The uprisings of 2011 have transformed the Arab world. Long-standing regimes – such as those in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya – have fallen or been radically transformed; elsewhere countries like Yemen, Bahrain and Syria face profound domestic challenges.  For non-Arab regional actors the impact of these events is less clear. The Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are at a standstill, Israel is more preoccupied with Iran than the Arab world and for its part Iran’s regional equilibrium has been severely impacted as events in Syria have altered the relative positions of its key allies. Whereas Turkey seemed at the heart of events in the region a year earlier,[i] the events of 2011 have returned the Arab world to centrality, potentially returning Turkey to the periphery. Yet, as a consequence of Turkey’s earlier policy of renewed engagement, the country continues to influence the trajectory of events, although less directly.

Against the backdrop of Turkey’s recently acquired higher profile in the Middle East, the country’s relevance to the course of the Arab uprisings has at least two dimensions. First, Turkey has been identified both locally and internationally as a potential paradigm for democratic change in the Arab world. In particular, the capacity of the Turkish political system to conduct democratic elections with the participation of a moderately Islamist political party has occasioned renewed interest in the country as a potentially viable local model for democratization.

Second, as a regional actor in its own right, Turkey is actively developing new policies—sometimes at odds with its Western allies. The much touted Turkish policy of “zero problems” in the region, its efforts to create a free trade zone with Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, and even its increasingly strained relationship with Israel have all required adaptation over the course of 2011. In this short essay, I examine both dimensions of Turkey’s role—the potential influence of the model represented by the domestic Turkish political balance, and the country’s response to a changing Arab context.

Turkey as Model

The core agenda of popular uprisings across the region have been demands for political freedom, accountability, anti-corruption and economic justice. The popular view of Turkey in the region is that its record on some of these issues is better than much of the Arab world. What is less clearly understood, however, is the long process of staggered progress towards democratization – replete with repression and reversal – that has produced the contemporary (contingent) Turkish political balance. This process entailed decades of constitutional crises yielding military coups, a low-level civil war in the southeast and the brutal introduction of neoliberal economic policies, in the midst of a financial crisis, that impoverished large swathes of the Turkish public. Although these tribulations gave way to economic growth, yawning social inequality and continued ethnic and social cleavages have accompanied the recovery.

Western analysts’ invocations of Turkey are premised on the view that “the Turkish model shows the possibility of Islamist empowerment without Islamist dictatorship.”[ii] In fact, resorting to Turkey as a model for moderating political Islamism is largely a continuation of earlier disingenuous attempts to offset popular preferences in the Arab world deemed adverse to Western interests. The agenda of using Turkey as a model for counter-revolution is at odds with Turkey’s own posture of supporting public demands for democratic change. Also, the Western view that the Turkish model may contain political Islamism is distinct from, and perhaps even counter to, the goals of regional reformists looking to Turkey for inspiration. Further, both regional and Western advocates of the Turkish example overlook important aspects—and limitations—of the model they cite.

One of the lessons that may offer some important insights—rather than a model to implement—for Arab reformers is that Turkey has only recently begun to establish civilian control over the military, some six decades after its transition to multi-party democratic elections.[iii]The deeply problematic role of the Turkish military in the republic’s history, and the difficulty in establishing civilian control, may be a relevant comparison point, for instance, in evaluating the prospects for completing Egypt’s transition under the guidance of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.[iv] Even as civilian control over the Turkish military is being realized, political power remains concentrated in an overweening executive that relies heavily on police control.

The risks associated with a “model” for transition, and more specifically, one that relies heavily on the concentration of power in the executive, include the possibility that one authoritarian structure will simply replace another. Beyond the convening of elections, Egypt’s army council has been tasked with guarding against electoral outcomes that would destabilize regional arrangements favoring Egypt’s Western allies and the internal elites that benefit from the status quo.[v] For such an arrangement, Turkey may indeed serve as a model, but hardly one that favors democratization. The celebration of the role of the Egyptian military in overseeing the transition may well devolve into the consolidation of post-Mubarak authoritarianism; the Turkish experience suggests that democratic consolidation requires greater civilian control over the military than is currently the case in Egypt.

