The recent uprising in several Middle Eastern countries has caught the West by surprise and has left it unsure about which course of action to take. For too long, the West insisted that it (reluctantly) supported authoritarian regimes in the Middle East because it was the lesser of two evils. If democracy was allowed to flourish, Islamic fundamentalists would take power, and the whole of the region would begin to resemble Iran. With only these two options available, the West argued that, unfortunately, the divorce of interest and values was the only possible course of action.
With the collapse of the governments of Tunisia and Egypt and protests in other “friendly” countries such as Jordan, Bahrain and Yemen, it became necessary to look for alternative possibilities, beyond the dichotomy “authoritarian-but-pro-Western” and “democratically-elected-but-fundamentalist”. Turkey then began to be heralded as having the perfect template to be emulated by other Muslim countries. After all, the conventional discourse goes, Turkey is a Muslim country which has traditionally been an ally of the West and a vibrant (albeit imperfect) democracy. It has managed to incorporate Islamists in the political process and prevent their radicalization. But does Turkey really constitute a model for other countries in the region?
First, let’s examine Turkey’s record of support for democratic values abroad. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is increasingly popular among the population in the Middle East due to his frequent outbursts against Israel and his relentless defense of the Palestinians. However, Turkey has avoided a direct pro-democratization approach towards the Middle East, favoring instead the forging of closer ties with countries in the region, irrespective of their level of authoritarianism. The policy pursued by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), in power since 2002, has been one of “zero-problems” with neighboring countries, which means improving dialogue, commercial ties, and acting as a mediator in the case of regional disputes.
In other words, Turkey’s main aim has been to improve relations with countries in the Middle East and to gain regional prestige. Support for human rights and democracy has not been at the top of Turkey’s foreign policy agenda. This preference is most visible in the case of Turkey’s support for the regimes in Sudan and Iran. Turkey has lent unconditional support for Omar Al-Bashir, Sudan’s President wanted by the International Criminal Court for trial on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the region of Darfur. Prime Minister Erdogan even questioned the charges against al-Bashir and said that “no Muslim could perpetrate genocide” . In addition, Turkey was one of the first countries to congratulate President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for his victory in the contested 2009 elections, and it did not voice criticisms against the regime’s violent response to the protests in the aftermath of the elections.
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* Published in the Fifth Issue of Political Reflection Magazine (PR).