Turkey: Between Ottomanism and Erdoganism in the MENA Region?

18/10/2013 15:26 | Updated 23 January 2014

It is almost three years now that the world has been watching with some measure of awe the uprisings that have taken hold of parts of the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region. Many observers have described those movements as revolutions whilst others have merely viewed them as flashes in the proverbial pan that would eventually run out of steam and restore the status quo ante across the region. Other pundits have waxed lyrical about the fundamental freedoms and basic rights that are being sought by such popular movements whereas some have even suggested that the violence we witness in Syria, as much as in Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Iraq, Bahrain or other countries is just "swirling" the shifting sands of the region and rendering a precarious situation even more untenable and - decidedly - more volatile.

But it does not stop here, does it? The vast MENA region is not only in the midst of a series of convulsions - some uglier, more violent and more murderous than others. In fact, some of the other regional countries are also bearing the brunt of those uprisings in different - perhaps indirect - ways. This is the case, for instance, of Lebanon and Jordan which are fast becoming second homes for the refugees fleeing Syria every day. After all, almost one in every four citizens of Lebanon is now a Syrian refugee and their presence is not only loudly visible in the streets of many cities and neighbourhoods of the country but they are also gradually creaking the social and economic fabrics of this small country which finds itself willy-nilly facing a human deluge minus the necessary coping mechanisms. The same can also be said of Jordan: consider the Zaatari refugee camp as well as other smaller camps mushrooming across the plain lands of this kingdom whose frail economy or cautious security can ill afford to cope on its own either.

There are of course other actors playing different roles in the fragile uncertainties of the MENA region - whether directly or by proxy. Iran is one country, but so are the Gulf monarchies as much as Russia, China and some Western states. But one country that stands out in terms of its regional prominence politically and religiously, as well as being a refuge for roughly 500,000 Syrians, is none other than Turkey.

Turkey is doubtless a huge country whose 25th prime minister since 2003 has been Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. He also chairs the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) which holds a majority of seats in the Grand National Assembly (Parliament). Formerly the mayor of Istanbul for four years, he has been loved and loathed in equal measure by Turks and has at times been described by many pundits as a maverick politician who is turning Turkey into a powder keg in an attempt to shore up his own political-religious power base. In fact, many have opined that Erdogan is less concerned about threats to the social cohesion of Turkey than he is focused on any threats to his own rule and personality cult. Perhaps this accusation of overweening authoritarianism was flung at him most pointedly during the riots in May and June 2013 that started with a small sit-in at the Gezi city park in Istanbul and evoked in the prime minister a defiant stand that dismissed the claims of those allegedly 'secular' and 'loutish' protestors. Mind you, PM Erdogan's policies with the EU Commission have not been too successful either since its negotiations for adhesion to this club (that started in 2005) have been been stalling on a number of chapters too. Moreover, his foreign policy vision is claimed to rest in part on a resurgent neo-Ottomanism which maintains that Turkey should preserve and indeed increase its presence in the lands formerly ruled by the Ottoman Empire.

Erdogan's policies have also worked hand-in-glove with those of his foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu who has stated in his book and in many interviews with Turkish newspapers such as Zaman that Turkish foreign policy should seek "zero problems" - otherwise stated, a strategy that resolves Turkey's problems with all its neighbours. However, it seems to me at this juncture that these policies have been - to put it diplomatically - buffeted by Turkey's disputes with Israel as much as the growing tensions with Syria and Iraq. So much so that Turkey is now viewed as one of the most implacable foes to the Assad regime in Damascus, a cool friend toward Israel, unfriendly to the Al-Maliki government in Baghdad but a loyal supporter to the Muslim Brotherhood in places such as Egypt (with the ousted President Mohamed Morsi), to Palestine (with the Hamas movement) or to the FSA rebels in Syria. As such, a number of critics blame Erdogan for policies that are inimical with the long-term interests of this profoundly proud nation.

Countering those accusations is a prime minister who vaunts about the economic stability in his country, about the ongoing negotiations with some of the Kurdish elements within Turkey as well as the region (notably those with the PKK headed by Abdullah Ocalan), and about the reforms to the Turkish constitution that inter alia respect minorities' rights. He also portrays his anti-Assad stand as being one that attempts to restore order with equity and dignity to a broken country. His supporters accept his claims lock, stock and barrel whilst his detractors reject them categorically. However, the fact that the opposition groups in Turkey are far too weak and divided does not lend to any robust opposition in parliament to the policies of this present AKP government in Ankara.

Many uncertain - and as yet unanswerable - questions prey on pundits' minds about Turkey today. Can it indeed play a constructive global - read stabilising - role in the MENA region or is it merely a spoiler at best and a bully at worst? By supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere on the one hand and elements of the Syrian rebels on the other, is it in fact supporting the wrong parties and in so doing exacerbating regional tensions further? Or is it - as an important and strong NATO member of Europe's southern flank - acting as a reassuring presence that imports a modicum of stability into a volatile region and in the process supports the sacred right of self-determination for the peoples of the MENA region? Moreover, how does Turkey treat its own minorities, especially Kurds and Christians, before giving itself leeway to criticise the behaviour of other countries or try to be meddlesome on the one hand and helpful on the other? Do we in the corridors of Western think-tanks need to consider Turkey as a reliable ally or else as a huge Muslim country that is uncertain about its own identity - see-sawing between secular Ataturkism and Islamist Erdoganism - and one that could easily swamp us in human and ideological terms and distort our Western values if only given half a chance? In fact, are Turkey and Erdogan now interchangeable faces of the same lira? Does Erdogan remain a compatible prime minister for this key country or has he outlasted his political expiry date and should yield his place to other politicians without trying - almost Putin-like - to rewrite the constitution so he can forgo his prime ministership and replace Abdullah Gül as president?

Such questions - and many others I am sure - constitute part of the ongoing debate in Turkey today. The answers are far from clear, but it is encouraging that the questions are being asked with increasing confidence. In fact, I believe that we should give Turkey under PM Erdogan some credit for all his efforts - whether in terms of concrete achievements or ongoing struggles - more so since the authoritarian fireworks or dogmatic statements of his own persona are at times deftly fire-walled by a more temperate and equable president. But we would be wrong at this stage to simply overlook the role Turkey plays in the MENA region despite some tell-tale signs of PM Erdogan's empiricism - not least its assistance to Syrian refugees but also in other spheres - but we should also not exaggerate its weight either or allow its leaders to overplay their hands freely. At the end of the day, and in a region witnessing so many political, sectarian and confessional strifes, surely we all seek hopeful stability?

For now, I believe that Turkey could be part of this overarching goal.