every reform step achieved by the party just to cover up a corruption scandal. In this article, comparison of the AKP’s first two terms with its third term were made by focusing on the rising star of the AKP as a result of democratic reforms made by the AKP itself and its role model in the MENA, which combines Islam and democracy with successful economy as well as the AKP’s third term which might be defined with increasing authoritarian tendencies and anti-governmental protests and acts. Finally, the power struggle between the AKP and the Hizmet movement will be presented to evaluate possible repercussions of these developments not only on domestic policies but also on the image of Turkey as a “Role Model” in the MENA.

The First Two Terms of the AKP

Turkey’s traditionalist Islamic parties, the Welfare Party and Virtue Party of National View (Milli Gorus), were banned respectively in 1998 and 2001 because of the legislation which bans parties that “threaten the secularist order.”[i] A group of traditionalists from these parties led by Necmettin Erbakan and Recai Kutan opposed any serious change in the approach or policy of Turkish political Islam.[ii] Many reformists, including Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Abdullah Gul, argued that the party needed to rethink its approach to democracy, human rights and relations with the West. This latter camp also opposed Erbakan’s authoritarian leadership, and called for greater inner-party democracy.[iii] The need for a reformist-dominated Islamic party that would bring together both some “traditionalist” and “reformist” Muslim orientations ultimately led to the establishment of the Justice and Development Party –AKP.[iv]

Closure of Islamist parties and ban of Islamist politicians from political life in Turkey played a major role in redirecting their movements and framed their agendas in terms of democracy and human rights. Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan rejected defining the AKP in religious terms and called the party agenda “conservative democracy”. A shift from “political Islam” to “conservative democracy” in the AKP has been realized as a result of this evolution of Turkey’s capitalism, which created an entrepreneurial Muslim bourgeoisie in Anatolia, under the leadership of Turgut Özal since the 1980s.[v]

As a part of this understanding, Turkey abandoned its non-actor status in the Middle East and North Africa and Turkish foreign policy based on “zero problems with its neighbors” policy preferred good relations with its neighbors rather than hostile ones, which enabled Turkey to develop its socio-economic relations not only with neighbors but also other Muslim countries of the MENA since 2002. This policy helped Turkey to be ranked as the world’s seventeenth largest economy.[vi]

Turkish prime minister uses New Year address to tackle allegations of ruling party corruption

Photo: Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (AP)

The AKP won three elections by emphasizing Turkey’s application for membership to the European Union through improvement of democracy, human rights and rule of law, eradication of the military in state affairs, economic development and conservative social values.[vii] During the first and the second term of the AKP which were described by Prime Minister Erdoğan as his “apprentice” and “foreman” terms in office, the AKP  has undertaken the democratic reforms that are necessary to comply with the EU criteria. The reformist views of Milli Görüş that led to the establishment of the AKP were open to cooperation with secular establishments and preferred to develop ties with all states. The AKP sees the Western agenda overlapping with its own. Contrary to the traditionalists, the AKP saw the EU membership as a means of reducing the influence of military and establishing a political framework that will expand religious tolerance and ensure its political survival. The AKP also promoted liberal market policies and abadoned anti-globalization discourse of Traditionalists.[viii]

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s “Strategic Depth”, which aims to deepen its relations with all states and extends its ties into Asia, Africa and the West, emphasizes the vital importance of a Turkish role in the Arab world.[ix] Under the AKP, an active Turkish foreign policy toward the Middle East has made Turkey an important regional actor.[x] Since 2002, AKP has shifted Turkey’s foreign policy toward the Arab and the Islamic world, while still maintaining its ties with the West.[xi] Turkey aims to have an independent foreign policy and a deepening of relations with all states, which makes some shifts from its earlier Washington-centric and the Europe-centric policies.[xii] The reluctance of the EU to accept Turkey as a full member to the club has led not only to nationalistic views and skepticism among Turkish people and these kinds of discourses in the Turkish parliament but also led to debates on “axis change” in Turkish foreign policy.[xiii]

