The Return of Osman:

How the “Turkish Model” Will Reshape the Middle East


c. 2011, Sean Daly


 

“In five years, the Middle East will be completely different.”

--Amr Moussa, Secretary-General of the Arab League

 

“Democracy reshapes all the radical movements. I sincerely believe this."

--Abdullah Gül, President of Turkey, while in Cairo, March 3, 2011


In early February 2011, Ashraf Abdel Ghaffar, a prominent leader of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, took refuge in Turkey, where he declared he would remain until the demonstrations to remove Mubarak from power succeeded. Speaking in Istanbul on February 8, Ghaffar praised Turkey’s Islamic ruling party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its Prime Minister Recep Erdoğan. He went on to say that that “there might be dialogue” between the Muslim Brotherhood and the AKP and that his organization considers Turkey to be a model for a future Egypt.

Ghaffar was not alone in his trip to Istanbul. It is rumored that members of Tunisia’s Muslim Brotherhood were in Istanbul past month, in a similar quest for institutional support and diplomatic muscle. And when Rachid Ghanouchi, the head of Tunisia’s Muslim Brotherhood, arrived back in Tunis following his exile, he fended off pointed questions with the remark, “Why do people want to compare me to Bin Laden or Khomeini, when I am closer to Erdoğan?”

While the West has played an awkward but necessary dance of tepid support for both the protestors and autocrats of the Middle East, Ankara has emerged as a silent broker in the post-Jasmine Arab World. This new role in North African politics comes at an auspicious time for Turkey. Ankara has been quietly courting the area for seven years, successfully pressing forward a unique economic agenda. Lifting a page from China’s “peaceful rise” agenda in Southeast Asia, Turkey’s “Africa Strategy” and its “zero frictions” policy with its Arab neighbors have paid off handsomely. Exports to the Arab World doubled from 13 billion in 2009 to 27 billion in 2010.

Though rarely discussed in the West, these policies by Recep Erdoğan have affected the region and may well make his tenure as pivotal to Turkey as Lula’s has been to Brazil. The AKP’s turn from the West in foreign policy has been criticized by many of its own citizens and showed little payoff in its early years. But as the old client state relationships of the Middle East get re-shuffled, Turkey’s unique combination of diplomatic virtuosity and industrial heft may give the country a renewed ascendancy in the region.



“The Africa Strategy”


For four centuries, the Ottoman Empire ruled North Africa and profited from sub-Saharan trade routes that passed through the Sahel. This relationship withered in the late 19th century, only to collapse entirely with the fall of the Caliphate in 1923. Diplomatic and economic ties between Turkey and the continent were minimal from 1923 until 1998, when a World Bank Africa Action plan altered perceptions.

When the Justice and Development Party (AKP) took power in 2002, a new policy took shape, one that became known as the “Africa Strategy.”

To generalize, the approach has two components -- soft power and exports. As the government initiated a full court charm offensive with enhanced diplomatic ties and enriched cultural exchanges, a major emphasis was also put on trade volume growth and exports. The policy shares an uncanny resemblance to China’s “peaceful rise” approach to ASEAN, where a stronger power has diplomatically appeased its smaller neighbors, built dozens of (pro-Beijing) educational and media centers gratis, and pushed for major trade linkage.

Last September, preceding a UN meeting at the UN, President Gul declared that Ankara was committed to expanding its African presence, and would open 15 new embassies in the sub-Sahara within the year. To gauge just how radical a departure this was with the Republic’s prior 80 year past: when 2005 was declared the “Year of Africa,” Erdoğan’s trip to South Africa became the first time a Turkish head of state had ever visited a country under the equator line. By 2012, Istanbul will have 37 embassies on the continent.

Turkey's approach to trade with African nations differs from both the U.S. and China. Instead of big oil and mineral extraction projects, Turkey often concentrates on lower profile development issues such as construction and agriculture. On a more granular level, Turkish businessmen share the same cultural ethos as the traditional Muslims of northern Africa.



