An “Arab Formula” for Turkey
WASHINGTON—The repeated protestations of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan notwithstanding, the demonstrations that have taken Turkey and the world by surprise over the past few days do look like an “Arab Spring.” From the flash mobilization through social media to the arrogant denial of facts by the country's embattled leader, Taksim Square does in fact look like Tahrir Square, and Erdoğan like Hosni Mubarak. The Turkish prime minister and his supporters are right to note several sharp differences between Turkey and the nations that experienced some form of the Arab Spring.
But the leaders of each of these nations — Egypt, Syria, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan, Morocco, and Iraq — also underlined how unique their respective cases were. Most rested comfortably in their convictions, only to see their troubles worsen. The recent events in Turkey are evidence that neither a well-rooted democratic process, nor sustained economic growth, in and of themselves, provide immunity against a disruptive uprising. While a “Turkish Model” was at times invoked as a solution to the malaise of the Arab world, the recent experience of the many Arab societies that had to tackle transformations offer the Turkish leadership an “Arab Formula” to consider. The Arab Spring has not always been realized. Even in Tunisia, the most successful, the transition to democracy from autocracy remains fragile and uncertain. In Egypt, autocracy is reinstating itself; in Libya, chaos rules; in Yemen, a failed state seems unable to contain centrifugal forces; in Syria, despotism has turned to quasi-genocidal brutality; in Bahrain, the absolute monarchy resists changes; and in Iraq, the leadership remains steeped in corruption and sectarianism. Those regimes that have sought to absorb, rather than defy, popular action — Jordan, Morocco, and Kuwait — have been more successful.
However, this wide spectrum of outcomes does not obscure the common denominator: paternalism has given way to the citizen. Commanding international attention, and magnified by social media, the citizen has been empowered, and his or her expression of protest is as disruptive as is its denial is repressive. The crackdown on protesters, and their denigration as extremists and provocateurs, is a counter-productive action that makes Erdoğan resemble a pre-Arab Spring leader. In Cairo, the prospect of former President Hosni Mubarak’s son being anointed as the next leader may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. It was an affront to Egyptians, denying them their voice, choice, and respect. The demand that echoed in Egypt and throughout the region was one of freedom and dignity, as much as one of social justice and democracy. Gezi Park, in Istanbul, was the Turkish straw. Erdoğan’s patronizing words and his attempts at regimentation — limiting public displays of affection and combating alcohol consumption — evidently went against the grain of his own society, as well as against the precedents set in the region. Undoubtedly, the Syrian regime and other equally malevolent forces have attempted to inject chaos into Turkey; Damascus may have been behind the lethal car bombing in Reyhaniye. But within Turkey, liberals, nationalists, and leftists have overcome their differences in the face of Erdoğan’s attempts at social and cultural engineering, and their collective mistrust of his party’s commitment to the values of the Republic. Turkey, not unlike its neighbors to the south, has drifted away from having a robust core national discourse.
Like its Arab counterparts, Turkey under Erdoğan must now take some important steps, investing in building trust, developing and reinforcing Turkey’s national narrative, accommodating dissent, protecting the dignity of the citizen and not the gravitas of the state, and accepting that the emerging notion of political leadership has to be revised away from cults of personality. As attested by their continuing troubles, most Arab regimes have been unable to adapt to the age of citizen sovereignty. Turkey is far better equipped to tackle these new realities, but it is up to Erdoğan to prove that it can.
Hassan Mneimneh is a Senior Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.