The Abant Platform: the Arab Spring and Turkey’s role


Date posted: February 16, 2012

The Arab Spring has become one of the most important transformational forces in the Arab world since the Skyes-Picot Agreement. To help understand the underlying reasons for the uprisings and possible outcomes for regional and global politics, the Abant Platform, held in collaboration with Zirve University, convened a major workshop in Gaziantep. More than 100 intellectuals, academics, journalists and policymakers attended.

ISA AFACAN, Zirve University

When a Tunisian man, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire in December 2010, his desperate act of self- immolation ignited not only massive anger and protests against the regime of then-President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, but also sparked uprisings against authoritarian regimes across the Middle East and North Africa. Instantly and popularly dubbed the “Arab Spring,” the phenomenon has become one of the most important transformational forces in the Arab world since the Skyes-Picot Agreement that effectively divided the Arab provinces of decaying Ottoman Empire into the spheres of British and French influence.

To help understand the underlying reasons for the Arab Spring and possible outcomes for regional and global politics, the Abant Platform, held in collaboration with Zirve University, convened a major workshop in Gaziantep, titled “The Future of the Middle East after the ‘Arab Spring’ and Turkey,” on Dec. 3-4, 2011. Choosing a border city next to Syria like Gaziantep as the conference venue had a symbolic meaning in the minds of the organizers, based upon the geographical and socio-cultural proximity to the Arab Spring domains of this bustling industrial and historical city.

Considering that uprisings next door in Syria resulted in more than 5,000 civilian deaths, tens of thousands of arrests and countless cases of torture, the choice becomes even more meaningful. Until recently, residents of Gaziantep and Aleppo could travel between the two cities for commerce, shopping and leisure on a daily basis, without the hassle of a visa. Unimpeded travel to and from Syria is now history. At the Abant Platform more than 100 intellectuals, academics, journalists and policymakers from Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan, Pakistan, Israel, the US, the UK, France, Russia, Ukraine and Turkey immersed themselves in exhaustive discussions on the causes of the Arab Spring and its possible future scenarios.

One of the major questions constantly asked at the panels related to how the unsettling series of events taking place in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria and other Arab countries should be named. Even though the Western media was quick to label the events the Arab Spring, and this term has been widely used in academia, on television, in newspapers and over social media worldwide, participants at the Abant Platform objected to the term. Renewed Turkish journalist Cengiz Çandar, in his opening speech, chose to use the term “Arab Revolution,” arguing that events unfolding in the Arab world were a clear indication of the revolt of individuals who had for so long been humiliated and crushed under authoritarian regimes. For him, the Arab Revolution was a “major historical episode” that was neither conjunctural nor seasonal – an allusion to the term Arab Spring. It is also difficult to know how things will play out, but the revolution may in part reshape the geopolitical map of the Middle East and North Africa, and develop a new order for the region – – albeit rather slowly. However, one important aspect should be underlined: Mass protests in the Arab world signified a “bottom-up earthquake that is against the historical experience of the Middle East.” Çandar also contended that the Arab revolution opened the door for questioning the political map drawn up after the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement.

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Apart from the terms Arab Spring and Arab Revolution, other labels are possible: Arab Uprisings, Arab Awakening, Arab Enlightenment, Arab Renaissance and many more. Prof. Peter Bechtold of Portland State University and the former director of the Foreign Service Institute, like other participants, also objected to Arab Spring. Rather, he used the term “crisis in Arab governance.” Regardless of which term is being used, the phenomenon widely dubbed the Arab Spring signified a seismic shift in the Arab world. Voices in Tahrir Square chanted the slogan, “Raise your head, you are Egyptian,” echoing the demand for dignity by disaffected millions of Arabs. Authoritarian Arab regimes generally ruled their citizens with heavy- handed measures, establishing police states to crush manifestations of individual expression. Perceiving their citizens as unworthy of democratic governance and as a possible threat to their rules, Arab leaders like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarek, Libya’s Muammer Gaddafi and Ben Ali utilized brutal suppression methods against their own people. In the age of Internet, social media and television, disaffected masses compared and contrasted their state of affairs with others in the world, and demanded change.

Given the fact that unemployment among Arab youth is as high as 25 percent, the prolonged economic stagnation in Egypt, Tunisia and Jordan eventually led to widespread frustration and soul- searching among the Arab masses. Coupled with decades of corruption and bad governance, the sufferings of Arabs, especially the youth, reached an unbearable level. Therefore, Bouazizi’s sacrifice and other demonstrations on the Arab streets signaled deep socio-economic problems. Moreover, discussion of current events in the Arab world is incomplete without mention of Arabs’ unprecedented demand for dignity. Their demands for jobs, decent living conditions, and respect for their humanity underlay the deep-seated political upheaval of the Arab masses.