Like Beijing’s charm offensive, Turkish involvement in Africa is a tight matrix of governmental and business policies. In 2003, Turkey's trade volume with the entire African continent was $5 billion, 4% of the country’s total export. With government encouragement, Turkish-African trade has increased by double digit figures since then, becoming 9% of its total exports in 2009. Speaking in Morocco on March 5, 2011, Turkey’s State Minister Hayati Yazici reaffirmed the positive bottom successes of the Strategy:

"Our trade volume with African continent was 5.4 billion USD in 2003. 2.1 billion USD was our export, and 3.3 billion USD was our import. In the end of 2010, our trade volume with African countries reached 16 billion USD. Six billion USD is import, and 10 billion USD is export to these countries."


He went on to say that he expected the trade volume to reach $20 billion USD by 2011. This staggering growth in Africa over the past seven years explains why there were so many Turks in caught in Libya during the current violence. 25,000 Turks were in the country when the crisis broke.

With so many citizens at risk, you would think the government would be partial to intervention, particularly with Gadhafi forces strafing its own cities from the air. But Turkey has been very vocal about no Western involvement in Libya.

Big money investments and a slight Turkish edge in the current Libyan business environment may explain the approach. With the lifting of international sanctions against Libya in the mid 2000’s, Turkish construction firms rushed in, with edging out on its Western competitors, creating fresh business opportunities. During his visit to Libya in 2009, Erdoğan made an effort to further economic ties with Libya, as part of the proactive Africa Strategy. Exports to Libya in 2009 were 67.5% higher than in 2008.

By 2011, more than 200 Turkish firms were at work on projects worth around $15 billion U.S. dollars in Libya, most of them construction projects.

So the Turks are talking their book. This suspicion was confirmed last week, when the Turkish Ambassador in Washington was quoted as saying:

“The Libyan case is a little different because of our vested interests there. Our people are working there, our companies. That is why we are taking a cautious approach on how we address this matter. Prime Minister Erdoğan talked to Gaddafi and told him, ‘Look, you have to look out for our Turkish interests there.’

But, the Turks are also talking their geo-political book—"let the region resolve this." The three big dogs of the region are Turkey, Egypt, and Iran –they are the three demographic “power centers” in the region with populations of 74, 80, 64 million residents, respectively. Egypt, its main Sunni rival since Nasser’s time, is presently down for the count.

In contrast, Turkey enjoys a robust civil society, projects a genuine model for Islamic democracy, and is the largest Muslim economy in the world.  More importantly for the man in the street, Turkish GDP per capita quadrupled over the past decade, an astounding feat that has enhanced the real purchasing power of tens of millions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Istanbul also has enormous prestige amid the marginalized Islamic parties that were repressed for decades. The Arab Revolt of 2011 will bring these factions into the mechanisms of governance. It will allow the Erdoğan’s AKP a voice in virtually every country where the Muslim Brotherhood is a force.

 

Big Brother of the Brotherhood

Turkey’s new voice in Egyptian domestic politics On March 3, 2011, Turkish President Abdullah Gül arrived in Cairo, the first head of state to visit Egypt in the post-Mubarak era. In a series of well-publicized meetings, he consulted with members of the transitional leadership, with the head of Egypt’s armed forces, and with Mohamed Badie, the head of the Muslim Brotherhood.

At one event, Gül said that, when watching the Cairo protests on television in January, he had been reminded of his own student days as an activist. He described how the Turkish military coup in 1980 had wrecked the first month of his marriage: "My honeymoon was spent in a military prison."

It must be remembered that most of the AKP’s leadership started their political careers in parties quite similar to the Muslim Brotherhood -- the Islamist Welfare Party of the 1990s and the far more radical National Salvation Party in the 1970s. Shared political goals, local persecution, and a particular view of the importance of Islamic piety in society naturally brought together these Turkish groups and their Muslim Brotherhood compatriots. Some pundits have likened the experience to the Socialist International of the early 20th century.


