Twenty months have passed since [Tunisian fruit vendor] Mohamed Bouazizi — the first spark of the Arab Spring — set himself alight. Over this period, dozens of seminars have been held in Turkey and throughout the world and many articles have been written in Turkish and a variety of other languages discussing the obvious positive impact that these political transformations in the Arab world will have on Turkey. These developments will allegedly provide it with opportunities to take on a regional leadership role. However, despite initial signs that Turkey has benefited from the Arab Spring, a closer inspection reveals that it is too early to determine the impact of these events.
This question — regarding whether or not Turkey has won the battle of the Arab Spring — is reminiscent of an account from the 1970s, told by former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in a book he published last year. As Sino-American relations were opening up, Kissinger met with the late Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai and asked him for his opinion regarding the impact of the French Revolution of 1789 on global politics. Enlai paused before responding: "It's too early to say." This article does not attempt to challenge Turkish policy decisions taken at this defining point in the history of the Middle East, but rather focuses on Turkey's shifting image among the Arab public. In the following paragraphs I will examine Turkey's image prior to the Arab Spring, and then compare it with its image following these revolutions. I hope to show why this article's central question — did Turkey win the battle of the Arab Spring? — is now justified and timely.
Before the Arab Spring, Turkey was a role model for democratic forces in the region. It was successful economically and was able to seamlessly incorporate Islamic parties into its political process. The Turkish Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in a fair election, in the framework of a secular constitution that differentiates between the authorities and economic camps, and was able to bridge the regional divide between Anatolia in the East and Turkey's major cities in the West. The Turkish system has gained the support of many political currents within the Arab world, and is not merely attractive to Islamists. The system is revered by liberals, nationalists and leftists, and has succeeded in attracting supporters from many parties and from a variety of Arab countries.
Prior to the Arab Spring, Turkey had succeeded in establishing its influence in the region. It had gone from a country that joined axes and made alliances with certain countries against others, to a regional power that preserved its power by maintaining distance from others and connecting with them at the same time. This reflected positively on the popularity of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had always been keen to address the concerns of the Arab public. Perhaps one of the most notable instances was the "Davos Incident," [where the Turkish PM walked off the stage during the World Economic Forum after a heated argument with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu]. After the attack on the Freedom Flotilla, which was sent by Turkey to break the siege on Gaza, Erdogan's popularity among the Arab world reach a level that was unprecedented for a non-Arab leader. At the time, Turkey's image reached an all-time high among Arabs. Its solidarity with the Arab people, regarding one of their most central issues, provided an ideal alternative in the face of Arab regimes which oppressed their own people. Furthermore, this was all achieved at a relatively low political cost for Turkey, they used "soft power" and nothing more.
Before the Arab Spring, Islamic groups promoted the idea — which spread like wildfire — that the successive electoral victories of the Turkish Justice and Development Party (AKP) represented a victory for political Islam parties in the region. There was an internal belief among these parties that the AKP constituted an ally for Islamic parties in general, and that their massive electoral victories were also a victory for these parties. Islamic parties took advantage of the AKP's victory, and used it as part of their own ideology within Arab countries to confront both dictatorial regimes and other political parties that were not part of the authorities. They claimed that Islamic parties within the Arab world possessed the same characteristics as the AKP. Yet, following the Arab Spring, with the victory of Islamic parties in parliamentary elections in Tunisia and Egypt — alongside the emergence of Salafist parties — these Islamic groups presented a very different image. This new approach is not necessarily supportive of the political model found in Turkey.
For example, although the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt realizes that they can benefit from adopting the Turkish model's approach to economics and foreign policy, the Turkish model's attitude toward domestic politics does not agree with the "balance of power" that exists in Arab countries. In other words, some elements of these Islamic movements believe that the AKP made too many concessions when they accepted a secular constitution merely as a result of domestic power balances. They believe that this should not be the case in the Arab Spring countries. Salafists have increased support for this claim, although I won't go into the many statements made by their most important figures regarding this topic. They believe that the Turkish model is not something that should be copied, not to mention the fact that they feel it doesn't even deserve to be called "Islamic." There is increasing talk about how the spiritual and ideological roots of the leading parties within the Islamic movement differ from those of their peers in the AKP. They view the Arabian peninsula as the original source of their ideological inspiration, not the Anatolian region with its Sufist Naqshbandi roots. This distinction between intellectual and religious principles has led to an important geopolitical development. For these Islamic movements and parties, possible alliances will lie with their base [in the Arabian peninsula], not with Turkey.
This has resulted in an important development that perhaps Turkey did not expect. These parties will not open their doors to Turkey and consider the Turkish model something to be imitated, as was the case before the Arab Spring. These Islamic parties, which dominated parliamentary elections following the Arab Spring, will no longer view the Turkish model as a source of "inspiration." Rather, they have begun to adopt policies and positions that do not necessarily serve Turkish interests in the region.
As a result of Turkey's increasing involvement in the Arab Spring — as well as its support for political Islam movements in their ongoing battle against crumbling authoritarian regimes — Turkey has witnessed a decline in sympathy and understanding from many previous supporters from liberal, nationalist and leftist movements. Turkey — as a result of its exclusive alliance with Islamist movements — has become a political adversary to these groups, and no longer acts as a model to them them under any circumstances. The concerns of the 1960s and 1970s have returned, and suspicion now dominates the rhetoric of these movements when it comes to their descriptions of Turkey and its regional role. This represents a clear decline in Turkey's image among the Arab public.
Another result of Turkey's involvement in the Arab Spring can be linked to these revolutions and the current geopolitical changes in the Middle East. This issue became clearer following Turkey's direct involvement in Syrian crisis. Ankara has been supporting certain groups within the Syrian opposition at the expense of others. The Syrian regime, which is spilling the blood of its own people and trying to exact revenge against Turkey, has released Kurdish fighters from their bunkers within Syria and sent them to Turkey. This has caused widening domestic divisions within Turkey, and has disturbed the country's ethnic and sectarian balance. Over the past decade, Ankara has been keen to deal with these problems, at times through cultural and political means, while at other times through superficial remedies.
The above developments have led to the emergence of a new stereotype for Turkey. It has lost its position as a "model" that must be followed — a country which enjoyed good relations with various political forces in the Arab world — and is now seen as merely another regional player. As the local and regional conflicts intensify, the methods used by countries involved in the Arab Spring resemble one another, and there is no longer a place for large intellectual differences among regional players. This hypothesis is confirmed when you compare the capabilities of Qatar and Turkey. Prior to the Arab Spring, there would not have been any points of comparison, neither in terms of values, institutions nor political approach. Now it appears that these two countries have a shared agenda! Following the Arab Spring, Turkey has assumed the role of a "neighbor country." It is not considered an active regional force as its government had hoped. It lost its position as an admirable country far removed from sectarianism. It has reached the point where, at least in the Levant, we can describe Turkey's approach as sectarian. This represents a clear shift from the values represented by Turkey prior to the Arab Spring. At that time, it was a civil democratic state that was modern and had a strong economy, a strong network of international relations, and was welcoming to the world and neighboring countries.
This article is not arguing that Turkey has necessarily lost the battle of the Arab Spring. Rather, it is trying to question the accepted and intuitive notion that Turkey has been victorious throughout this period. This means that it is imperative for Turkey to rethink its image among the Arab public. The dust of the Arab Spring has settled, and it's geopolitical consequences are beginning to emerge. These may not be conducive to the prevailing focus on security in current Turkish political discourse.