The Arab Spring has been tough on Turkey. Its good friend, Syrian President Bashar Assad, disappointed it with a violent crackdown on protesters. Relations with Iran have grown chillier, Ankara was forced to do an embarrassing about-face on the Libyan no-fly zone and Egypt’s Islamic leaders warned it against promoting the Turkish brand of Islam and democracy.
Back at home, economic growth is faltering and the country has been subject to withering criticism for allowing the courts to lock up so many journalists. The Kurds have grown restive.
But Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan can take some solace from the fact that in the Arab world his country is as popular as ever. A newly released poll
finds that Arabs see Turkey as a champion of regional peace and role model for religion and democracy living side by side.
Conducted among 2,323 people in 16 Arab countries over the last three months of 2011 by the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV), the survey found that 78 percent approved of Turkey and its policies.
“Clearly Turkey is very much admired and so it has a degree of regional leadership and the ability to pay that role’” Jonathan Levack, program officer for foreign policy program at TESEV, told The Media Line. “But it has to be careful because public opinion is volatile and the region is volatile. You can’t easily translate this popularity into political influence.”
The survey comes as the Middle East and North Africa undergo their biggest upheaval in decades. Domestically, the countries that have thrown off autocratic rule are now undergoing a wrenching debate over the role of Islam and democracy while the long-standing dominance of the US is perceived by many as being in retreat, with a host of powers looking to fill the vacuum.
Turkey’s approval rating put it way head of other contender’s for regional leadership, most notably Saudi Arabia (64%) and Iran (45%), while China – a potentially emerging regional power – achieved a favorable rating among 65% of the respondents. The US garnered only a 33% approval rating.
Turkey scored highest in countries where the Arab Spring has ended the rule of dictators and politics is in flux. In Libya, Turkey had a 93% approval rating even though Ankara was late in joining the no-fly zone campaign that was instrumental in ousting Muamar Gaddafi. Turkey had a 91% rating in Tunisia and 86% rating in Egypt.
But in Syria, where Erdogan has been at the forefront of efforts to force Al-Assad to step down, Turkey’s approval rating plummeted. From 93% in TESEV’s 2010 survey, it fell to 44% last year.
Moreover, 61% of the Arab world views Turkey as a model for their own countries, compared with 22% who said it was not, according to the poll. Among those who approve Turkey as a model, 32% cited its democracy, 25% its thriving economy and 23% its Muslim identity.
But among those who say they do not admire the Turkish model, its biggest drawback was its insufficient Muslim identity and its ties to the West, which its naysayers believed to be too close. Turkey is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), although its efforts to join the European Union have so far failed.
In fact, the Turkish model has started to look a little tarnished. More than 100 journalists are now imprisoned for what human rights groups say are unfounded charge of terrorism. The latest arrests prompted a public tussle between Erdogan and the American author Paul Auster, who announced last month that he would not visit Turkey due to the clampdown on freedom of speech.
Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund is forecasting just 0.4% economic growth for Turkey this year, down from 8.3% in 2011.
This was the third annual survey of Arab attitudes TESEV has conducted as Turkey has emerged from decades of regional non-involvement to become an increasingly important political and economic player.
“Throughout the three surveys, we found Turkey was welcomed as an actor in the region by the people of the region…. that favorable option is consistent, or structural. It hasn’t been affected by the Arab Spring or by Turkey’s stance toward Libya,” said Levack.
Turks who participated in a Doha Debates
roundtable at Bogazici University in Istanbul last month were less convinced of their country’s model. By a margin of 59% to 41% they approved a resolution: “This House believes Turkey is a bad model for the new Arab states.”
Ece Temelkuran, a Turkish journalist, told the audience that her country’s experience could not be duplicated in the Arab world. “Turkey has been under a state for modernism and secularism for about 80 years, which has not been experienced anywhere in the Arab world in the same manner,” she said.
But she was also critical of Turkey’s democracy, saying it was responsible for jailing journalists and criticized the ruling Justice and development Party (AKP) for substituting military dominance over politics with a new kind of authoritarianism.
Defending the model, Sinan Ulgen, director of Center for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies (Edam), said Turkey’s political development is a work in progress, which makes it relevant to the Arab world and a more useful mentor than Europe or America.
“The Arab people in terms of their cultural affinity have an association with Turkey. They relate to what's going on in Turkey,” he told the Doha Debates audience. “They relate to what's going on in Turkish society. And I think the best way to prove this argument is just to tell you of the wild success of the Turkish soap operas across the Arab world.”