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House of Lords presentation: “Turkey and the Arab Awakening: Do the Arabs need Turkey as a role model?”‎

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This is a presentation I delivered on “Turkey and the Arab Awakening: Do the Arabs need Turkey as a role model?”‎ in honour of the launch of the Turkish Review at the House of Lords on Friday 11th of Jan, 2013. The event was chaired by Lord John Alderdice and my co-panelists were Dr Gulnur Aybet- Senior Lecturer in International Relations, Rutherford College, University of Kent at Canterbury and Kerim Balci- Editor of the Turkish Review.

A (poorly) edited short clip of proceedings can be viewed here:

Firstly I’d like to thank the organisers for inviting me to address this important topic. I should point ‎out that my own research is focused on Morocco and specifically on the social movement from ‎which emerged the main Islamic political party, currently in government, the Party of Justice and ‎Development (PJD). The PJD very much looks at the AK party as a ‘role model’, it has certain ‎criticisms, particularly in terms of what it views as laxity in the party’s ‘islamic’ credentials, but it ‎aspires to emulate its rise to power. When I interviewed senior figures, they went so far as to ‎suggest the AK party had in fact drawn inspiration from their logo, a lamp, for the AK’s symbol, the ‎bulb and meetings had occurred between the two groups previously.‎

Clearly, the PJD is not alone – the leader of Tunisia’s Ennahda Party, Rashid Ghannouchi, said in July ‎‎2012, that he saw “Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) as a model of success ‎for his country to follow”‎ ‎ and Egypt’s new Prime Minister Mohammed Morsi, when he visited ‎Turkey in September 2012, also acknowledged the inspiration of Turkey’s ruling Justice and ‎Development Party (AKP).

Many in the Arab world are reassured by the combination of a democratic process and a ‎commitment to religious identity. A recent poll (by the Turkish Economic and Social Studies ‎Foundation (TESEV) over the last three months of 2011) found that Arabs see Turkey as a ‎champion of regional peace and role model for religion and democracy living side by side ( with a 78 ‎percent approval rating for Turkey and its policies.) In fact, 61% view Turkey as a model for their ‎own countries – On what basis? 32% cited its democracy, 25% its thriving economy and 23% its ‎Muslim identity.‎

It is no surprise that Turkey scored highest in countries where the Arab Spring has ended the rule ‎of dictators ‎ and politics is in flux, with a 91% approval rating in Tunisia and 86% in Egypt. ‎Unsurprisingly perhaps, Turkey polls rather more poorly in Syria.‎

This also tells us a bit about what Arabs tend to value in the models they aspire to – democratic ‎practises, a booming economy, an attachment to identity. Those who don’t consider Turkey a ‎model also tell us about Arab public opinion, notably their view of its “insufficient Muslim identity” ‎and its “ties to the West”.‎

However, the question here today, is whether Arabs, both those who identify with the Islamic ‎political movements and those who do not, should regard Turkey, which of course, means the ‎Turkish political model, not simply the AK party, as a model.‎
Firstly, I’m not fan of models in general. They might be useful conceptual tools, especially when ‎teaching, but the idea of blueprint capitalism or blueprint democracy is problematic. All countries ‎have their specific history and its legacy will ultimately shape their development far more than a ‎prescriptive model ever can or perhaps should. Surely we have something to learn from the errors ‎of blueprint capitalism as applied to the former Soviet East. Why assume blueprint democracy ‎could work any better?

More useful I think are universal standards and principles that all countries ‎should be held to. Transparency, accountability, the separation of power, economic growth, etc. ‎When we look at the evolution of countries according to these standards, we can say, for example, ‎that Turkey has significantly improved on the corruption scale (despite a long way to go), or we can ‎note that it has regressed on the scale of free speech and the freedom of the media. It is ‎principles, married to the specific context of different Arab countries, which I think will be more ‎beneficial in helping them achieve popular aspirations.‎

Secondly, one of the reasons we are talking about Turkey as a model for the Arab world today is ‎because Turkey has an islamically inspired party in power, the AKP and in many Arab countries, ‎islamically inspired political parties (or islamists as some might call them), have taken the lead.
From ‎Morocco, to Egypt, via Tunisia, Islamically referenced political parties have proven to be the ‎people’s choice at the polls.
Because of a longstanding view in certain sections of academia and ‎politics that Islam and democratic politics cannot be reconciled, Turkey is advanced as a model of ‎balance, having successfully integrated an islamically inspired party into a staunchly secular political ‎system, returning the army to the barracks and fostering the type of economic growth ‎ we in ‎Britain can only currently dream of. There were no hand-choppings, no bans on alcohol or ‎nightclubs, and ties with the so-called ‘West’ have been strengthened. Which I’ll translate into ‎layman terms as ‘business as usual’ with our Western partners, which is to a large extent, what it ‎comes down to. ‎

