Can Turkey Serve as a Model for the Middle East and North Africa?

By BARIN KAYAOĞLU

February 24, 2011

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First it was Tunisia and Egypt. Now it’s Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and everything in between.

As popular revolutions spread across the Middle East and North Africa, politicians and media people in Turkey seem to have reached a consensus that Turkey should lead the region. While Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s nostalgia for the Ottoman Empire is well-known, the opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu expressed the region’s need for a “Mustafa Kemal.”

But both Turkey and other Middle Eastern countries need more than optimism and nostalgia.

Political leaders and Ottoman enthusiasts in Turkey should bear in mind that the Ottoman system had worked well until the moment it didn’t. From the Skull Tower in Serbia to the forced immigrations of Balkan Muslims into Anatolia and the forced deportation of Armenians in 1915, the collapse of Pax Ottomana (Ottoman peace) left many people in the region with tragic memories. Overall, those tragedies came about because the Ottoman Empire had failed to build representative political institutions and a free market economy to counter ethnic separatism.

The Ottoman Empire’s collapse at the end of World War I left a deep political vacuum in the Balkans and the Middle East-North Africa. And neither European colonialism nor the imposition of national boundaries after 1918 managed to create democratic, peaceful, and prosperous countries in those regions. On the contrary, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the wars in former Yugoslavia, and dictatorships in the Middle East and North Africa dominated the scene until now.

Fortunately, the European Union has managed to move the Balkans forward (with the exception of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which is another story). So it’s a question of whether Turkey can help to move the Middle East and North Africa forward.

The answer is both yes and no. For one thing, Turkey has many things to improve –especially its democracy and economy. A country where a media group suffers exorbitant tax fines after criticizing the prime minister, where the prime minister and not couples decide how many children they’re going to have, where the prime minister and not the free market knows who’s going to build a new petrochemical complex, and where deep socioeconomic injustices still prevail, will have serious trouble appealing to other Middle Eastern countries for the simple reason that those countries already have all that. Tunisians, Egyptians, Algerians, Libyans, Yemenis, Jordanians, Iranians, and Bahrainis do not need a political-economic system where their leaders tell them how to lead their lives and keep them poor. They already have that.

But that’s not to say that Turkey doesn’t have anything to offer. Quite the contrary: Despite its shortcomings, Turkey’s ability to maintain a reasonably democratic and secular system in a Muslim-majority country shows that Islam does not preclude democratic or good governance. In the post-September 11 world, that fact can inspire burgeoning political movements in other Muslim countries and weaken non-Muslims’ prejudices against the Muslim world. Moreover, although reviving the Ottoman Empire is a potentially hurtful idea, Ankara’s grand strategy to create a free trade and cooperation zone covering the Balkans, the Middle East, North Africa, the Caucasus, and even Central Asia can ease – if not completely end – a lot of tensions in this part of the world.

But if Turkey wants to lead that project, it has to lead by example. On the political front, Turkey has to adopt a new constitution that protects citizens from the state (not vice versa) and establishes a genuinely democratic order. In other words, no more restrictions on free speech so long as it doesn’t advocate violence; no more persecuting those who have their own ideas about the Armenian deportations of 1915; no more denying education to women in headscarves; no more arbitrary arrest of military officers and journalists on flimsy grounds; and no more mayors going to prison for reciting a poem in public.

On the economic front, the Turkish state should lower the exorbitantly high taxes on gasoline, food, and services, which punish the lower and middle classes, and shift the tax burden to the upper class. It should take the necessary legal steps to combat corruption and improve standards for doing business in order to attract potential investors. Most important, the Turkish state should make health services and public education free for the needy – not just in theory but also in practice (as opposed to the current situation where even poor people have to pay for “public” health and “public” education) so as to maintain a well-trained and healthy workforce. In other words, a state overseeing the workings of the free market rather than commanding them; a business environment where success is determined not by access to politicians but by managerial competence; and a much better position on the United Nation’s Human Development Index rankings (Turkey’s current standing is 83rd out of 169 – behind many of the countries it’s trying to serve as a “model”).

Turkey can support its activist foreign policy with genuine domestic reform much more successfully. Raising the standards of living for the people of Turkey is even more important than saying nice things to the peoples of the region and their leaders. If the AKP government and the opposition are sincere about Turkey serving as a model for the Middle East and North Africa, they should put their house in order first.

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can also follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).

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