The importance of personal friendships made by young idealistic men in the crucible of persecution can not be underestimated. The AKP was the first Sunni Islamist party to “break through” and rule. This achievement now affords the AKP great authority in Egypt, particularly at a time when the Muslim Brotherhood there is seeking a path to full legitimacy.


The April 6th Youth Movement that propelled the street protests and technically brought down Mubarak has a tiny, alert leadership but one with little real institutional depth. But it has few advocates in the upper business class. The party was initiated by frustrated textile workers in 2008, and it now is manned by an energetic swath of Egypt’s young micro-entrepreneurs. It leaped to national notoriety only two years ago when of their own --Khalid Saeed, an internet café owner-- beaten to death by police demanding a bribe.


The Muslim Brotherhood, on the other hand, has existed for 80 years. It is well-organized in every Egyptian city, providing relief, health services, and even legal aid to the poor. This is well-known in the West. Less known, is that a certain segment of the Brotherhood has “grown up” gained a measure of bourgeois respectability, and has even been—dare I say-- “cohabitating” with the Mubarak regime for the past decade.

This faction –called the “new old guard” in Egypt—was allowed to participate in the recent economic boom, own major businesses, and even run “independent” candidates. Once the blue flame of outrage lit by the most marginalized, the Brotherhood has its own “grey-beard businessman” wing. This was the group that Vice President Sulieman invited into the Palace to broker a “settlement” with on February 6.


My argument is that the “greybeards” of the right –the military and the nationalist businessmen that worked under Hosni Mubarak (but who actually bristled under Gamal’s globalization agenda)—and the “greybeards” of the Brotherhood will lean over the aisle and find consensus. Hosam Badrawi, who replaced Mubarak as head of the National Democratic Party, and Naguib Sawiris, the head of Egypt’s largest conglomerate Orascom, are both part of the “Council of the Wise Men” that will lead the transition. Several Brotherhood businessmen, including Sobhi Saleh, are part of the Council.

These two power centers may even gently freeze out the young factions. Indeed, the prospect that the parliamentary elections will be held only a few months after the establishment of new parties, will leave little time for them to mobilize support.


Not that the Brotherhood’s influence will be overt. Article 5 of the Egyptian constitution --which bars any political activity “with a religious frame of reference” --was not altered by the transition committee. This, however, should not be seen as a total victory of secular forces. It may be a sop to the West, or an example of how the Muslim Brotherhood will seek a less public, but deeper “strategic space” in the political firmament.

The Brotherhood will not be fielding a presidential candidate this year. And it will not move beyond internal preparations for establishing a specific party –tentatively named the “Freedom and Justice Party” -- before the elections.

Instead the Brotherhood will likely operate as a power broker this election, backing a few “independent” candidates in certain venues. Some may be specifically chosen; others may be secular candidates who will angle for their support. Like AARP or the Tea Party, the Brotherhood is likely to operate as an organized constituency with ample lobbying power. Turkey’s AKP will be the official mentor of this new component to Egypt’s political class, giving it legitimacy and diplomatic cover in the international arena.

As one pundit has described it:

"The AKP will defend the Muslim Brotherhood as an ally and strive to maximize its role in Egyptian politics. The Muslim Brotherhood will, in return, seek to provide its foreign policy vision, shared by the AKP, with leverage in Cairo."


Ultimately, the “Turkish Model” of multi-party democracy in an Islamic context is recognized by the Brotherhood as its route to power. It offers “the road map” for a socially conservative, Islamist party attempting to rise up and share power with a long dominant party tied to the military.

