The dramatic toppling of dictatorships in the Middle East has launched a new era and a quest for democratic vision in the Muslim world. As the international community anxiously anticipates the outcomes of uprisings in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and the Gulf states, Turkey has maneuvered itself into the spotlight.
"If the world is on fire, Turkey is the firefighter," proclaimed Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in early April. "Turkey is assuming the leading role for stability in the Middle East." Touting Turkey's growing leadership on the chessboard of regional geopolitics and success in creating a model Muslim democracy, Ankara (and its growing number of fans in the Middle East) claims it can serve as a beacon to Arab countries in transition.
But the erosion of democratic freedoms at home calls into question Turkey's ultimate direction and raises concerns about a country that is becoming increasingly Islamist and gradually more powerful. With general elections slated for June 12, how this nation votes may say much about the future of democracy in the Muslim world.
With the exception of Bahrain-where a Shiite majority threatens to topple the Sunni monarchy-all of the Arab upheavals have been in countries with Sunni majorities, creating potential candidates for Turkey's Muslim-style democracy.
Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is closer to being a regional power than ever before. "I think something has changed with the revolutions in Arab countries and with the fall of dictatorships. The fact that political space is opening up in those countries and various Islamist parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood which has an ideological affinity to the AKP, are likely to come to power or shared power after elections take place in Tunisia and Egypt means that for the first time the AKP has soft power in Arab capitals."
Ankara has acted accordingly, sending a delegation led by Turkish President Abdullah Gul to Egypt on March 3 and initially opposing military intervention against Muammar Qaddafi's Libyan regime, delaying NATO involvement. Even before the Arab revolutions, Turkey was jockeying for regional prestige, forging alliances with Syria, Libya, and Iran while ties with Israel and the West decayed.
As Turkey is pursuing collaboration with Iran and other neighbors, competition is also driving Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's regional agenda. The 2010 Gaza flotilla incident, which resulted in the deaths of nine Turks, thrust Ankara into the leading role as anti-Israel instigator and garnered applause from al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. "Al-Qaeda's endorsement confirms Erdogan's push to be seen not merely as a leader of the Muslim world, but the leader," Hillel Fradkin and Lewis Libby argued in a recent World Affairs article. "While he had previously played merely a supportive role to Iran, with the flotilla affair Erdogan pressed Turkey's case."
But when it comes to Iran's controversial nuclear program, Turkey has sided with Tehran, refusing to endorse U.S.-sponsored sanctions against Iran. "There's something puzzling here," Cagaptay told me. "Turks should be taking issue with Iran's nukes because Turkey and Iran are two large post-imperial states in the Middle East sitting next to one another and they are historic rivals. If Iran gets a bomb, this historic parity between the two countries will be tilted in Iran's favor forever."
Iran has more natural resources but Turkey's economy-the second-fastest-growing economy in the world last year-is stronger than Iran's, and so is its conventional military. Turkey also enjoys more domestic and international support than Iran and is strategically located in both Europe and Asia. Add to this a unique blend of secularism and Islam and Turkey appears to be the inspirational model for post-revolutionary Arab countries.
Emerging leaders in both Tunisia's Islamist Ennahda movement and Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood have expressed an interest in using Turkey as a model for their own countries. Cagaptay is less optimistic: "I think the AKP's Turkey will be a false model. It doesn't lead or result in liberal democracy. It results in something less than that."
Since the rise to power of the Islamist AKP in 2002, Prime Minister Erdogan has cleverly and gradually tilted the country eastward, muzzled the press, and diminished the military's role as guardian of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's vision for a secular state.
The latest crackdown on media freedom has resulted in an international outcry. Dozens of journalists are currently in prison-among the highest numbers of jailed journalists in the world, according to Freedom House. Media outlets and political rivals are frequently wiretapped without court order, with authorities citing coup involvement but failing to provide any evidence.
In March, Turkish police arrested 13 journalists on charges of conspiring to overthrow the AKP through the alleged Ergenekon plot, and two of the country's top journalists, Nedim Sener and Ahmet Sik, were included in the arrests. Both journalists worked for media outlets critical of the AKP. U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Francis Ricciardone on April 13 strongly criticized the state of press freedom in Turkey (according to the Turkish daily Hurriyet), and Reporters Without Borders called the confiscation and destruction of Sik's unpublished book "a very dangerous precedent."
A constitutional referendum that passed last September enlarged Erdogan's power and diminished the military's control over its own membership. Cagaptay says the next step could be a complete rewriting of the nation's constitution. If the AKP emerges from the June elections with two-thirds representation in the parliament, a new constitution (which is already being discussed) can be drafted without seeking consensus. Close to 55 percent of Turks do not support the AKP and its Islamist policies but, because of the country's multi-party system, the AKP only needs 45 percent of the vote to win a two-thirds majority in the Parliament.
A primary concern in post-revolutionary Arab countries is the prospect of Islamist parties coming to power and eroding democratic freedoms. During his term as mayor of Istanbul, Erdogan proclaimed the following: "Democracy is like a streetcar. You ride it until you get to your destination and then you get off."
Turkey still has a chance to redirect its current course, but it may not be the shining example of a Muslim democracy after all. And with regional ambitions largely unchecked, it could be a force to be reckoned with in years to come.