However, as Dr. Philipp Amour of Oxford University pointed out; crediting only socio-economic reasons is not enough to explain the reasons behind the Arab Spring. He argued that levels of corruption and unemployment are also high in Morocco and Algeria, but the same level of protests and uprisings were not seen there as in Egypt, Yemen, Syria and Tunisia. Therefore, one needs to look beyond socioeconomic reasons while acknowledging the deep impact of demands for dignity, or in more concrete terms: jobs, equality and justice.

Regime legitimacy in the eyes of alienated Arab masses was severely eroded. In most of the Arab regimes, the ruler’s legitimacy is closely tied to that of the regime. The issue of legitimacy has in fact been one of the perpetual challenges for these regimes. In reality, Arab regimes neither produced popular legitimacy, nor had success in providing economic opportunities for their public. The use of Arab nationalism as a way to reproduce artificial legitimacy proved ineffective. Some of the oil-rich Arab countries consistently employed petro-dollars to buy the loyalty of the people, but were unable to earn popular legitimacy. Thus, the Arab Spring plainly revealed the massive failure of Arab regimes. It also made it clear that the Arab system of government is effectively defunct and that the quest for an alternative way of governance is under way. However, the question of which model(s) would be appropriate for Arabs remains.

The Turkish model and the Arab Spring

The idea of the “Turkish model” has come to the attention of scholars and policy makers in the West many times since the early 1990s, and some commentators – – especially in the US – – have suggested the Turkish model for the democratization of the Arab world. However, they had no clear answers or scheme with regards to what the Turkish model entailed. For some, it was the Kemalist top-down modernization project, which had marginalized the role of traditional society and of Islam, and eventually created a Western-oriented social and political order that was friendly to the Western world. For others, it was rather a later era experience in Turkish republican history, one that had — since the mid-1990s -incorporated Islamic and conservative values into the political process. This perspective greatly appreciated the experience of the Islamic-leaning Justice and Development Party’s (AK Party) successful engagement with secular and Western values both at home and in the world, while keeping their deeply held religio-conservative values intact. For them, the AK Party experience was especially valuable in the context of the post-Sept. 11 era, which had clouded the viability of “democracy and Islam.” Especially important was that the AK party government’s push for democratization and reforms was made under the banner of the EU accession process. With caveats, the Turkish model of incorporating democracy and conservative Islamic values, for them, could be replicated in the Arab world, given the fact that the system of Arab regimes has already failed and Arabs are on the market for a new system of government.

However, Arab participants at the Abant Platform unequivocally indicated that they are not for the Turkish model. This one-size-fits-all understanding is deterministic and entails a top-down approach that is undemocratic in nature. They felt that ignoring the Arab nations’ distinctive historical and socio-cultural experience and suggesting they replicate the Turkish model did not bode well for the future. Despite Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s popularity on the Arab street, both old and emerging new elites expressed reservations about the Turkish model. It is instructive that the Muslim Brotherhood criticized Erdogan’s lauding of secularism during his visit to Egypt. Similar sentiments were also shared by Turkish participants at the Abant meeting. For example, Mehmet Ali Birand objected to the replication of the Turkish model in the Arab world, and cautiously reasoned that the army – – especially in Egypt – – might situate itself as the guardian of the regime, much like the painful Turkish experience of the 1980 military rule and its establishment of a tutelary regime in Turkey. Early signs from the Egyptian army proved that this troubled aspect of the Turkish model is being emulated. Birand also noted that Turkey is being presented as a model, but it is yet to solve its long-standing Kurdish problem. If Turkey is unable to solve its Kurdish issue and provide full- fledged freedom to its non-Muslim citizens, it is travesty for Turkey to promote itself as a model.

Prof. Ihsan Dagi from the Middle East Technical University (ODTU) and Erşat Hürmüzlü, the top Middle East advisor to President Abdullah Gill, both argued that Turkey is not exporting the Turkish model, rather, they claimed, the Arab world could use the Turkish model for inspiration, but should eventually create its own genuine model of democracy and governance.