A similar lesson may be drawn from the Turkish experience when considering the demands for economic justice that have been given voice in the Arab uprisings. Turkey’s contemporary commitment to free market neoliberalism is hardly responsive to calls for a more egalitarian and welfare-oriented economic system.[vi] For instance, far from being attentive to the demands of organized labor, the current AKP-led Turkish government has taken measures to crackdown on labor protests.[vii] Yet labor movements have been instrumental to organizing the demonstrations that have fueled the Arab Uprisings in Egypt and beyond.[viii] These same movements might be suffocated should the Turkish model of blending democracy, Islam and capitalism be embraced.[ix]

Another reason to think that the Turkish example may be less attractive than expected is the country’s record on free speech. Interestingly, Turkey is routinely criticized for its draconian speech restrictions even as it is being vaunted as a model for the Arab world.[x] Turkey’s failings with respect to free speech are numerous. Whether for prosecuting literary figures for “insulting Turkishness,” cracking down on the Doğan media group for publishing newspaper articles critical of the government, imprisoning publishers for producing Kurdish language materials, arresting independent journalists as part of an expansive investigation into alleged coup-plotting or, most recently, introducing far-reaching restrictions on access to the internet, Turkey has distinguished itself among democracies for stifling free speech.[xi] This shameful record runs directly counter to the new freedoms of the Arab public sphere, particularly through online and satellite media. Indeed, the Turkish example offers the important lesson that a seemingly robust electoral system can coexist with censorship and the stifling of political dissent in ways that should be deeply troubling to Arab reformers.

In addition to concerns about the “Turkish model” related to executive power, civilian control over the military, the uncritical embrace of neoliberal economic policies and restrictions on free speech, there is another set of important considerations that are often overlooked when Turkey is invoked as a model. By contrast, Turkey’s transformation under the AKP has not been the kind of radical social overhaul being sought in the Arab world. Although the last decade has seen a winding down of the destructive and pointless low-grade civil war fought by the Turkish government against the Kurdish population of the southeast, overt discrimination against both ethnic and religious minorities—such as the Kurds and the Alevis—persists.[xii] Further, even as the militarization of the Kurdish question in Turkey has been attenuated, the establishment of extraordinary powers under the pretext of counterterrorism just produced a civilian equivalent, yielding, once again, the detention of activists, journalists and politicians who advocate Kurdish rights.[xiii] Indeed, the practical sense of disenfranchisement experienced by Turkey’s minorities may leave them inclined to pursue an uprising and “spring” of their own.

In short, though the AKP has presided over a period of relative economic and political stability, it has not resulted in the kinds of social transformation that Arab publics now demand. Further, Turkey has reaped the advantages of being a long-time U.S. client state and a trade partner in a customs union with Europe. These relationships put the country in a stronger position with respect to the global financial order than most of its Arab counterparts outside of the Gulf. Despite the fact that Turkey has recently exhibited greater autonomy from Washington—a contributing factor to the willingness of Arab publics to look to the “new” Turkey as a model—the country’s erstwhile privileged relationship to the West was a key factor in attaining its current status as a regional player. In the final analysis, the Turkish case may reflect more of a cautionary tale than a model for the Arab uprisings.

Turkey as Regional Actor

As a regional actor, Ankara is likelier to influence events through the policies it pursues than by the example it sets. This is especially true as a result of Turkey’s increasingly proactive engagement with the Arab world beginning well before the events of 2011. Formally part of foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s “zero problems” foreign policy,[xiv] Ankara’s renewed interest in forging constructive ties with its Middle Eastern neighbors was a much-needed corrective to its earlier isolationism. But the Arab uprisings pose both a challenge and an opportunity to a Turkish strategy that had been premised on rapprochement with the very regimes now facing protests.

The overall trajectory of Turkish policy towards the Arab uprisings has been centered on four principles: the support of popular demands for political and economic reform; the condemnation of regime violence; a preference for non-violent, negotiated transitions; and last, the rejection of external military intervention. In keeping with this trajectory, the initial Turkish response to the spread of demonstrations across the region was supportive of the uprisings. Turkey’s steadfast support for Egyptian protesters, for instance, went so far as to irk Western allies.[xv] Of course, the Turkish prime minister’s demand—ahead of other world leaders—that Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak step down may have reflected, in part, the country’s regional rivalry with Egypt for influence in the Levant.[xvi] However, it was also consistent with Ankara’s broader policy in favor of non-violent democratic opposition movements elsewhere in the region.

