By Dr. Aylin Güney & Dr. Hasret Dikici Bilgin

This study analyzes the Turkish case as a model country for the state-building processes in the Arab world in the aftermath of the Arab revolts that took place in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

To this end, it deals with the Turkish case in three phases: the founding of the Turkish Republic, political developments until 2002, and the post-2002 Justice and Development Party period.


Recent Transformations in Turkey and the “Arab Spring”

The 2000s were characterized by very important international transformations following the September 11 attacks in 2001, the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2003 and towards the end of the decade, the Arab revolts in the Middle East and North Africa.

Domestically, the key development in Turkey was the election of the conservative democrat Justice and Development Party (JDP) in 2002.

On assuming power, the party’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan noted that his party would show that democracy can co-exist peacefully in a majority Muslim country and that Turkey can be considered as an example for all Muslim countries.

The rhetoric of ‘moderate Islam’ started to be used first by the then US Secretary of State Colin Powell, who labelled Turkey an Islamic Republic which can act as a role model for the rest of the Arab world.

This statement was echoed by the JDP-led government, which aimed at pursuing a more active foreign policy in the region.

However, Powell’s statement infuriated the secularist President of the time, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, who argued that Turkey was not an Islamic Republic, but rather a secular democratic one, and thus could not constitute a model country where moderate Islam was adopted.

The fact that such a presidential statement was felt necessary revealed once again the ongoing tensions between Turkey’s state and political elites.

A second important development during the 2000s was the increasing pace in Turkey’s accession process to the European Union (EU) following the declaration of Turkey as an official candidate in 1999.

A major impetus for change was the eight harmonization packages required by the EU to open the accession negotiations. These were approved by the Turkish Parliament between 2002 and 2004 and which mostly included changes to the 1982 Constitution – which had been imposed by military rule from 1980 to 1983.

After 2005, however, the initially pro-EU orientation of the AKP (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi) government changed to decreasing interest in the EU and a slowdown in the reform process.

During this period, the AKP mostly focused on reversing legal practices introduced into Turkish political life after the military’s 1997 ‘post-modern’ coup.

In this period, the government acted rather unilaterally and without establishing a broad consensus to introduce various legal changes through Parliament.

These included constitutional changes regarding the dissolution of political parties, changes to the structure of the education system, lifting the headscarf ban on female students and public servants, and abolishing the daily national oath in primary schools.

All these policies were interpreted as AKP’s moving away from its previously self-proclaimed conservative democrat character towards authoritarian tendencies.

It is noteworthy that in this period there was also a significant transformation in civil-military relations as the constitutional powers of the military were eradicated to a great extent due to the changes carried out in line with the EU reforms.

In addition to the EU’s impact, this civilianization process was also helped by the Ergenekon and Balyoz trials over alleged coup attempts by military cadres during the mid- 2000s, especially after the JDP came to power.

Despite various civilianization reforms, such as the amendment of the role and duties of the National Security Council (NSC), and trials of former generals who carried out or plotted coup d’états, problems still prevail regarding civil- military relations in Turkey.

Increasing civilian control of the military has not necessarily meant democratic control of it, since the AKP government has started to resort to authoritarian measures regarding both the political opposition and civil society organizations, as evidenced by the government’s harsh response to recent protest movements known as the ‘Gezi Park protests’.

In the meantime, Turkey is in search of a new Constitution, which would replace that of 1982 which was born after the military coup d’état. This new Constitution aims to enshrine democratic freedoms and further distance Turkey from the era of military coups.

However, this reform suffered a setback in late 2013, after two and a half years of cross-party meetings. The cross-party panel had tried to reconcile differences on some of the most deeply divisive issues in modern Turkey, ranging from the definition of Turkish citizenship to the protection of religious freedoms.

Larbi Sadiki argues that Turkey needs a robust democratic constitution and only then can one talk about a regional democratization model. He considers today’s Turkey as a synthesis of Kemalis-thesis and Erdoğan-anti-thesis.

If this constitutional search were to succeed in achieving a consensus between the Kemalist-secularist and religiously-oriented elites, it would represent Turkey’s first truly civilian constitution since all previous constitutions have been drafted under military tutelage.

However, it needs to be stressed that civilianization is a necessary but not a sufficient precondition for democratic consolidation to take place.

In this respect, not only the constitution, but the democratic character of the constitution-making process is extremely important for democratic consolidation to take place in Turkey.

