Turkish PM in conversation, part 4: The Arab Spring and Turkey’s future

Has the Arab Spring failed to go far enough? What kind of complicating factor is ISIS? Turkey's PM calls for a stategy to ensure democracy survives in the region–and hints at the opportunity Europe has.

Richard Falk Ahmet Davutoğlu
17 December 2014

This conversation, which took place on September 28 2014, is in four parts - here is part 1part 2, and part 3. There was much internal debate at openDemocracy about whether or not to publish the series. Read the Editor in Chief's reasons for doing so, along with the many responses we have invited: Behlül Özkan on the dangerous flaws in the AKP's foreign policy; Bulent Gokay on why Turkey will only become a real global power when it has a functional democracy; Bill Park on how governance is becoming more troubled under the AKP; Alexander Christie-Miller on the mass arrests of journalists this weekend; Firdevs Robinson on why Turkey's politicians must not be let off the hook; Oguz Alyanak on how they live in a parellel universe–and the political scientist Umut Özkırımlı on why we should not have published this piece at all.

turkish army kobane.jpg

Turkish tanks deploy close to Kobane, Syria. Demotix/Björn Kietzmann. All rights reserved.

Is the Arab Spring dead, or has it just started?

Richard Falk: After the Arab Spring you were very optimistic about revolutionary processes of change, but if you look at the situation in the region now, there is an atmosphere of either restored authoritarianism or civil strife. There is chaos in the case of Libya, and to some extent, Yemen or Syria and Iraq.

So was there something in the Arab political culture that made this 2011 move to seek democratization premature or even doomed to failure? Or should one attribute these setbacks to the broader regional and global framework, which includes intervention and lots of complexities? In effect, we did not see in 2011 the societal and international forces that have produced this regressive cycle.

I shared your enthusiasm and hopes in 2011. I too saw a great risk in removing the ruler without doing something about the regime that the ruler had relied upon. Egypt is the basic example. The movement removed the head of state while leaving the system basically intact.

If we compare the Arab Spring with the Iranian revolution, we can appreciate the importance of Ayatollah Khomeini’s refusal to accept many offers of compromise. He seemed to understand that it was necessary to have a total victory if the goal was a sustainable political order capable of superseding the old order. Would you agree that this was the failure of the 2011 movement in Egypt, to go far enough?

Ahmed Davutoğlu: This question about the Arab spring is very interesting. Yes, at first, I was optimistic about the Arab Spring. There was an international conference in Doha in March 2011, shortly after the uprisings began. Its title was, ‘Has the Future Arrived?’. The title of my speech was ‘Not only arrived, but long delayed’. This political transformation in the Arab world should have been completed much earlier, at the same time that there were democratization processes under way in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Because this was a deferred outcome of the Cold War. The Cold War ended in Balkans, but had not ended in the Arab world.

It did not end for two reasons. Firstly, there were autocratic regimes in the Arab world, like Baath, which had been under the influence of the Soviet Union. Then, in the 1990s, the first attempts to establish democracy in North African countries were blocked by the international system, which had supported the democratization process in the Balkans, but did not do the same in the Middle East. They thought to do so would bring into being an uncontrollable system. So this process of political change was delayed. The Arab Spring erupted like an earthquake; once these geopolitical components of the politics shifted, suddenly, there was a reaction. Still, I believe that in the end the necessity of political change is there, and it will be achieved one way or another.

In 2011 there was a wave of democratization and in 2012, orderly elections were held in Yemen, Libya, Egypt, but unfortunately not in Syria, because of the failure to stop the massacres by the government. The regime continued to massacre people and that resuscitated the hopes of the autocracies. 2013 was the year of counter-revolutions against these waves: in Egypt there was a coup d’état, which Assad loved, because autocracies love each other although sometimes they fight against each other. Similarly Maliki in Iraq, who not long previously had been accusing Assad of being a terrorist, chose to support him in 2012 and 2013.

These reversals against change happened because of the domestic forces in the Arab world that benefited from these autocratic regimes. In 2012 they lost elections, but then they gathered together their forces that had been disturbed by the process, both in the domestic and the international spheres. Of course the international system and the UN were inefficient in preventing the violation of human rights, as for instance in response to the Syrian use of chemical weapons by Assad, violating a fundamental rule of international law. This was one of two major turning points.

