Turkey and the Arab Spring

By Kaya, Karen | Military Review, July/August 2012 | Go to article overview
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Turkey and the Arab Spring


Kaya, Karen, Military Review


THE ARAB SPRING is a complex, rapidly unfolding phenomenon of uprisings, revolutions, mass demonstrations, and civil war, a diverse set of movements with diverse instigators and aspirations, including freedom, economic opportunity, regime change, and ending corruption. It started in Tunisia in December 2010 and spread to the rest of the Middle East throughout 2011. Although it is the most significant event to happen in the Middle East in recent history, we do not yet understand its trajectory and cannot predict its outcome. Despite the fact that the process is apparently advancing the values of freedom, justice, and democracy, it can still produce less desirable outcomes, requiring alternate approaches to standard diplomatic and economic approaches with a long-term view.

Does the Arab Spring have a Turkish model? Countries in the Middle East are looking to Turkey whose conservative social and cultural outlook, but liberal political and economic program, stand out as a model of Islamic liberalism. For the U.S. Army, this presents a long-term opportunity. Turkish security forces, trained by the U.S. Army, have begun to train other armies (such as Syria and Jordan in the Middle East and many in Central Asia and Eastern Europe). Thus U.S. lessons on civil-military relations or the laws of war will, in turn, be taught to the these countries. Given its current popularity, America could use Turkish help as it maps out the future of the Arab Spring.

All this might mean a change in the nature of the U.S. Army's engagement with Turkey. The U.S. Army's former engagement with Turkey mostly entailed military relations through NATO, but did not address the profound transformation of Turkish society, Turkey's new foreign policy, and the end of the Cold War. In addition, Turkey's democratization process has led to civilian control of the military and reduced the military's previously unique authoritative role.1 Thus, if we assess them accurately, the changing dynamics in the region may present a long-term opportunity for the U.S. Army. This requires a comprehensive analysis of the so-called Turkish model. What aspects of it can Arab Spring countries aspire to, and what features of it are not applicable?

The Destination

Turkey's current state of affairs is the result of an evolutionary process, not rapid development, but it has the ability, through its example today, to serve as a model for what some of the Arab spring countries might want to emulate. Turkey as a destination point features a democratically elected, moderate Islamic party in charge of an economic boom. Turkey can make a real and visible, if not decisive, difference in the Arab Spring's changing societies.2 The Turkish experience shows that Middle Easterners do not have to choose between authoritarian government and an Islamist regime. Turkey shows that there is a third option: Islamic liberalism. With its conservative social and cultural outlook, but liberal political and economic program, Turkey's Justice and Development Party (JDP) is a model of this. It seems to demonstrate that Islamic identity does not contradict democracy, and that there is no inevitable clash between the two.

Some also argue that under JDP leadership, Turkey, in developing political, economic and cultural relations with all the countries in its region, has played a role in the emergence of the Arab Spring. By lifting visa restrictions, developing trade and cultural relations, and exporting its television programs, Turkey exposed Arabs to new ways of thinking about Islam, modernism, and elections.

Not the Journey

Turkey's non-Arab identity and the process it followed to get to its current end state are features that do not quite apply to the Arab Spring countries. The Turkish military's historically unique role, its membership in NATO and relations with the European Union (EU), its capitalist economy, and its evolutionary process are impossible to duplicate exactly.

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