In the context of the Arab uprisings, Turkey’s reinterpretation of its “zero problems” posture has been to shift the focus from building alliances with neighboring Arab regimes, to seeking good relations with both the people and the regimes of the region. For instance, in Turkey’s evolving relations with Egypt and Tunisia, Ankara has sought to identify particular factions within each country to engage with beyond the transitional governments now in place.[xvii] Elsewhere, however, developments have demonstrated the limits of Turkey’s leverage over erstwhile regional allies. Turkey’s relatively positive relations with countries like Libya and Syria left the country wrong-footed as these regimes violently cracked down on domestic opponents. Although Turkey maintained its stance of supporting indigenous protest movements in 2011—including those against the Qaddafi and Assad regimes—initially, it was more cautious in issuing public demands for authoritarian leaders to step down. Fears of the destabilizing consequences of intervention, along with the conviction that military force rarely serves humanitarian ends, fueled this cautious approach. On the other hand, the much more aggressive posture that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan took towards the Syrian regime beginning in the latter half of 2011 suggests that the caution initially exhibited in the Libyan case may have now been sidelined.[xviii]

Much of Turkey’s influence in the Arab world has been premised on soft power – particularly its ability to build on long-standing cultural ties to develop trade and investment relationships with neighbouring states. The question that the Arab uprisings pose is whether such influence remains viable or pertinent under the current conditions of regional upheaval. In response to this question, were Turkey to successfully move beyond trade and regional diplomacy to a politics of soft power centered on democracy, human rights and the rule of law, its influence might even be enhanced. But in the past decade, the strategy of building positive relations based on economic cooperation with previously hostile regimes meant downplaying these values, or at most advancing them indirectly. Davutoğlu’s reasoning was that economic integration would create the conditions for peace and stability in the Middle East, from which political reform would follow.[xix] The Arab uprisings have inverted such arguments concerning the sequencing of reforms, by placing the political reforms ahead of economic ones.

Conclusion: A Turkish Fall in the Arab Spring?

Some Western and Arab analysts have concluded that the Arab uprisings signal the decline of Turkish influence in the region. They argue that Turkey’s “neo-Ottoman” approach to the region has fallen victim to the changes driven by Arab publics rather than non-Arab regional actors. In response to the protest movements across the region, such critics argue, Turkish diplomacy has been “downright clumsy.”[xx] They accuse Turkey of having invested in its relationship not with the people of these countries “but with brutal leaders such as Bashar al-Assad and Muammar al-Qaddafi.”[xxi]

Most of these claims overlook Turkey’s humanitarian and diplomatic support to both Libyan and Syrian civil society, whether in the form of hosting opposition meetings or sheltering refugees and providing humanitarian aid. In truth, Turkey’s objections to internationalizing the Libyan conflict, and its current posture towards Syria, reflect an initially anti-interventionist stance that has given way to an increasing appetite for more direct forms of protection for civilians. Although this approach did not always sit well with regional and external actors who immediately favored the isolation and ouster of these regimes—or even with those who would prefer restabilizing autocratic rule—the trajectory taken by Turkish policy has been consistent with the country’s objectives to use soft power to promote both reform and stability in the region. Once that approach was visibly exhausted, as in Syria, Turkey has joined – and at times even led – the regional approach to pressure the Assad regime more directly through isolation, sanctions and perhaps ultimately other forms of pressure.

The containment strategy that the U.S. and Saudi favor[xxii]—evidenced by support of counter-revolution in Bahrain and Yemen, intervention in Libya, the rejection of Palestinian reconciliation and muted confrontation in Syria—suggests that Turkey’s approach will in some instances remain at odds with one of its most important allies. But even as the desirability of Turkey’s role in the region diminishes from the American perspective (and this, too, experiences reversals, as with U.S. support for Turkey’s Syria policy), it has been enhanced elsewhere in the region. The Turkish honeymoon with the Arab world was first apparent following Erdoğan’s 2009 denunciation of the Israeli attack on Gaza,[xxiii] and it was cemented by Ankara’s tacit support for a humanitarian challenge to the blockade of Gaza a year later.[xxiv] For a period of time, opinion surveys in the Arab world consistently ranked Erdoğan as one of the region’s most popular leaders.[xxv] Turkey’s position on Syria has had a more distinctly sectarian appearance, occasioning ambivalence in the region— a departure from this earlier popularity, but not necessarily a reversal.