In addition to active policy of the AKP, several factors have contributed to making Turkey a “force of attraction,” including Turkish soap operas that portray aspects of Turkish way of life in a very attractive way. Strained Turkey-Israel relations during the AKP government made Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan the most admired world leader having a rating of 20% in the Arab world.[xiv] The new activist Turkish foreign policy in the Middle East made Turkey (21 percent) second after France (30 percent) perceived as playing a constructive role in the interest of the Middle East region, according to the 2010 Arab Public Opinion poll.[xv]

Turkey’s increased involvement in Middle East affairs and its efforts to mediate conflicts in the region, to export its “zero problem” with its neighbors foreign policy approach to the countries of the region, to increase interaction of the peoples of the region by removing visa requirements and establishment of free trade areas, all have given political leverage to Turkey.[xvi] As a Muslim country governed by a democratic regime and its economic success, Turkey has the benefit of being a potential model for the countries of the region. Turkey was perceived as a model for Egypt and Tunisia politically and economically. In the post-Arab Spring era, Turkey thus represented a new center of gravity for the countries of this region due to the freedoms enjoyed by its population in comparison to the majority of the Muslim world, its economic growth, and its ability to combine Islam and democracy.[xvii]

The Evaluation of the AKP’s Third Term

As Turkey’s outreach into the MENA has deepened, claims that the AKP is not committed to democracy have proliferated.  In contrast to the AKP’s first two terms,  the AKP has increasingly demonstrated less interest in promoting freedom and human rights.  Now, during Erdogan’s third term—what the prime minister calls his “master” term— many have accused the AKP’s agenda of outright authoritarianism. An increasing number of people have been arrested and jailed apparently for political reasons and laws which infringe on personal freedoms have been enacted.  This has led to increasing criticism of the AKP.[xviii] Indeed, some analysts have said “the more power Erdogan won at the elections, the less interested he appeared in taking steps toward freedom of expression and human rights.[xix] Moreover, because of the party’s authoritarian direction, increasing disagreement within the AKP itself has occurred.

Increasing authoritarian tendencies of the AKP in its third term created anti-government backlash in the society. These were revealed through anti-governmental protests after each decision taken by the government such as anti-abortion legislation which decreased time limits for abortion from ten weeks to six weeks, legislation to curb ceasarean sections at the hospitals, discourses made by Erdogan on ‘women should have at least three or four children’. Controversies over women’s sexuality, abortion and reproductive rights were interpreted as violations of women’s sexual privacy by male politicians and led to the argument as “vaginal obsession of the AKP” by women rights organizations in Turkey and protested by Feminists.[xx] The regulations placing limits on the sale and advertising of alcoholic beverages and Erdoğan’s words voiced at the parliament, “The old alcohol law, was passed by two drunkards. Shouldn’t we prefer the law of God instead?”; one of the drunkards he was referring to was Atatürk, founder of Republic of Turkey and the other was apparently Atatürk’s successor, Ismet Inönü increased anti-Erdogan and anti-AKP sentiments among Secularists.[xxi]

The peaceful protests began on 28 May, 2013 over plans to redevelop Gezi park in Taksim, Istanbul as shopping mall, has spread to other cities of Turkey (79 cities out of 81) owing to “excessive use of force” by police and Prime Minister’s speeches. The Protestors, which represent different sections of the society from Liberals to anti-Capitalist Muslims accused Turkish government of becoming increasingly authoritarian and demanded a government which does not close its ears to the demans of its people. Imposition of conservative Islamic values through several bans which infringe personal freedoms also become catalysts of these demonstrations.  The more power Erdogan won at the elections, the less interest he appeared in listening the demands of the people who do not share Erdoğan’s view.[xxii] Although a democratic package, which should also be seen as a response of the AKP to the demands of the Gezi Movement came right after demonstrations, this package was far from meeting the expectations of the people owing to its content which provides more freedom for certain section of the society.

