Turkish role in Arab unrest put under microscope

Posted on January 31, 2011


Sunday, January 30, 2011
ANKARA – Hürriyet Daily News
Amid the ongoing unrest across the Middle East and North Africa, eyes are turning to Turkey as experts debate whether Turkey’s recent rise on the global stage, its stable democracy and strong economy have contributed to the outbreak of protests.

Violent protests in Egypt, one of the largest countries in the Arab world, are targeting President Hosni Mubarak, as street fighting between demonstrators and security forces has claimed the lives of at least 125 people, according to reports.

“Turkey always has a positive image in the region and its rising influence has led to some sort of jealousy in the Arab world, which is one of the reasons for the current transformation process,” said Professor Semir Saliha, a Middle East expert from Kocaeli University. He said since 2002 the Turkish government has been sending positive signals to the region in the name of democratization, reforms, human rights and participation in politics.The six days of protesting in Egypt comes hot on the heels of protesting that overthrew the longtime president of Tunisia, where protests are still continuing with people demanding the whole governement resign.

Saliha pointed out that statements made by U.S. President Barak Obama in both Ankara and Cairo in the period following his inauguration as president created a positive perception regarding U.S. policy toward the region, but a pursuit of opposing policies – especially regarding Israel – caused disappointment in the Arab world.

“Turkey managed to fill in the blanks in this vacuum,” he said.

Turkey looks at the region from three perspectives: firstly, what impact the unrest in Egypt could have on the Arabic-Israeli dispute, a significant source of tension in the region; secondly, what possible effects the revolts could have on the other countries in the Middle East; and, thirdly, whether the current turmoil could lead to an ailing Egypt and rising Turkey in the region. In his daily column for Radikal, Murat Yetkin said Ankara’s evaluations suggested that if Mubarak is overthrown, then a chain of transformations could be ignited throughout the Arab world.

In Tunisia, the government, once regarded as one of the Middle East’s most stable, was overthrown after widespread protests and street violence forced President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to flee the country after 23 years in power. The revolt in Tunisia inspired countries across the Middle East and North Africa, with nationwide demonstrations in Egypt swelling into the largest uprising in three decades, sending shockwaves throughout the region. On Friday, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said governments in the Arab world could not remain indifferent to the fair demands of their citizens.

More emphasis on democracy, freedoms

However, critics of Turkey’s vision of the region have complained that the official rhetoric lacks emphasis on democracy and freedom.

“Turkey’s regional policy embraces traces of strategic depth, Neo-Ottomanism, zero problems with neighbors and engagement with Hamas and Hezbollah. What’s absent in this policy is democracy, rule of law, human rights and gender equality,” Turkey’s former Ambassador to Washington Faruk Loğoğlu told the Daily News.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the most popular politician in the Arab streets due to his fierce criticism of Israel, should visit the region in order to take the pulse of the Arab people and look out for their expectations of more democracy and freedom, he said.

“Everything is falling apart in the Arab world, and for the situation to fall into place Turkey should pursue a prudent policy with engagement with political leaders, as well as nongovernmental organizations, without appearing on the forefront very much,” Loğoğlu said.

Busy Foreign Ministry

“We are closely following the developments not only in Egypt and Tunisia, but their possible reflections on the overall region,” a senior Foreign Ministry diplomat told Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review on Sunday.

“There have been long running demands, on the one side, and how one can remain indifferent to people’s demands coming from the grassroots is a separate issue,” said the diplomat, who wished to remain anonymous.

“On the other side, a peaceful settlement of the ongoing turmoil through dialogue is crucial. There are reports of deaths and violence. It is necessary to clearly read the developments. And we are trying to take a full picture of what’s happening, not only through our embassy in Cairo but all embassies in the region.”

Turkey evacuates nationals

Meanwhile, Turkey has decided to increase the number of aircraft chartered for evacuating Turkish nationals to five, the Turkish Foreign Ministry announced Sunday.

“In addition to regular flights, the number of aircraft to be sent to Egypt by Turkish Airlines, in cooperation with the Prime Ministry and the Foreign Ministry, has been increased to five upon intensive requests from our citizens in Egypt,” the ministry said.

One of the planes has already arrived in Cairo and two in Alexandria, while the remaining two are set to take off at 4 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. Sunday. The ministry said Turkey’s embassy officials were ready at Cairo’s airport to help evacuate citizens.

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