What’s in it for Turkey?

In the new Middle East, the AKP is becoming a regional force.

One of the less-expected consequences of unrest in the Middle East is the elevation of Turkey’s role, making Ankara a potential regional power.
On February 8, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, Ashraf Abdel Ghaffar, said in Istanbul that he was taking refuge in Turkey until the demonstrations to remove Hosni Mubarak succeeded. He then praised Turkey, referring to the governing Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) political role, and said his movement considers the AKP a model for Egypt after Mubarak. And on February 10, the Turkish media quoted Abdel Ghaffar, who said “there might be dialogue” between the Brotherhood and the AKP.
These developments, and the AKP’s comments against Mubarak, make Ankara a de facto protector of the Brotherhood, a potential power broker in post-Mubarak Cairo. More importantly, it gives Turkey access to hitherto unimaginable power in the Egyptian capital.
Since the AKP came to power in 2002, a debate has formed over whether the party’s Middle East-focused foreign policy has made Turkey a regional power with influence in regional capitals. Until the upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt, this didn’t seem to be the case. The AKP’s foreign policy, for instance, which defends Hamas and Iran’s nuclear program, fell on deaf ears in most Arab capitals, where leaders were worried about Hamas-related instability and Iran’s growing influence.
Now, while the Brotherhood is emerging as a key player in Egyptian politics, the AKP, as an advocate for this movement, has found an ally in Cairo. The same also applies to Tunis, where the local Brotherhood has emerged from the shadows since the fall of Tunisia’s dictator.
Moreover, if unrest in other Arab countries were to topple more dictatorships, or at least force them to recognize the opposition, the AKP would gain additional allies.
The Arab winter of 2011 has created a new Middle East landscape – one in which the AKP’s Turkey, which has positioned itself as the defender of the Brotherhood and popular uprisings – has voiced the strongest support for the Egyptian demonstrators.
THE PROXIMITY between the AKP and the Brotherhood goes beyond contemporary political support. In past years, leading AKP politicians, including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, broke their political teeth in the Brotherhood’s Turkish versions.
These included the Islamist Welfare Party (RP) in the 1990s, its predecessor, and even more radically, the Islamist National Salvation Party (MSP) in the 1970s. The Brotherhood, RP and MSP shared political goals, such as a desire to make a narrowly-defined conservative brand of religion the moral compass of their respective societies, as well as a strong dislike of secular democracy and the US.
Such political hobnobbing – akin to the socialists’ networking for a common cause in the Socialist International during the 20th century – lasted for decades, bringing together AKP and Brotherhood members and allowing for the development of mutually supportive friendships. This history affords the AKP power in Arab capitals of the new Middle East.
For example, whether or not the Egyptian regime falls, the Brotherhood is, for all practical purposes, now a political force in that country. It is likely to take part in the transition process, and will perhaps join the government.
Throughout this process, the AKP will defend the Brotherhood and strive to maximize its role. The Brotherhood will, in return, seek to give its foreign policy vision, shared by the AKP, leverage in Cairo.
This is the effective end of Turkey’s decades-long policy of strategic isolation from the Middle East. The secular parties that ran Turkey until 2002 chose to coordinate Middle East policy with the West. After 2002, AKP supporters argued that the party’s new Middle East-focused foreign policy would make Turkey a regional power, especially since the party did not seek attachment to the West.
Until the Arab winter of 2011, this approach did not produce results. Not only did the AKP fail to wield influence in Arab capitals, but it also alienated the country’s traditional Western partners, for it often broke ranks with the West on Middle East issues. In other words, the AKP could neither have its cake, nor eat it.
Now, the AKP can at least eat its cake. The party will not only continue to break rank with the West on issues such as Sudan and Hamas, but will also have a receptive audience and power to support such policies in Cairo and elsewhere. After nearly a decade of disappointment, the AKP’s Turkey is now emerging as a regional power, thanks to the Arab winter of 2011.
The writer is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.