In the long run, Turkey’s interests lie in forging relations with legitimate and stable governments that enjoy indigenous support and are responsive to the democratic aspirations of their people. Turkey may not represent a model that Arab protesters should follow in crafting their own democratic transitions, but it may prove a valuable ally for the post-authoritarian regimes that will hopefully emerge from the Arab uprisings.


*A longer version of this article appears as: “A Turkish Model for the Arab Spring?” 3 Middle East L. & Governance (2011): 24-42.


[i] Turkey emerged as a serious and engaged regional actor in the Middle East beginning with its outreach to its neighbours in Syria, northern Iraqi Kurdistan and Iran. See David Phillips, “Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan Are Strategic Partners,” The Atlantic Council, 27 June 2009, (accessed April 19, 2012); on the development of a free trade zone initiated by Turkey between itself and Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, see “Turkey agrees to plans for Arab ‘free trade zone’,” BBC, 10 June 2010, (accessed April 19, 2012). On Turkey’s engagement with Iran over its nuclear program, see Gul Tuysuz, “Turkey to host Iranian nuclear talks,” Washington Post, 21 January 2011, (accessed April 19, 2012). Turkey’s initiatives with Israel were somewhat less successful: Yigal Schleifer, “Turkey aims for clout as regional mediator,” Christian Science Monitor, 6 May 2008, (accessed April 19, 2012); and Alastair Crooke, “After the Israeli flotilla incident, Turkey is the new Palestinian champion,” Christian Science Monitor, 3 June 2010, (accessed April 19, 2012).

[ii] Cihan Tugal, “Egypt’s Path Could be Distinct from Turkey’s and Iran’s,” Jadaliyya, February  21, 2011, (accessed April 19, 2012).

[iii] One of the more disturbing corollaries to invocations of the Turkish model in Egypt has been the apparent approbation with which Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) regards the role that the Turkish military long arrogated to itself of “guardian” of the secular and democratic character of the republic. Such guardianship witnessed a series of military coups and periods of military rule – both illiberal and undemocratic – in the last five decades and only now is the Turkish polity beginning to establish genuine civilian control of government. The suggestion that the SCAF approves of the Turkish model, when viewed in this light, is particularly ominous.

[iv] On the role of Egypt’s army council in first promising and then impeding democratic transition, see Jason Brownlee, “Egypt’s Incomplete Revolution: The Challenge of Post-Mubarak Authoritarianism,” Jadaliyya, July 5, 2011, (accessed April 19, 2012).

[v] “Egypt tells Israel it is committed to the peace accord,” Reuters/Al-Masry Al-Youm, March 25, 2011, (accessed April 19, 2012).

[vi] Turkey’s two economic “recoveries”—following the military coup in 1980 and then the country’s financial crisis in 2000—were presided over by former World Bank officials Turgut Özal and Kemal Derviş respectively. For a detailed discussion of Turkey’s neoliberal economic policies, see Roy Karadag, Neoliberal Restructuring in Turkey: From State to Oligarchic Capitalism (Munich: Max Planck Institute, 2010).

[vii] A well-known example was the 2008 crackdown on May Day protests in Taksim Square. “Turkish police break up Istanbul May Day protests,” Reuters, May 1, 2008, (accessed on April 19, 2012).

[viii] On the importance of organized labour in Egypt to the anti-Mubarak protests, see Joel Beinin, “Striking Egyptian Workers Fuel the Uprising After 10 Years of Labor Organizing,” Democracy Now, February 10, 2011, (accessed on April 19, 2012).

[ix] On the demands for social justice and economic reform associated with the Arab Spring, see Dag Detter and Steffen Hertog, “A new social contract,” Foreign Policy Online, May 4, 2011, (accessed on April 19, 2012).

[x] See, for instance, “EU concerned at detention of Turkish journalists,” Reuters,  March 4, 2011, (accessed on April 19, 2012) .

