Kirisci sees Turkey as a future model for Middle East

Benjamin Hoste | Staff PhotographerKemal Kirişci, director of the Center on the United States and Europe’s Turkey Project at the Brookings Institution, delivers Friday’s morning lecture in the Amphitheater, closing a week of lectures on the theme “Turkey: Model for the Middle East?
Benjamin Hoste | Staff Photographer
Kemal Kirişci, director of the Center on the United States and Europe’s Turkey Project at the Brookings Institution, delivers Friday’s morning lecture in the Amphitheater, closing a week of lectures on the theme “Turkey: Model for the Middle East?

Finally answering the elusive question in the title of Week Eight’s theme, Kemal Kirişci said at Friday’s morning lecture in the Amphitheater that Turkey’s status as a model for the Middle East should not be overstated. He warned against praising the country’s government as something to be emulated.

Kirişci, a senior fellow and director of the Center on the United States and Europe’s Turkey Project at the Brookings Institution, explored the question of whether the protests in Istanbul’s Taksim Square had damaged Turkey’s position as a role model for the region. His lecture was the last in this week’s theme of “Turkey: A Model for the Middle East?”

Turkey did not necessarily put itself on a pedestal, Kirişci said. Much of its praise in recent years has come from outside the country. For example, former President George W. Bush also praised the country when he launched “The Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative” on the heels of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

There were several reasons Turkey may be perceived as a model, Kirişci said. First, the notion that Islam and democracy could peacefully coexist can seem a stark contrast to the realities of the neighboring governments of Iran and Syria.

Secondly, Turkey’s astounding economic growth can be a source of inspiration for other countries. Kirişci said he remembers being a college student in Turkey in the early 1970s, when the country was so poor that blue jeans were an indication of prestige.

“This was an economy that, at the time, could still not produce or manufacture a pair of jeans,” Kirişci said. “And at the time, the foreign trade of Turkey constituted only 9 percent of its overall [gross domestic product].”

Today, that number is closer to 50 percent, Kirişci said. By 2010, as much of the world lay mired in the aftereffects of the 2008 economic crisis, countries around the world “were looking up to” Turkey’s economy, he said.

A third reason for Turkey being viewed as a role model was its steps toward admittance into the European Union.

“In the Arab world, there was this fascination that a country with which they could culturally relate to — through religion — was having the prospects of becoming a member of the European Union, in which the main players were their former colonizers,” Kirişci said.

Kirişci said that he believes that Turkey’s “zero problems policy” — the country’s stated foreign policy approach that emphasized avoiding conflict with nearby countries —  has disintegrated throughout the past few years as once-strong ties with neighboring countries broke down. One major example of these deteriorating relationships is with Syria, Turkey’s neighbor to the south.

Marathon conversations between Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Syrian President Bashar Assad made little progress, Kirişci said.

“[Erdoğan and his minister of foreign affairs] bent backward trying to convince Assad that he should reform, up until August of 2011,” Kirişci said. “When that failed, things got completely changed.”

Turkish public opinion surveys of the Middle East from the past three years show that people in the area believe that the Syrian civil war has undermined Turkey’s ability to maintain order in the region. The surveys show that Turkey — to its detriment — is increasingly perceived as “sectarian.”

“A Turkey that had made its reputation through its ‘zero problems policy,’ of being able to speak to all parties in the Middle East … is now losing its ability to speak to all parties,” Kirişci said. “And the public opinion polls show it very clearly.”

Turkey’s recent Gezi protests have further eroded the country’s status as a role model, Kirişci said.

“Domestic problems that preceded the protests — freedom of the press, journalists being detained — how can Turkey be a model to the Arab world when it has more journalists behind bars than there are in the Arab world?” Kirişci asked.

Kirişci said he is critical of Erdoğan’s understanding of democracy. Turkey has free and fair elections, but that’s about where the democratic process ends. The government doesn’t want more from the citizens.

“You vote and then you shut up,” he said. “And that’s clearly not the democracy that the European Union expects from Turkey; neither is that the common understanding of democracy globally.”

Kirişci said that with Erdoğan’s increasingly intrusive social policies of the past few years, it is more important than ever for those in Turkey to continue fighting for rights generally conferred to a people in a democracy.

One of the things Kirişci believes will help Turkey grow democratically is the country’s international trade. He believes once trade relations with the West are revamped over the next 10 to 15 years, global relations will improve.

“Paradoxically, it is when Turkey comes back into that community that I think Turkey will again be talked about as a model for the Middle East,” Kirişci said.


Q: The question that is on many minds today is about Egypt, and about Turkey’s involvement with — or not — in the Egyptian crisis that is going on right now.