The parallels are strong. Since the fall of the Monarchy, every President of Egypt came from the military. That process changes this year, the first time in 59 years. Turkey remained tightly controlled by the military until 2002. Even the pro-Mobarak forces seem to look to it as a solution that avoids chaos. Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the Field Marshall of Egypt’s Armed Forces allegedly said in his meeting with Gül:  "The Turkish experience is the closest to us. It's an example we can really benefit from."

Likewise, Washington officials are in daily contact with the Turkish embassy over the Egyptian issue. According to Scott Wilson of The Washington Post, the Obama administration is preparing for the possibility of new Islamist regimes following the revolts in North Africa or Middle East.

From an American geo-strategic standpoint, the Egyptian Revolution is undoubtedly a rollback of imperial influence. As the US stepped into the Middle East to supplant British and French colonialism, it froze local politics in an effort to maintain control over an oil-rich area that was hotly contested during the Cold War. This prerogative continued quite naturally into the 1990s and 2000s as fears of Iran and fundamentalist chaos kept Washington depending on its autocrats.

With the right jolt, frozen things often shatter before they thaw. The tremors of the Arab youth quake have shattered the region’s iced-over politics and left our autocratic “point men” on the wrong side of history. As Parag Khanna said recently, it marks the end of America’s “He’s a S.O.B but he’s our S.O.B.” policy.

The US may now need to depend on Turkey as an interlocutor with these “released” political forces. It may need the “Turkish Model” and the AKP’s keen insights to insure that Egypt averts chaos and stays on course as an American ally.

 

Turkey’s “Zero Problems with Neighbors” Policy

 

“Heed lesson from me as I came to these places as a weak leader and I reached high with the help of God.”
-- Osman Gazi, first of the Ottomans, 1261 - 1326


One of the more fascinating aspects of Turkey’s new regional policy is its “zero problems with neighbors” approach. It is described as an approach based on “security for all, high-level political dialogue, economic integration and interdependence, and multicultural coexistence.” This is new for Turkey, a modern nation founded on ethnic chauvinism and one that stayed aloof from its “backward” neighbors. Indeed, it is new for the region at large, rent with huge chasms of historic enmity.

It would be easy to dismiss the policy as mere rhetoric if not for the fact that it has been making waves. The recent diplomatic detente with Armenia, its involvement in the Palestinian issue and Lebanon’s factious politics, its rapport with Iran and stunning new efforts with Syria –all suggest a real policy shift.

This neighborliness has played well to its economic interests, however much it irks US expectations. As a percentage of total Turkish exports, goods to Middle Eastern countries rose from 9.6 percent in 2002 to 20.3 percent last year. (Europe dropped from 55% to 46% during the same time period.) Year over year, 2010 exports to Iraq and Syria rose 30.8% and 27.8%, respectively. More intriguingly, the trade volume between Iran and Turkey exceeded $10 billion last year, up from $5.5 billion in 2008. Both sides are projecting $30 billion in trade by 2020.

Again, Ankara’s virtuosity at “hand and glove” economic diplomacy stands out. On a recent trip to Kuwait, Prime Minister Erdoğan brought a delegation of 500 high-level Turkish officials and businessmen. Two main aims of the trip: to secure construction contracts and attract a share of Kuwait’s $120 billion investment plans over the next 10 years. Over 2,000 business meetings were held between Kuwaiti and Turkish businessmen in the following days. Contracts were signed and the Kuwait Investment Authority decreed plans to raise its investment in Turkey to $1.7 billion. While there, Erdoğan himself was given the year’s “Outstanding Personality in the Islamic World Award” by Kuwaiti Sheikh Fahad al-Ahmad. In conjunction with the government’s efforts, TUSKON --the Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists—is tapped to drive exports. Rızanur Meral, the group’s chairman, recently reported that Turkey’s proactive diplomacy, stability, and gutsy economic initiatives have increased country’s visibility in the region.