[xi] For one sample of reports documenting the various aspects of Turkish repression of free speech, see “Turkish Troubles: Freedom of Expression Endangered in Turkey,” Amnesty International, April  14, 2011, (accessed on April 19, 2012) . On the recent internet restrictions, see “Internet activist group warns Turkish government about censorship,” Hürriyet Daily News, June 7, 2011 ; and “Turkish Internet Bans Dismay EU Advocates,” Radio Free Europe, 30 June 2011, (accessed on  April 19, 2012).

[xii] For reports on tensions faced by the Alevi and Kurdish communities in Turkey, see Dorian Jones, “Sunni-Alevi Relationship Remains Contentious in Turkey,” Voice of America, May 19, 2010, (accessed on April 19, 2012); and Meline Toumani, “Minority Rules,” New York Times Magazine, February 17, 2008 on April 19, 2012).

[xiii] See Ivan Watson and Yesim Comert, “Turkey arrests journalists in alleged terror plot,” CNN, December 20, 2011;  Sebnem Arsu and Dan Bilefsky, “Turkey Detains Dozens Accused of Having Links to Kurdish Separatist Group,” New York Times, December 20, 2011; and Emma Sinclair-Webb, “Turkey’s human rights challenges,” L.A. Times, December 19, 2011.

[xiv] For the foreign minister’s own discussion of this policy, see Ahmet Davutoğlu, “Turkey’s Zero-Problems Foreign Policy,” Foreign Policy Online, May 20, 2010, on April 19, 2012) .

[xv] Pressure on Turkey to back off calls for Mubarak’s resignation eventually led Erdoğan to fall in line with the U.S.-led policy on Egyptian protests—calling for “orderly transition” at the Munich security conference.

[xvi] This rivalry was perhaps clearest from 2008 to 2010 when the two countries vied for the position of privileged mediator in talks between Arab states and Israel as well as between the two Palestinian factions. For an example of jockeying between the two countries, see “Egypt urges Turkey to ease tensions with Israel,” Al-Masry Al-Youm (Egypt), July 21, 2010, (accessed on April 19, 2012) .

[xvii] For a discussion of Turkey’s outreach to businessmen and other groups during the transitional phase in Egypt and Tunisia, see Susanne Güsten, “Mandate for a New Turkish Era,” New York Times, June 15, 2011, (accessed on April 19, 2012).

[xviii] Steve Bryant, “Erdogan Says Assad Must Quit to End Syria ‘Persecution’,” Businessweek, 23 November 2011.

[xix] Davutoğlu’s rationale was based in part on the model of the European Union as a successful example of economic cooperation yielding political stability. “Turkey, Arab neighbors gear up for Mideast free trade zone,” Today’s Zaman, September 27, 2010, (accessed on April 19, 2012).

[xx] Steven A. Cook, “Arab Spring, Turkish Fall,” Foreign Policy Online, May 5, 2011, (accessed on April 19, 2012).

[xxi] Firas Maksad and Soner Cagaptay, “Uncomfortable Ottomans: Turkey’s newly assertive foreign policy strains to keep up with the Arab Spring,” Foreign Policy Online, June 8, 2011, (accessed on April 19, 2012).

[xxii] For a clear statement of the advantages of such a policy from the U.S. and Israeli perspectives, see Ted Koppel, “The Arab Spring and U.S. Policy: The View from Jerusalem,” Wall Street Journal, April 29, 2011.

[xxiii] Katrin Beinhold, “Leaders of Turkey and Israel Clash at Davos Panel,” New York Times, January 29, 2009, (accessed on April 19, 2012).

[xxiv] Isabel Kershner, “Deadly Israeli Raid Draws Condemnation,” New York Times, May 31, 2010, (accesssed on April 19, 2012).

[xxv] For instance, the 2010 Arab Public Opinion Poll Erdoğan was identified as the world leader (outside of their own country) that was most admired by respondents. See The Brookings Institution, 2010 Arab Public Opinion Poll (Washington: Brookings, 2010). The full results of the poll are available online at: (accessed on April 19, 2012).


Read more like this in Muftah's Weekend Reads newsletter.

Advertisement Advertise on Muftah.