Academic journal article Insight Turkey

Turkey's "Demonstrative Effect" and the Transformation of the Middle East

Academic journal article Insight Turkey

Turkey's "Demonstrative Effect" and the Transformation of the Middle East

Article excerpt

A string of uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt in the early part of 2011 followed by those in other countries have rekindled the debate over reform and democratization in the Arab world. The Arab world has long been treated as an exception to the "third wave" of democratization that swept Central and Eastern Europe, Latin America, and parts of Asia and Africa following the end of the Cold War. (1) In 2004 the American administration, to promote a "freedom agenda" and democracy, launched the ambitious Broader Middle East and North Africa (BMENA) initiative. However, this initiative, after having shown some initial signs of hope in 2004 and 2005, very quickly collapsed. The disasters in Afghanistan and Iraq compelled the United States as well as the EU to prioritize stability over reform and democratization and the regimes in the Arab world quickly returned back to old habits of authoritarian and repressive policies.

A leading scholar of democracy and democratization in the United States, Larry Diamond, underlines the importance of a "model" in inspiring reform and transformation among Arab countries. He cites the absence of such a "model" in the Middle East as one of a set of factors complicating the prospects of democratization in the region. (2) Yet recently, prominent personalities ranging from the Tunisian opposition leader Rashid al-Ganouchi to the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Tariq Ramadan have highlighted the importance of Turkey as a model or example for the transformation of the Arab world. (3) This, however, is not a new development. As the Soviet Union collapsed and the question of reform and democratization emerged in its former republics, the Economist announced Turkey to be the "Star of Islam" and a model for the Central Asian republics especially. (4) Roughly a decade later the idea of Turkey as a "model" was raised once again, this time by the American President George Bush when he launched the BMENA initiative. Turkey was officially made a party to this initiative. (5) In both cases Turkey's "model" credentials were based on Turkey being a secular Muslim country and a democracy with a liberal market. Both of these developments triggered a debate on whether Turkey could or could not be a "model" and produced a rich body of literature. (6)

Actually, the thoughts of neither al-Ganouchi nor Ramadan are new. The Arab world began to take a close interest in Turkey roughly around the time the EU decided to open accession negotiations with Turkey in December 2004. The then minister of foreign affairs of Turkey, Abdullah Gul, likes to reminisce that the number of Arab foreign correspondents covering the press conference of the EU decision was higher than correspondents from other countries. (7) With this level of interest it is not surprising that Arab journalists began to raise the view that Turkey constitutes a model of reform in the Arab world. For example, one such journalist argued that "it will be possible to learn from Turkey's experience. This will mean that the reforms will come via from within a great Islamic country". The author went on to argue that reforms attained in this manner would become much more palatable than would otherwise be the case. (8) Another journalist argued that the contest was between the model Turkey was offering in contrast to the one advocated by Osama Bin Laden. (9)

What sets the current debate on Turkey's role as a model apart from previous occasions is that unlike in the past this time the debate is occurring against a backdrop of successful uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia that have raised the genuine prospects of actual reform. This time Turkey is being shown as a model by the very people who are involved in efforts to bring about reform and transformation in the Arab world. These developments are again accompanied by a lively debate on why Turkey can or cannot be a model for transformation and democratization in the Arab world. …

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