To spur capital from Muslim countries, the Istanbul Stock Exchange (ISE) recently launched a new participation index to track “30 sharia-compliant” companies. This unique index includes large caps like retailer Birlesik Magazalar, real estate trust Emlak Konut, and telecommunications giant Turk Telekom. It may be argued that the Middle East—at least in the modern period-- has never seen a government so focused on reducing regional trade impediments.

Last June, Turkey helped forge a “cooperation council” with Syria, Jordan and Lebanon to improve trade and visa issues. In the name of a “long-term strategic partnership,” the body would seek to create a zone of “free movement of goods and persons among our countries.” This is remarkable, considering the hostility that Ankara and Damascus had for each other in the 1990s, when Hafez al-Assad was actively supporting Kurdish insurgency in the Turkish east.

One of Erdogan’s most ambitious goals is to establish a free trade area and an agreement similar to Europe’s Schengen Visa, which would include the Middle East, the Persian Gulf region, and Turkey. Aligning Syria would be essential to this strategy. As Erdogan said in February, Syria is “an important door,” an essential trade corridor into Jordan and the Gulf.

The two governments have started holding regular meetings and intend to share the costs for a “friendship dam” at the border. More disturbing for the West is the recent report in Zaman that Turkish officers will train the Syrian Army. Turkey's Deputy Chief of General Staff Aslan Güner visited Damascus in December and the story emerged in late January, buried in the world press by the Egyptian revolt. Ironically, in 1998, the two nations nearly went to war over the Kurdish insurgency, and they were in different camps during the Cold War. But Ankara’s old nemesis has seen its economy atrophy. Like China has done with Burma or Cambodia, Turkey may use goodwill and vast trade linkages to pull the under-developed, neighboring economy into its economic orbit and influence. And this might even be in Syria’s political interest if the ensuing prosperity defuses the explosive sectarianism that lays latent in its polity.

A Jasmine revolution would be truly explosive for Damascus and its tiny Alawite leadership. --- It is clear that Erdogan and his AKP represents a new era in Middle Eastern politics. It has not been since Nasser’s early years that the Middle East has seen a Muslim leader so “visionary” in his agenda. Nasser’s vision was to transcend corrupt monarchy with “big man” politics, import substitution, and pan-Arabism abroad. All three suffered from romanticism and suffered immediately in their execution.

To transcend corrupt autocracy, Erdogan offers the Muslim world a vision of multi-party democracy, Islamic identity, and efficient capitalism at home; and robust free trade and international engagement abroad. His is a confident leadership. The set of methodological and operative principles the regime set out via Ahmet Davutoğlu in Foreign Policy last year was remarkable in its clarity and sophistication. It is globalization 2.0 “with a Muslim face.”

Last year, discussing Turkey, President Obama said, “The fact that it [Turkey] is a democracy and a country that is mostly Islamic makes it a critically important model for other Muslim countries of the region.” This conviction is shared by the Arab Street. A recent poll conducted in seven Arab nations and Iran by TESEV showed that 66 % of more than 2,200 respondents saw Turkey as a "successful blend of Islam and democracy."

As a way to institutionalize multi-party politics within an Arab/Islamic society, the Turkish Model should be followed. It will bring enfranchisement and a deep-seated stability to governance in the region. It is not per se a threat to the West, though it will challenge our existing prerogatives in the region.

The question now is whether the AKP overplays its own empowered hand. These are heady, fast times for its fleet-footed leadership. The main danger is that Ankara --to consolidate its own regional ascendancy-- goes too far as the “new protector” of Arab national interests and Iran. This will put it at loggerheads with the West and the Gulf States. In response to the Syrian Army training issue, Israel and Greece have just begun a military rapprochement, with proposals for cross-training and weapon purchases.

At present, Turkey’s above-board, value-neutral approach to exports and cooperation is effective. It outstretched hand to the Arab world is refreshing. But its real strength is that, at present, it carries the trust of two worlds and can act as a balanced interlocutor. When does Ankara’s self-professed “multidimensional” foreign policy get too complex or compromised for the West to trust? That question remains.