A: Thanks. Tough question, and I have been warned by Sherra to be brief in the question and answer section. But, today before coming here, from the Web I read an article by one of the leading columnists in Turkey who served in the … the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine back in the 1970s, and he’s someone who knows the Middle East from inside out and has an unbelievable network of contacts. He used to be very supportive of this government and had become bitterly critical of it. In today’s article, he’s criticizing the government again for making things this simple, black and white. [Mohamed Morsi, former Egyptian president] and Morsi’s supporters are right, and they need to be supported; it’s an ethical duty. And those who have done the coup and are behind it are wrong, and Morsi should come back to power. He’s criticizing the government, not only for being that black and white, but also for forcing people to choose to be either with them … or the others, and in that case, if you are with the others, you are advocates of coups and advocates that legitimize military coups. He argues that here, he says, he’s addressing directly the [prime minister] and his foreign minister — he says, “We all know that here the issue is not ethics, it’s not principles — it is domestic politics. You are creating the fear that something similar could happen to you, too, in Turkey, and you’re running your politics on that behalf. If it was principles, if it was ethics, then you would have not stood up for [Omar Hassan] Ahmad Al-Bashir in Sudan, who came to power by a coup and who is also indicted by the International Criminal Court in Rome for committing genocide in Darfur.” … I do still want to give the benefit of doubt: Turkey is right next to a region that is going through massive turmoil and is going through massive destruction and massive uncertainty about the future. It is a region for which Turkey had grand hopes when the Arab Spring first erupted. It really thought that this was going to transform itself into an area with which Turkey was going to live comfortably and make lots of money. Thank you very much.

Q: We have several questions about [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan]. They vary from a question about, is he becoming more controlling and authoritarian because power corrupts? Is he a visionary who sees a Pan-Islam opportunity that he would become the father, or is a minor transient irritation? 

A: Again, this is a topic in which a lot has been written, and there has been a lot speculation. I’ll start with the third one, minor irritation. There’s also been columns written that the surgery he has had, like some previous leaders in the past have experienced impacts upon your health. I mean, some of you may remember David Owen, the British foreign minister during the worst times of the Bosnia crisis; he has written two books about it, including an analysis of Mrs. Thatcher and the problems she began to have. It’s possible that there might be an element of that. But, having mentioned Mrs. Thatcher, and bless her soul, I have great respect for the lady, but a lot has also been said about her that could, I think, apply to Erdogan too, to do with the classic saying, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I have to make a confession: Even though I have been in the business, I always talked about that line in a very simplistic way — corruption in the material sense of the word. However, with what’s been happening in Turkey and our prime minister, I think corruption there also refers to the corruption of your ability to analyze the world, to see the picture. What’s happening is that as you become such a powerful leader — thanks to the electors, in many ways — you begin to have lots of “yes” people around you. Again, you know, you might think that I’m trying to carry favor, but I do have personal empathy for him, too. I ran the department of political science composed of 16 colleagues from 1999 to 2001, and I contracted vitigalo, right; it was not an easy exercise. I cannot help but think that running a country of 74 million souls in the neighborhood that he’s doing, in a political system where you have to keep watching over your shoulders, must be very difficult. You also have to appreciate that even though we have had this brilliant electoral democracy in Turkey, I’m not sure that we have enough democrats. There’s a great French political scientist of Lebanese extraction called Ghassan Salamé; he wrote a book way back in the 1990s called Democracy without Democrats? The Renewal of Politics in the Muslim World. I think what we’re still suffering in Turkey is that — it’s not that we don’t have them, but we don’t yet have enough democrats. The people who were out in the streets in the early days of the protests, I consider them as true democrats, including the parents and people. But subsequently, a lot of people who lacked democratic credentials joined the protest and contributed to it turning nasty as well; you have to look at the other side of the medallion there, too. So, Erdogan is trying to run such a country, and I think we need to bear that in mind. Having said that, there is a reality out there, and the reality for the time being is a worrying one.

Q: Can he be trusted in human rights issues?

A: I have heard quite a few people — including U.S. congressman — who have come to know him very closely who consider him very trustworthy. I don’t have personal experience of mine — I also said almost next to, I won’t name the name of the country, to a country neighboring country that has close to relations to the West, saying he’s someone who knows him very closely, and they cooperated back when they were both serving as mayors in their respective cities — am I revealing too much — saying that he considers him 100 percent trustworthy. And, in that context, Sherra, I didn’t respond to your “pan” question. The “pan” question, I know what you’re referring to  — usually it’s referred to as Pan-Ottomanism, Neo-Ottomanism, that they vehemently reject. But people in the Arab and beyond keep thinking that they do have such a project; I think it’s not his project. It more has to do with the foreign minister, because you have to appreciate that the prime minister himself is a very Turkey oriented personality with limited international experience.

Transcribed by Josh Austin