Arabs seeking a model for post- autocratic governments are looking for inspiration in Turkey, where Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s brand of Islamic democracy has helped make him the region’s most popular leader.
Erdogan has been elected twice, presided over an economic boom that’s tripled average incomes while Egypt’s remained stagnant, and shifted Turkey’s foreign policy away from Western tutelage while keeping its status as a U.S. military ally and European Union candidate. His popularity has spread to the Arab world, where he was named the most favored leader last year in a survey by Zogby International and the University of Maryland.
Turkey is cited as a model by opposition leaders competing for power as the region’s rulers struggle to quell a wave of protests. The head of Tunisia’s Islamist party, who returned from a 22-year exile this week after President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was toppled, said his country can emulate Turkey, and opposition groups fighting to oust Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and win political rights in monarchical Jordan cite similar aims.
“Turkey is the model for all the Muslim parties,” said Kazim Mezran, a professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University’s campus in Bologna, Italy. “Islamic parties across the area are now saying, ‘Look at them, that’s what we want to become.’”
The predecessors of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, or Ak Party, were banned for opposing Turkey’s secular rules, just as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Tunisia’s Ennahda were forbidden by military leaders who saw them as threats.
‘Not Our Kind’
The U.S. backed rulers such as Mubarak partly because they promised a bulwark against radical Islam. Politicians including Republican Senator John McCain have warned that the current turmoil may hand power to religious parties less committed to democracy than they claim to be.
There are “dangers of radical Islamic influence in every one of these countries,” McCain said in a CNN interview yesterday. He said the Brotherhood is “a great threat to democracy” because “anybody who advocates Sharia law certainly isn’t our kind of democrat.”
The Ak Party won power after rebranding itself as a conservative party along the lines of Europe’s Christian Democrats, and its goals include economic development and EU membership. Turkey’s economy grew 8.9 percent in the first three quarters of 2010, and is “one of the few countries in Europe” that has surpassed pre-crisis levels of output “by a comfortable margin,” the International Monetary Fund says.
Markets, Incomes Diverge
To be sure, for stock market investors, Mubarak’s Egypt was a better bet than Erdogan’s Turkey. While the Turkish benchmark more than quadrupled in dollar terms under Erdogan, Egypt’s EGX30 is up more than 800 percent. For the people of the two countries, it’s a different story.
Under Erdogan, average annual incomes rose above $10,000, from about $3,500. Egypt’s per capita GDP was little changed at $2,160 in 2009, rising $5 in two decades, according to IMF data.
Turkey is stable “because we raised the living standards of the people. We met the demands of the people,” the country’s ambassador to the U.S., Namik Tan, said in a Feb. 2 interview in Washington. “Turkey should be an inspiration to all countries of the same faith.”
So far this year, Egypt’s stock index has slumped 21 percent while Turkey’s is down 2.7 percent. The cost of insuring Turkish debt has risen 24 basis points to 164, according to Bloomberg prices for credit default swaps, while for Egypt it has surged more than 150 basis points to 392.
In the decades before the Ak Party government, Turkey’s army held ultimate power, four times pushing civilian administrations from office. Since 2002, Erdogan has clipped the military’s powers, ending its grip on the National Security Council and jailing several top generals as part of a probe into alleged coup plots. He has also given his government more authority to appoint judges, eroding the influence of a judiciary that attempted to ban the Ak Party on the grounds it was seeking to introduce Islamic Sharia law.
Erdogan’s opponents cite those changes, and his efforts to lift a ban on Islamic headscarves at university and make alcohol sales harder, as proof that his agenda is more religious than liberal. They often cite a comment Erdogan made when he was mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s, calling democracy “a train that takes you to your destination, and then you get off.”
What the party is saying “isn’t sincere, and we don’t believe they’re sincere on democracy either,” Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party, said on Feb. 2, according to the Anatolia news agency.
Seen from the Middle East, though, Turkey’s successes loom larger. Tunisia’s Rachid Ghannouchi said in a Feb. 2 interview in the capital, Tunis, that his country is socially and culturally “close to Turkey, closer than it is to Iran or Afghanistan.”
In Egypt, the Islamic opposition is also taking cues from Turkey.
“The Muslim Brotherhood, whenever asked, insists they don’t want an Iranian-style theocracy and that the model they are looking to is the Ak Party,” said Hillel Fradkin, director of the Center on Islam, Democracy and the Future of the Muslim World at the Hudson Institute.
Badr Mohamed Badr, a senior Muslim Brotherhood leader, said by phone on Feb. 3 that the group seeks “a civil, democratic political regime that respects human rights and freedoms, guarantees better and safer lives for citizens and improves the country’s economy.”
“We are not after a religious state,” he said.
Lamp and Bulb
The leading Islamic opposition party in Morocco shares the Justice and Development Party name and has a similar symbol: the Moroccan party’s is an oil lamp while the Turkish party’s is a light bulb.
“We believe the Turkish example and model is promising and has been rewarding,” said Hamzah Mansour, secretary general of the Islamic Action Front, the largest opposition group in Jordan, where King Abdullah sacked his government this week as protesters demand measures to fight poverty.
The channels of Turkish influence extend beyond governments, with the country’s culture and consumer goods also exerting a pull for Arabs, said Rashid Khalidi, head of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University in New York.
“They are all fed on Turkish products, watch Turkish TV miniseries, go to Turkey on vacation, receive Turkish investment,” he said in a phone interview.
Murat Mercan, head of the Turkish parliament’s foreign affairs committee, said Erdogan’s popularity is an offshoot of the party’s adherence to universal values, not a goal.
“The AK Party has no ambition to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries,” Mercan said in a telephone interview from Ankara.
“What we’ve done is what’s good for our people,” he said. “If other countries are inspired by that, that’s their decision.”
Turkey has given advice on democratic politics to some Arab parties and will continue to do so, Foreign Ministry spokesman Selcuk Unal said in an interview. Officials from Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s political group received training in parliamentary procedure in Ankara last year, he said.
Earlier this week, Erdogan said Mubarak should listen to his people because “the era of governments persisting on pressure and repression is over.”
While Erdogan has quarrelled with the U.S. over Iran’s nuclear program and angered some Western supporters with his denunciations of Israel’s attacks on Palestinians, Turkey remains a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and has helped the U.S.-led effort to stabilize Afghanistan.
Islamic groups in the region are learning, like the Ak Party, to “manage the political process in a way that people don’t feel threatened,” said Alastair Crooke, a former EU mediator with Islamist movements and now director of the Beirut- based Conflicts Forum. “They will not seek to be prominent or dominate the next stage because they will not want to have the revolution branded as Islamist or terrorist.”
To contact the reporters on this story: Benjamin Harvey in Ankara at Bharvey11@bloomberg.net; Gregory Viscusi at firstname.lastname@example.org; Massoud A. Derhally in Beirut, Lebanon at email@example.com.