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Turkey’s slowed ascendance 14 mai 2009

Posted by Acturca in Middle East / Moyen Orient, Turkey / Turquie.
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Al-Ahram Weekly (Egypt), 14-20 May 2009, Issue No. 947

Abdel-Moneim Said *

While it has leapt forward since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Turkey’s regional role and place in the developed world is jeopardised by protracted political weaknesses, writes Abdel-Moneim Said.

The Middle East and the Arab region at its core are only ever home to great and sweeping projects. Talk of the Israeli enterprise and the « Zionist era » is endless. The American century and its project for the region remain good for all seasons, and today Iran’s grand regional power ambitions have many people very worried. As though this were not enough, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s foreign policy vision for reviving Turkey’s erstwhile influence in the Middle East has been dubbed « neo-Ottomanism ». At times the term sends shivers down the spine; at others it casts one into a reverie of fond reminiscence. But the past does not repeat itself. With the passage of time comes change. For those who want to move into and in the future it is important to keep track of events and to keep a vigilant eye on the dangers and opportunities arising from the actions of political forces and nations.

Today our subject is Turkey that has recently become the focus of numerous forums on Ankara’s « Middle Eastern role ». The topic is inevitably associated with the decline in the Arab role and, particularly, the roles of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, in the discussions of which one occasionally detects alongside the general dismay more than a hint of schadenfreude. But there are other takes on the situation. Some are rather enthusiastic about the prospect of an Ottoman revival. Among the enthusiasts are members of Islamist circles who would like nothing better than to close their eyes and then open them to find a resurrected Islamic caliphate. Eagerness is also to be found among Arab nationalists who yearn for the rise of a regional power strong enough to take on Israel or Iran, depending on their vantage point. If you happen to be an Arab from the Levant you would undoubtedly still feel the thrill of the scene in Davos a month ago when Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan walked off stage during a panel discussion in protest against not having been given sufficient time to register his criticisms of Israeli actions in Gaza. If you happen to be from one of the Gulf countries you probably see in Turkey a Sunni power capable of countering Shia Iran (there are certain bonds of kinship between Islamist and Arab nationalist schools).

Nevertheless, regardless of one’s perspective one cannot help but to perceive a growing Turkish presence in the Arab region. Moreover, the statements and actions emanating from Ankara offer advocates of every outlook some evidence to support their views. Of course, as is always the case, we find no small degree of hyperbole. Some seem to think that Turkey has become a chief party in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Others believe that Turkey has doffed its Western garb and become one of us, and that what goes for us goes for them. This can lead to some remarkable feats of compartmentalisation, incredible blind spots and glaring inconsistencies. For example, in their rapture at the Turkish role they have no problem whatsoever with Ankara’s close ties with Washington by virtue of Turkey’s NATO membership and with the fact that Turkish territory is the site of the most important US military bases from which US warplanes take off in our direction. But whereas such realities are forgiven when it comes to Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are heaped with scorn and censure for their relations with the US. The same critics turn another blind eye to Turkey’s relations with Israel, which are very extensive and cover the full gamut of cultural, commercial, touristic, military, security and strategic affairs. Yet what righteous indignation those critics feel and what pious fury pours from their mouths when an Israeli musician noted for his outspoken support for Palestinian rights visits Cairo.

Yet, such comparisons aside, it is important to discuss the Turkish role. Perhaps we should take as our starting point developments in Turkey itself related to the contradiction between the stability of secularism and the civil state and the strategic choice of attachment to the Western world, on the one hand, and the presence of a powerful and domineering military establishment on the other. This contradiction gradually began to subside since the outset of the 1980s in tandem with the expansion of the Turkish middle class as a consequence of Turkish capitalist accumulation in the 1970s (a large part of which stemmed from major construction contracts in the Gulf at that time). Under the leadership of such figures as Sèleyman Demirel, Turgut …zal and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey underwent a substantial economic transformation that ushered it into the foremost ranks of emerging industrial nations. It simultaneously underwent a political transformation that effectively reduced the control of the military establishment while elevating the efficacy of the Supreme Constitutional Court, and that successfully marginalised extremist Islamist forces, which withdrew into fringe parties and societies, as moderate and democratic forces in the Justice and Development Party moved to the fore to create the core of the democratic Islamist parties. Without a doubt, Turkey’s commitment to fulfil the requirements for EU membership provided a powerful impetus to the transformation at all levels. Indeed, Europe’s wavering on Turkey’s accession only strengthened the determination of the Turkish political elites to make Turkey a de facto part of the European order, even if official approval is delayed.

This internal development enabled Turkey to respond effectively to major changes on the international scene. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Turkey faced both threats and opportunities. On the one hand, it feared that it would lose its strategic importance to the West now that the communist enemy had been put to rest. On the other, it had before it the vista of the « Turkic world » in the newly independent Central Asian republics with many of which Turkey shares historical, cultural and linguistic bonds. In addition, Turkey’s military and economic capacities, which had formerly been allocated for use against the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact, were now freed for other purposes. Such developments were sufficient to give Turkey a greater scope for movement in the Middle East, especially in those areas most closely connected to Turkey’s strategic needs, such as Iraq, Gulf petroleum, and the Levant with which it is connected by common borders and historical ties and in which are to be found sources of anxiety and of opportunity. Such assets Turkey accumulated and wielded towards the realisation of its greater goal, catching up with the West through such avenues as its membership in NATO, in the European Council, in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, and in the G20, as well as its special tie with the EU, in which Turkey’s full membership is only a matter of time.

But Turkey does not just use its Middle Eastern and Central Asian assets in Europe. It simultaneously uses its Western assets in the Middle East. Its relations with the US, Europe and Israel are one of the instruments that give it extensive flexibility and immense communicative power and, indeed, intelligence resources that further enhance its political and diplomatic movements in the region. Indeed, the Turkish resurgence is no quirk of fate. It is the product of a systematic process aiming to furnish Turkey with the assets and resources that would not only enable it to perform a regional role but also to transform that role into an additional prop for Turkish development in order to ultimately leverage Turkey out of the underdeveloped Middle East and into advanced industrialised Europe.

However, in spite of its massive efforts, there remain a number of weak points that continue to jeopardise Turkey’s prospects of catching up with the developed world. First, its refusal to acknowledge the full dimensions of the Kurdish problem continues to sap it politically, diplomatically and even militarily. Second, the sharp disparity between the developed western part of the country and the underdeveloped eastern Anatolia keeps Turkey closer to the developing world than to the developed world. It has further given rise to disturbing movements in the western part of the nation among those keen to distance themselves from — and escape — the fate of the undeveloped easterners. The members of these movements are not especially keen on Turkey’s closer involvement in the Middle East for fear it will drag it down into the dark and backward worlds that Turkey had consigned to the past. Third, although the military establishment has receded somewhat it remains an influential and powerful force in civic affairs, which runs counter to contemporary European traditions. Finally, the Cyprus question remains a major obstacle to Turkish accession to the EU. Such factors place certain limitations on the Turkish role and cannot be ignored in calculations of regional balances of power.

* The writer is director of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.


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