Photo: Supporters of  the Gülen Hizmet Movement demonstrating (AFP)

In addition to the controversies between the AKP and certain sections of the society, the power struggle which has already began between the AKP and the Gülen Hizmet Movement exacerbated after the AKP’s decision to close the preparatory schools (dershane) since this issue brought the AKP and the Gulen Hizmet Movement face to face. After the AKP’s this move against the financial sources of Hizmet Movement and its places to educate conservative young Muslims, the AKP has faced with the biggest “corruption scandal” of Turkish Republican history on December 17 when Turkish police detained around 50 people including sons of Ministers on corruption, money laundering and bribery grounds. The investigation deeply damaged the image of the AKP, whose image was built on the corruption-free and clean party, not only at home but also abroad where Turkey was seen as a source of inspiration for the Arab countries. Erdogan’s acts in the wake of corruption scandal such as altering the directive for judicial police overnight, issuing an new directive prohibiting press and journalists from going to police departments without prior authorization, halting the second wave of investigation in which Erdogan’s son was reportedly by the executive, attempts to change the structure of the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors (HSJP) and polices involved in these investigations, proposals to curb powers of HSJP led to interpretation that the AKP’s rhetoric to combat corruption has disappeared. Erdogan has espoused a “grand theory” to explain “corruption scandal” and “Gezi protests” as internationally orchestrated by US, Israel, and even EU with help of domestic collaborators such as Islamist Hizmet movement led by cleric Fethullah Gulen to halt the rise of Turkey as a global player.[xxiii]

The battle between the AKP and the Hizmet movement has continued on judiciary as the AKP submitted a draft law to increase its control over justice.  Turkey’s crackdown on police and judiciary were followed by the EU with concern and interpreted as acts which jeopardizing EU accession talks. The issue also came to the agenda during Prime Minister Erdoğan visit to Brussels after five years pause.[xxiv]

The moves against the judiciary also triggered concern from the Council of Europe. The Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muiznieks interpreted these acts as “setback for the independence of the judiciary in Turkey.”[xxv] The acts of AKP gives the impression that it is backtracking on each and every reform step achieved just to cover up a corruption scandal.[xxvi]

As Olivier Roy stated that there is a “risk of losing popular support for Islamist parties unless it can also reconcile Islam with good governance and human rights in practice.”[xxvii] The AKP government’s emerging problems with these two concepts -good governance and human rights- and their possible side effects on the economy, exacerbated with the inclusion of problems related to separation of powers which provides the judiciary to control executive power in the state.

As Ramadan stated “the fight against corruption and cronyism at home, reducing the prerogatives of the military, increasingly orienting foreign relations toward the Global South, stepping up trade with China, India, Brazil, and South America, acting as a mediator in the Middle East (with regard to Iran) and adopting firm, critical stance toward Israel (thus winning international admiration among Muslim popular opinion); these are the elements that make Turkey a model for Muslim majority societies in North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Turkey is now the world’s seventeenth-ranked economic power, its growth rate is Europe’s strongest (8.1 percent in 2010 according to the World Bank). In an inversion of roles, the European Union may now need Turkey more than Turkey needs it.”[xxviii]

He also presented Turkey as a democratic country helping to reconcile Muslims with confidence, autonomy, pluralism and success. He praised Turkey as a role model, which should be followed by Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and other Arab countries in the post-Arab Spring era.[xxix] Yet, Turkey’s “role model” in the MENA is now questionable owing to the emerging environment. Deterioration of Turkey’s relations with some countries of the MENA and disappearance of mediator role previously played, the corruption scandal, mismanagement of the process which may harm previous democratization efforts, destabilizing effects of these political developments on its economy might lessen the attractiveness of Turkey as a role model for the countries of the MENA which have already suffered from deprivation of human rights, bad governance and instability.

It is obvious to say that economic stability cannot be secured without democracy and good governance.  Challenging days thus are waiting for Turkey. If the AKP fails to follow its democratization path as a result of these events, it also fails what it has achieved not only on the way of democratization, economic success and its good image and reputation as a role model for the MENA but also its advantage that can be used on the way of its EU membership.