With respect to the Middle East, one can argue that the transformation of international politics in the 2000s, especially US foreign policy towards the region, came as a shock to MENA countries struggling with economic difficulties and political discontent expressed by various Islamist groups.

Conventional American foreign policy in the Middle East has been built on balance of power struggles between Russia (earlier as the Soviet Union) and the US, and the rise of political Islam did not constitute a major foreign policy issue as long as it did not target US citizens and diplomatic representation in the region.

However, the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, altered US foreign policy dramatically, with the American administration accusing Al- Qaeda of the attacks and declaring a ‘war on terror’, which made radical Islamist organizations around the world targets of the American state.

The US soon declared war on two countries: Afghanistan, as the country where Al-Qeada emerged and had its headquarters; and Iraq, as the country allegedly harbouring and aiding the terrorists.

Many countries were invited to contribute to and collaborate in this war on terror. In this context, MENA countries had few options except to declare radical Islamists illegal.

Egypt, a long-term ally of the United States since the 1990 Gulf War on Iraq and a recipient of American aid since the Camp David Accords negotiated by Mannheim Begin and Anwar Sadat really had no choice.

Tunisia had usually followed a non-aggression policy in the region with a number of attempts at mediation. However, the Ben Ali administration became a partner of the US in the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative, which aimed at preventing and eliminating terrorism in Africa.

As for Libya, Gaddafi was isolated after the 1988 Lockerbie bombing and support for radical Islamists in Africa had led to the intensification of international sanctions since the late 1990s.

However, in the post- September 11 international environment, Libya also had to declare war on terror to avoid American aggression.

In between 2000 to 2011, each of these three countries suffered from similar problems, including economic difficulties and high unemployment, especially among the youth, allegations of corruption, social discontent with authoritarian policies, denial of free electoral competition and challenges from political Islam.

In Egypt and Tunisia, the Muslim Brotherhood branches had long become the major organization for Islamists and their candidates were allowed to run as independents, although the elections continued to be rigged in both countries.

In Libya, not even a fraudulent electoral process existed, leading to more radical Islamist groups coming into violent conflict with the state’s security forces. However, it was the self-immolation of a street vendor in protest against police brutality that ignited the events later to be called the Arab revolts, and popularly known as the Arab Spring, in late December 2010.

Within a few months, Ben Ali fled from Tunisia, while events spread to other MENA countries. Hosni Mubarak was ousted from power in February 2011 and Gaddafi was captured and killed in October 2011.

The main reason behind the rapid dissolution of Ben Ali’s power in Tunisia has been identified as the military’s refusal to shoot at protesters.

In 2001, in the first elections of the post Ben Ali period, the Muslim Brotherhood’s party, Ennahda, came first under the leadership of Rashid Ghannouchi who had returned from exile.

The Islamists’ victory and the rise of the more radical Salafis raised concerns about the future of the secular characteristics of the Tunisian state, with relations between the Islamist government and the secular opposition remaining tense, although the conflict remained within civilian politics.

Most recently, in October 2013 after two secular opposition leaders were killed, Tunisia’s government stepped aside in favor of a caretaker government before holding elections in 2014.

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood formed a party called the Freedom and Justice Party, winning a landslide victory at the head of a coalition of conservative, moderate Islamist parties.

The more radical Islamist organization in Egypt, the Salafis, who had for long considered politics as haram, abandoned their traditional policy of avoiding electoral politics, and established a political party, the Party of Light.

The Salafist party established an election alliance named as the Islamic Bloc and they came second in the elections. The policies of the governing party’s leader, Mohammed Morsi, soon confirmed the worries of liberals that the Muslim Brotherhood would not tolerate secular opposition and would put Islamic law in effect.

However, in July 2013, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), which had been established following the overthrow of Mubarak, staged a putsch.

As of December 2013, violent clashes between Morsi’s supporters and the military-backed interim government continued while the Muslim Brotherhood has been declared a terrorist group and banned from political activity once more.

Former Defense Minister and member of the SCAF Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was elected president in May 2014. El-Sisi got more votes than Morsi did in 2011 and his election marked the beginning of a new period under military influence and the sealing of the Muslim Brotherhood off from governance.


Dr. Aylin Güney is a full-time professor at the Department of International Relations and also is the Dean of the Faculty of Human and Social Sciences and the Acting Dean at the Faculty of Economics and Administrative Sciences at Bilkent University.

Hasret Dikici Bilgin – Istanbul Bilgi University Faculty Member. A political scientist curious in class, political change, political Islam, political parties, elections, Turkey and the Middle East


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