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Policy struggles to keep up with rush of events 22 novembre 2011

Posted by Acturca in Middle East / Moyen Orient, Turkey / Turquie.
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Financial Times (UK) November 22, 2011, p. 1-2
Special Report: Investing in Turkey

By Tony Barber

Unrest among its Arab neighbours has forced change

After three consecutive election victories, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, towers over the domestic political stage.

However, it is foreign policy that has seen the biggest changes since his Justice and Development party (AKP) came to power in 2002.

The balance has shifted from a westward focus on its relationship with the US and Nato membership, and application to the European Union. Mr Erdogan has attempted to position his country as a « geostrategic » bridge between the US and its European allies on the one hand and its neighbours, including Arab countries, on the other.

He articulated a « zero problems with neighbours » policy and attempted to engage with the immediate region.

This year’s epoch-making social and political unrest in the Middle East and north Africa appears, at first sight, to have boosted the standing of Turkey, the AKP, and Mr Erdogan personally.

As a maturing democracy and flourishing market economy with rising levels of prosperity, the country embodies the aspirations of the revolutionaries who swept ageing autocrats from power in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and of those who hope to repeat their feats in Syria and further afield.

As a successful political party with Islamic roots that mixes a pro-business philosophy with a concern for social welfare, the AKP is in principle an attractive example to learn from.

Turkey is the region’s only fast-growing non-oil economy, an achievement for which the AKP takes much credit.

As for Mr Erdogan, he has won popularity in Arab countries for adopting an increasingly tough line against Israel, with which Turkey once enjoyed a close military and intelligence relationship.

As the country seeks to exploit trade and investment opportunities across the region, supporters of Mr Erdogan’s ambitious foreign policy find it necessary at times to defend the AKP against charges of « neoOttomanism » – a supposed attempt to restore Turkish influence over an area where the Ottoman Empire once held sway from Algiers to Mecca.

« Turkey didn’t start the Arab spring, » says one government official. « But now the whole strategic environment is evolving. All along our southern belt our neighbours’ internal situations are changing fast. »

The challenges that these changes present for Turkish foreign policy are more formidable than is sometimes appreciated.

True, large numbers of the Arab spring revolutionaries are instinctively more sympathetic to Turkish-style political and economic modernisation than to Saudi religious conservatism or the turbulent theocratic experiment in Iran.

But this does not mean that Turkey serves them as a model in all respects, nor that they wish for it to assume regional primacy.

The limits of Turkey’s influence became apparent when Mr Erdogan visited

Egypt in September and discovered that the country’s interim military leaders were far from comfortable with the combative antiIsrael rhetoric of his public speeches.

As the Arab world’s most populous state, and a country that has been at peace with Israel for more than 30 years, Egypt has its own ideas about reshaping the region’s political and diplomatic landscape and has no desire to cede its role to Turkey.

At the same time, Egypt’s Islamist opposition, like those in other Arab states, do not see eye to eye with Mr Erdogan on all aspects of Islam’s place in public life.

As Turkey’s parliament, under AKP guidance, embarks on an effort to revise the constitution but to retain its secular character, Islamists elsewhere are demanding references to Islam and sharia – Islamic law – in their own constitutions.

However, Mr Erdogan’s advocacy in Egypt of secular Muslim democracy was not popular.

Similar pitfalls lie in the path of Turkey’s attempt to encourage reform in Syria.

Mr Erdogan once went out of his way to cultivate Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president, even convening joint cabinet meetings of the two countries.

But the Syrian regime’s bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators has prompted a volte-face in Turkey.

It now plays host to a re-volutionary Syrian National Council in exile, whose various factions – from liberals and Islamists to representatives of Syria’s religious and ethnic minorities – aim to overthrow Mr Assad in six months.

However, in other quarters, Turkey’s support for change in Syria has gone down badly, not only with the Assad regime but with Iran, Syria’s ally.

Commentators in Ankara and Istanbul voice the suspicion that Syria, or Iran, or both, may have been behind a recent upsurge in attacks on Turkish targets by the PKK, the outlawed separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party.

Turkey has responded by launching a military incursion in northern Iraq. However, its armed forces have conducted such operations on several occasions since the PKK launched its armed struggle in 1984.

A move across the Syrian border, however limited, would cross a red line for Arab states that firmly oppose a Turkish military presence on Arab soil.

The entanglement of the Kurdish issue in Turkey’s foreign relations illustrates how events have overtaken the AKP’s vision of a « zero problems with neighbours ».

The neighbourhood seethes, in fact, with troubles that are likely to occupy Mr Erdogan’s attention as much as problems on the domestic front.


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