What Turkey Could Learn from the Arab Spring

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Turkey may believe that it has a leading role in the transformed Middle East. Yet it would be wise to consider the lessons of the Arab Spring.  The movements that rallied hundreds of thousands to raise their fists at oppressive autocrats are precisely the examples that Turks should study; its roaring economy depends on a little vigilance.  

Turkish companies currently export over $50 billion in goods and services to the Middle East. According to the Hollings Center, “Turkish construction projects in Arab countries total $70 billion.” The Arab market is clearly an underlying reason for Turkey’s meteoric rise to its position as the 16th largest economy in the world. Yet maintaining its dominancewill require more than economic cunning. Turkey needs to secure its democracy.  

Democracy isn’t something Turkey has always had. Turkish generals and upper classes believed the people needed to be ruled from the top down. Turkish “people power” succeeded with the rise of the Anatolian Tigers, long-sleepy cities in the heartland that became entrepreneurial powerhouses. The Anatolian Tigers built fortunes. With that fortune they brought about increased public participation in Turkish politics. The average Turk was finally heard and represented.

It is this representation and the economic might responsible for it that has led many to say, rightly, that Egypt, Tunisia and Libya should emulate Turkey’s example. This should not be, however, overstated or one-way.

The Arab World should consider Turkey’s example as a Muslim-majority country, as the Middle East has been forced for too long to hold its gaze toward Washington rather than proudly looking inward. While Turkey has often looked to the West, it was only when Ankara looked East that it started to shine. Its ascent grew once the country abandoned one-party rule and lifted the lid on religion suppression. Turkey proved that Islam was compatible with democracy and, more importantly, growth.

Islam has always been a part of the Arab experience. How moderate Islamic political parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood plan to lift up the masses remains to be seen, yet democratic goals have thus far been fiercely championed. s Foreign Policy in Focus’ Richard Javad Heydarian notes, “(t)he revolutions in North Africa were built on deep popular frustrations with the amoral and distorted market economies established by their autocratic leaders.” Those who have spent months in Tahrir Square and in the streets of Bengazi want a better life, but not at the expense of democracy.

Neither should the Turks. Yet for better or worse lately, Turkey’s ruling AKP party has veered off its democratic path. Minority rights have weakened. Protections for a free press have deteriorated. Without any significant opposition party to check their rule, the government has grown authoritarian under the firm grip of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He has switched his growth model from Silicon Valley to Beijing. That is an unacceptable danger to Turkey’s economic gains.  

Entrepreneurs thrive on risk. Let’s not make the mistake to believe that risk only comes in the form of cash. An open political environment where there is debate, dissent and disagreement is necessary. Innovation cannot exist otherwise.

And as the Arab world as well blazes its own path to reform and democracy, let us not forget that the Fertile Crescent, as a center of mathematical and scientific inquiry, was the hub of innovation long before Silicon Valley.

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