The Turkish lure

Dear Folks,

Well, for all you folks out there who eagerly follow Belgian politics, it must seem odd that any state can survive without a government for months on end, but Belgium has proven that it can, and this is all down to the ingenuity of Belgian bureaucrats who snugly wrap red tape around every single municipality, commune and region, so that by the time you reach the federal parliament, there is not much turf to cover outside the sphere of foreign affairs and the military. The problem is that no one really knows where one’s competence ends and another person’s begins, and frankly no one in charge wants to know either.

Governing can be a prickly affair and creating a system is a fierce challenge, and one that Egyptians and Tunisians have to take on with care. Creating a system from scratch, which their neighbour Ghadafi attempted in the 1970s was a complete disaster. It was one man’s disastrous vision of a country with all the florid nonsense that comes part and parcel of a kleptocratic regime.

There are numerous folk within North Africa and elsewhere in the Middle East who are looking for a feasible alternative to the systems currently in operation. Many view Turkey as the ideal starting model. It is religiously conservative, but open to commerce and the outside world. It is not under the thumb of an external power and it is prepared to relent on social constraints.

Newsweek recently discussed this exact topic with reference to the growing ties between Ankara and the Arab world. As a political party, the AKP, believe they represent a style of leadership akin to the Christian Democrats in Germany. The unlikelihood of Turkey’s accession into the EU is widely acknowledged, and therefore, Erdogan’s government has worked to prove that he can go it alone without the largesse of the west, and this is an extremely seductive prospect for Arab ears. It may not be an issue that once upon a time the Levant and North Africa were under Ottoman control.

According to Turkey’s Sunday Zaman, Tunisia’s exiled Islamist leader Rached Ghannouchi, is scheduled to visit Turkey this month, and plans to ask for Turkish investors to help revive Tunisia’s economy and bolster tourism. Ghannouchi believes the AKP has shown others how to “align Islam with modernity”.  In both Morocco and Egypt, the Islamists have taken a leaf out of the Turkish book, establishing parties that have appealing names such as “Freedom and Justice” and “Justice and Development”.  The leader of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Ashraf Abdel Ghaffar, sought refuge in Istanbul during the lead up to Mubarak stepping down.

In order to get where they are today, Erdogan and Turkish president Abdullah Gul both had to climb the Islamist political ladder. The AKP was preceded by the Islamist Welfare Party and the even more radical National Salvation Party. The Welfare Party was dissolved in 1998 for violating the Turkish constitution. Its leader, Necmettin Erbakan, who recently passed away, was banned from politics for the next five years and the party’s assets were transferred to the state treasury. The message was clear for Erdogan: it would take a fresh look, enticing slogans and Armani suits to gather a wider audience and respectability. Newsweek‘s Owen Matthews concludes that Arab Islamists need to reinvent themselves for a new, post revolutionary era. Economic prosperity is a crucial component for their success.

However as soon as AKP took power in 2002, little by little, the willingness to maintain the country’s secular character began to fall by the wayside. The party gave with one hand and took away with the other. Turkey may boost 8% growth and is now one of the world’s top twenty economies, but it has launched a set of policies, which anyone would contend are anti-secular. For example, tax on alcohol beverages have gone through the roof. From 2002 to 2009, beer tax increased by 737%; women who work in AKP-controlled councils or municipalities, Muslim or not, are now expected to cover their hair and the news media are proving reluctant to criticise the government.  If one were to look at the way in which Erdogan has transformed Turkey, one could also point to the creeping disregard for opposition elements. Not least of all the military: in this week’s Economist, it cited that one tenth of all serving generals are in jail on charges of trying to overthrow the government. Dozens of journalists, academics, civil society activists and of course, members of the military have been rounded up on suspicion of involvement in the so-called Ergenekon case. On March 6 two journalists, Nedim Sener and Ahmet Sik, were charged with links to a plot to overthrow Prime Minister Erdogan in 2003. They were arrested, even though no firm evidence of their involvement exists. However Sik had written a book on Ergenkon for which he was already on trial and Sener wrote a book about intelligence failures, which led to the murder of Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in 2007.

The AKP are expected to win in the June elections, and there is little sign that Erdogan will deviate from his current strategy. His foreign policy is under the command of Professor Ahmet Davutoglu, who has worked to spear head, a “pro-eastern” outlook, which places Turkey firmly in the driving seat. The prospect of new investment opportunities in Egypt, Tunisia and soon perhaps Libya, along with the chance to be a shining example to up and coming Arab leaders, are just some of the reasons why, for the moment at least, Turkey’s future looks secure.

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