However, I share the view of Turkish academic Shebnem Gumushju, who writes: ‎
‎“there is no “Turkish model” of an Islamist democracy; rather, there are Muslims in a secular-‎democratic state working within a neoliberal framework.”‎

Do I think this is a model which is applicable elsewhere and specifically in the Arab world? I can say ‎speaking of Morocco, which is I case that I know particularly well, that would be a resounding no ‎there. Why? In Morocco, the king who is also known as ‘amir al mouninin’, is both the head of state ‎and leader of the believers, a religious leader heading in all other regards a ‘secular state’. Despite ‎a widespread desire for the King to relinquish power to elected bodies, most Moroccans do not ‎want to get rid of the king, or his religious symbolism, altogether. ‎

‎ Turkish style secularism is not widely desired in Morocco, even if it can accommodate an islamically ‎inspired party like the AK party. I wager this is the case in most Arab countries which will have to ‎grapple between the Islamic identity a majority want reflected in the political system and ‎international laws and standards premised on a religiously neutral public sphere. ‎

However, Islamic political parties will benefit from the precedent of a party which has established a ‎strong parliamentary system and which has worked with the opposition in devising the ‎constitution. Egypt take note. ‎

Economically, do I think neo-liberal economic policies are best for Egypt or Yemen or Algeria which ‎don’t have Turkey’s skilled work force, its strong industries and bargaining weight – no I don’t. ‎There are no equivalent ‘Anatolian tigers’ to fuel the construction of new businesses, no money in ‎the coffers to build cities, schools, and infrastructure which could boost the economy as they have ‎in Turkey.‎
Economically, Turkey’s model of growth is based on premises which are not found in most Arab ‎nations. Tackling youth unemployment, as Turkey has done, and as Arab states must if they are to ‎avoid future instability, is not a ‘Turkish model’, it is common sense. Turkey has made impressive ‎social reforms with universal health insurance now covering almost the entire population and the ‎increase in early childhood education and preschool enrolment. Prioritising health and education ‎are important precedents for Turkey to set, but how Turkey has achieved this, namely how it has ‎financed these, cannot be replicated in the Arab word. ‎

Turkey is the 18th largest economy in the world, compare that with Egypt, which ranks at 43 and ‎Tunisia at 77, according to IMF figures (and given the instability of the past year, this is likely to have ‎dropped over 2012.)‎

Besides which, I’m not even certain neo-liberal economic policies are best for any of us, let alone ‎developing nations. Turkey’s deficit measured in dollars is second only to America’s ‎. Reliance on ‎debt has become increasingly prevalent and you needn’t look much further than Europe to see ‎where that leads. ‎

So in answer to the question, Do the Arabs need Turkey as a role model? – I think at this moment ‎in time, they need inspiration and polls suggest this is what Turkey offers, since a widely held ‎perception is of a country which has built itself on its own terms. A country which appears to have ‎tamed the military, which has a booming civil society, economic growth coupled with a growing ‎regional weight. However, Turkey has its own issues. The resurgence of authoritarianism is of ‎concern, Turkey’s Kurds have been the major source of human rights violations and Turkey is rated ‎as 148th in the Freedom Index from Reporters Without Borders, below the Democratic Republic of ‎Congo and only slightly above Afghanistan. It has one of the highest incarceration rates for ‎members of the news media in the world. ‎

I have argued against the idea of viewing Turkey as a model not because I don’t believe that it ‎hasn’t been successful on a number of fronts, but because of the prescriptiveness of models. ‎

Among the unresolved tensions of Turkish politics are the public role of religion, minority rights and ‎civil and religious freedoms. Given that both Egypt and Tunisia are experiencing the same tensions ‎to a greater or lesser degree, they can look to Turkey for policies to adopt or avoid.‎
What the Arab world needs is to be held to the same standards as all nations, but to be given the ‎flexibility to adapt these to their socio-cultural context. Precedents in managing similar conflicts ‎are helpful – Tunisia in particular seems to me have interesting lessons for other Arab states in ‎working with the secular opposition, managing extremist elements and reforming the judiciary.‎

Turkey, despite its pitfalls, offers the alternative of an islamically inspired party which also ‎successfully manages the country in the public interest. Islamic political movements, most of whom ‎are still very new to the political game, have a precedent in the AK party which should broaden ‎their view of what is ‘permissible’ and desirable. Or not, as the case may be. At the very least, ‎Turkey, rather than model, is an aspirational example for nascent independent Arab nations.‎

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Written by Myriam Francois

January 11, 2013 at 17:37