The Arab Uprisings: Debating the "Turkish Model"

By Dede, Alper Y. | Insight Turkey, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

The Arab Uprisings: Debating the "Turkish Model"


Dede, Alper Y., Insight Turkey


The world was shocked by the sudden mass uprisings in the Middle East after a young Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire in protest against the local authorities. Bouazizi claimed that the municipal authorities continually mistreated him by confiscating his wares and asking for bribes. No one could have predicted that such an incident would spark mass uprisings resulting in the overthrow of the Tunisian government. One thing that most likely increased the magnitude of the protests was that a WikiLeaks document revealed the extent of the Tunisian leader Z. Bin Ali and his wife L. Trabelsi's personal wealth that they had acquired over the years.

Revolution as a Means for Change?

Besides several structural factors such as the overall inefficiency of the governments in the region, high rates of unemployment and underemployment, mass poverty, authoritarianism, and lack of democracy, two additional factors fueled the uprisings and exacerbated the situation in the countries: i) the availability of modern means of communication, and ii) the well-educated young masses' high levels of frustration as a result of stagnancy and inefficiency of the regimes whose only purpose was to maintain the status quo. Without these two factors, the large-scale uprisings on the Arab streets would not have been possible. Following the uprisings in Tunisia, mass protests started in Cairo and Alexandria on January 25, 2011. After 18 days of uncertainty, Husni Mubarak resigned from office on February 11, 2011. The events caused a wave of surprise worldwide, forcing policymakers and experts to try to grasp the course of events.

One of the common themes in the literature on politics of the Middle East has been the need for gradual reform to make the transition from the inefficient and authoritarian status-quo regimes to more democratic ones. Experts on the region often times discussed the routes to democratization in the region within the context of gradual social, economic and political reforms. Some experts who study the region suggested that gradual change and transition to more democratic regimes in the region were inevitable as secularization and modernization take root in the long run. Accordingly, people of the region would become fed up with the authoritarian rulers and create internal pressures for more democracy. Additionally, a developing civil society and international pressure would aid the whole process of democratization. A related argument was the inevitable democratization of the region in the long run through a gradual liberalization of the status quo oriented regimes. These were briefly the recipes for a possible route to democratization in the Middle East, until the whole world was stunned by the mass uprisings on the Arab streets, which largely raised new questions on the plausibility of these arguments.

Can Turkey Genuinely Become a Model for the Region?

While all these uprisings were at their peak, Turkey closely followed the events and stated that "the Turkish government hopes that The Supreme Council of Egypt's armed forces makes the transition to a government elected through free and fair elections." (1) The press release from the Turkish Prime Minister's Office also emphasized that "since the emergence of mass uprisings, Turkey has supported the legitimate demands of fellow Egyptian people regarding democracy and freedoms."

While many countries of the Middle East have been experiencing mass uprisings, the following question has to be answered: Can Turkey's unique democratization experience since the Justice and Development Party (AKP)'s rise to power be a model for the Middle Eastern countries as well as for the Ikhwan and other political actors in the region?

About 30 years ago, there was a considerable amount of fear among Arab leaders and western observers over revolutions like the Iranian revolution spreading all over the region. Back then, in international policy circles, one of the main debates on the region was whether Iran could export an Islamic revolution to the rest of the region. …

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