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Turkey, Israel and the Arab world

Another contentious issue before the Abant Platform was the Arab-Israeli conflict and its implications for the Arab Spring. Although Tel Aviv initially took a rather silent approach to the Arab Spring, it precipitated Israeli apprehensions that the relative stability and security of the region was slipping away – – at Israel’s expense. The fall of the Mubarek regime in Egypt and possible similar scenarios in Jordan and Syria would ultimately jeopardize the relative peace Israel has enjoyed so far. Therefore, the unexpected blossoming of the Arab Spring was not welcome in Israel, given the uncertainty and massive security challenges it brought. Prof. Ehud Toledano of Tel Aviv University argued that, like any other country, Israel and Turkey were caught unprepared for the Arab Spring. He posited that Turkey adopted a fairly pragmatic approach to the Arab Spring, citing the Erdogan government’s change of heart in its policy towards Libya and Syria. Though initially hesitant, Turkey realigned its policies when neither Gaddafi nor Bashar al-Assad of Syria heeded the warnings of the international community. Toledano also contrasted Turkey’s pragmatic take in the case of the Arab countries with its stance on Israel, contending that “the only exception to the flexibility of the AK Party foreign policy orientation was Israel.” While the normalization of Turkish-Israeli relations could benefit both sides, Turkey was reluctant to reach out to Israel because its current hostile politics went down well on both the Arab and Turkish streets.

Platform conclusions

After many hours of discussion and heated debate, the participants of the Abant Platform shared the following declaration with the public:

(1) It has been a year since the process called the Arab Spring began. With this in mind, all parties have to understand the process rationally and cautiously, while avoiding the initial emotional perspective that accompanied the process.

(2) The process we have been witnessing has shown once again that people can challenge their governments even if it puts their own lives at risk. Thus, countries that have currently not experienced any uprisings have to initiate political and economic reforms immediately.

(3) Despite many positive developments that took place during the Arab Spring, there is still the risk of older authoritarian regimes re-emerging under different names. All actors that participated in the Arab Spring have to realize that the older authoritarian regimes will try to revive themselves. In addition to transforming the authoritarian regimes, the major goal here should be enabling institutionalization of democracies and strengthening of civil societies, and in this context removing the institutional remnants of the older regimes.

(4) Despite the urgency of the political and social events that emerged with the Arab Spring, dialogue opportunities both at the national and international levels should not be exhausted. Relations between countries should not be completely frozen at any level.

(5) Each country and society in the Middle East is unique. Thus, applying a specific model to a particular country would not be practical. Each society should develop its own model based on its own characteristics and needs, while benefitting from the experiences of other countries.

(6) The Middle East is a multicultural place. This space is the home of Muslims, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, Turks, Arabs, Persians, Armenians, Kurds and several other groups. Any political attempt should not contradict this overarching reality of the Middle East. Thus, it is a necessity for groups that claim power in the region to recognize all the different religious and ethnic groups as first-class citizens.

(7) The Arab Spring is an issue for all Muslims, as well as Arab politics. Thus institutions like the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) should be more actively involved in the process.

(8) The Arab Spring made everyone realize that each and every Middle Eastern society needs a more participatory and democratic constitution, based on human rights and the rule of law. Thus, the first priority in the agendas of all the political groups about to take political initiative should be the creation of a            more participatory and democratic constitution, based on human rights and the rule of law.

(9) All international actors should realize that all democratically elected governments are legitimate and elected representatives of their peoples.

(10) Having held this meeting in Turkey, political actors and intellectuals in Turkey should perceive the Arab Spring as an opportunity to realize both their own and Turkey’s shortcomings, as well as their contribution to the process.

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Epilogue

Immersion in the complex and often nuanced debates at the Abant Platform made everyone realize that the Arab Spring heralded a new era, not only for the Arab world but for regional and global politics. In fact, many were unsure about the prospects of stability and democratization in the short term, but were optimistic this turbulent process would eventually bring much sought-after normalization to the region, and that it would eventually give rise to greater participation of peripheral Arab masses into the political decision making process. One thing is clear; Islamism in the Arab world will play a central role both at the domestic political level and in regional politics, and the Western world, particularly the US, is cautiously willing to work with new Islamist actors. However, regional politics in the Middle East will prove harder and more unpredictable due to the unsettled nature of the Arab Spring.

The declaration at the Abant Platform made clear that the Arab world will find its own genuine means of democratization, urging other parties to respect its decisions. It is also important to note that the platform appealed to all interested parties, not excluding religious or religious minority from participating in the new order based on rule of law and respect for human rights. By the same token, freezing relations with any states in the region, the platform contended, would hurt the positive results of the Arab Spring and could generate enmity in regional politics — as was the case in the decaying Cold War / Middle East order. Additionally, it is significant that the platform called the OIC to action, given the fact that the OIC was largely silent in the midst of the turbulent revolutionary process in the Muslim world. The OIC could play a constructive role in the Arab world in asking its members to pressure authoritarian regimes to introduce reform for the good of their public. In sum, the Abant Platform, in cooperation with Zirve University, offered a vigorous debate and a roadmap for understanding the dynamics and possible socio-political outcomes of the Arab Spring. Above all, it plainly delivered a reasoned approach rather than over-hyped political and rhetorical pandering.

Source: Turkish Review Vol. 2 Issue 1 Jan.-Feb. 2012 pages 122-127

 


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