[i] Angel Rabasa and Stephan F. Larrabee, The Rise of Political Islam in Turkey, (Pittsburgh: RAND Corporation, 2008), 65; Graham E. Fuller, The Future of Political Islam, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 132.

[ii] Ibid. P. 46.

[iii] Ibid. P. 45.

[iv] Graham E. Fuller, The Future of Political Islam, 130, 132.

[v] Omer Taşpınar, Turkey: The New Model? in The Islamists Are Coming: Who They Really Are? Ed. Robin Wright (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2012), 128.

[vi] Zbigniew Brzezinski, Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power, (New York: Basic Books, 2012), 136.

[vii] Olivier Roy, Islam: The Democracy Dilemma in The Islamists Are Coming: Who They Really Are? Ed. Robin Wright (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2012), 17.

[viii] Angel Rabasa and Stephan F. Larrabee, The Rise of Political Islam in Turkey, 47.

[ix] Garaham E. Fuller, The Future of Political Islam, 169.

[x] Angel Rabasa and Stephan F. Larrabee, The Rise of Political Islam in Turkey, 85.

[xi] Allon Bar, “Turkish Foreign Policy Survey: Directions and Dilemmas in 2007,” Perceptions Journal of International Affairs 11, no. 3–4 (2006): 2, 2.

[xii] Ahmet Davutoğlu, Strategic Depth: Turkey’s International Position (in Turkish) (Istanbul: Kure Yayinlari, 2010), 550; Graham E. Fuller, The Future of Political Islam, 168.

[xiii] USAK. 2010. USAK Axis Change of Turkish Foreign policy and Neighborhood Relations Perception Survey December 2009. In USAK Surveys on Turkish Security and Foreign Policy, September 2010. Ankara: USAK (International Strategic Research Organization) Publications.

[xiv] Aylin Ünver Noi, Arab Spring and Its Effects on Regional Alignments in Islam and Democracy: Perspectives on the Arab Spring, Ed. Aylin Ünver Noi. (New Castle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013), 20.

[xv] Shibly Telhami, 2010 Arab Public Opinion Poll (College Park: University of Maryland, in conjunction with Zogby International, 2010).

[xvi] Aylin Ünver Noi, “The Arab Spring: Should Turkey Coordinate Its Foreign Policy With the European Union?” Mediterranean Quarterly. Vol.23. No.3, Summer 2012, 68.

[xvii] Ibid. P. 77, 81.

[xviii] Aylin Ünver Noi, “A Clash of Islamic Models” Current Trends in Islamist Ideology. Vol. 15, No (2013), 58.

[xix] Omer Taşpınar, Turkey: The New Model?, 135.

[xx] Sertac Sehlikoglu, “Vaginal Obsessions in Turkey: An Islamic Perspective,” Opendemocracy January 29, 2014,  http://www.opendemocracy.net/5050/sertaç-sehlikoğlu/vaginal-obsessions-in-turkey-islamic-perspective (February 18, 2013).

[xxi] Spiegel, “A Country Divided: Where Is Turkey Headed?” January 20, 2014,

http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/protests-reveal-the-deep-divisions-in-turkish-society-a-907498.html (June 24, 2013).

[xxii] Omer Taşpınar, Turkey: The New Model? 135.

[xxiii] Euobserver, “The ‘Grand Theory’ and the Corruption Scandal in Turkey” January 20, 2014, http://euobserver.com/opinion/122641 (January 7, 2014).

[xxiv] Ibid.

[xxv] Hurriyet Daily News, “Turkish Government Moves for More Control on Judiciary” January 20, 2014, http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/turkish-government-moves-for-more-control-on-

judiciary.aspx?pageID=517&nID=60766&NewsCatID=338 (January 9, 2014).

[xxvi] Euobserver, “The ‘Grand Theory’ and the Corruption Scandal in Turkey”

[xxvii] Olivier Roy, Islam: The Democracy Dilemma,18.

[xxviii] Tariq Ramadan, Islam and the Arab Awakening (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 94.

[xxix] Ibid. P. 190.