The other was the coup d’état in Egypt. So these created a hope in autocracies and frustration among the masses, who were disappointed and then allowed themselves to be pushed towards the embrace of extremism. For instance, Syrian society was never radicalized as such before this. It was actually a rather moderate society. But when people could not see any prospect of success, radical groups were able to recruit forces from among the population and to spread the war, transnationally.

There are three forces in the international community. First there are those that favor a democratic transition and support democratic groups: Turkey and several moderate democratic forces. Second are those political actors that are scared of democracy. These states prefer autocrats to govern their country: Saudi Arabia, UAE, and the Gulf Countries, except for Qatar. The third group is countries that are sectarian, like Iran. Before, the first two were united against Iranian influence, so they worked together against Assad. However, after Sisi, that coalition has collapsed because a new option has emerged. Here, there were only two options: either Egypt would function as a democratic country or it would revert to authoritarian rule. But the first of these options threatened countries like Saudi Arabia. In the secular option, the autocrats would be returned to power. Although they might be religious in their social lives, their mode of governance would be purely secular.

Iran used this whole uncertain period in a very efficient way to exert influence in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. But when the Sunnis who are the majority in those countries were excluded, not having any other options, they supported ISIS and other groups. We actually tried to convince the Americans for three years running that Maliki’s policies would lead to sectarianism, which could only result in the exclusion of Sunnis and their radicalization. Obama actually conceded to our president at a recent Nato summit that we were right on this. But it is too late now.

We told them, if the Syrian regime is not stopped, moderate forces will lose, and that we had to give support to the Free Syrian Army. But since we did not support them sufficiently, Assad was able counter them, and Assad and ISIS formed an alliance against these moderate forces. Since there is no no-fly-zone, Assad’s army, which was not willing to fight on the ground, could attack the moderate forces, making ISIS stronger and stronger on land, where they also received help from Iran in the beginning.

Now that ISIS is very strong in Iraq, we have an altogether more complex situation. We should not forget that the democratic process that started in the Balkans began in 1988, but in 1993 there was a war in Bosnia. So if you looked at the democratic process in the Balkans in 1992, you would have said that Milosevic was surviving and the autocrats were returning to dominate the scene. But at the end of the day, they lost. The Arab Spring started in 2011 and four years has not yet passed. I do not think that this process has finished in the Middle East. The Arab Spring started in 2011 and four years has not yet passed. I do not think that this process has finished in the Middle East.

The difference between the Balkans and the Middle East is in the financing of democracy. In the Balkans, EU and Poland there was strong financial support, but in the Middle East there has been no external financing. For instance, when the Egyptian economy collapsed, Mohamed Morsi was expected to improve the economy within one year. But he was supposed to get the economic means to do so from where? There was no domestic accumulation of capital in Egypt, nor any assistance from outside, and there was no reform-oriented bureaucracy. Morsi came to government overnight, without any experience. In this combination of circumstances there was no chance for democracy to survive.

RF: How do you describe the Turkish response to ISIS? It has been criticised from various points of view, including that of the Kurds in Turkey.

AD:  Turkey’s stance towards ISIS is very clear: it  has not changed since the day ISIS emerged. ISIS militants are terrorists and Turkey did not, and will never, tolerate ISIS’s offences. However, if ISIS goes, another radical organization may come in to fill the vacuum. This is why our strategy should be comprehensive and inclusive. We should not just punish one terrorist organization, but eliminate all terrorist threats in the region, as well as eliminating for the future all the brutal crimes against humanity committed by the Assad regime. 

[Ali Babacan, deputy prime minister, joins the conversation.]

RF: Are you optimistic about the next ten years?

AB: It depends on what we’ll be doing. Taxation is important, but so also are social support mechanisms. In addition, there is the element of competition, and it is very important to get better competition in the economy. We seek to improve income distribution. Actually the UNDP is now in the process of making a study of Turkey to see how better competition has helped to raise the overall quality of competition. Because when competition is not robust, there is a tendency to produce ultra-rich people very quickly. While when competition is working well, it is not often that this happens, because in every single sector there is rivalry.

RF: The overarching question is to what degree the national economy is reconcilable with the global economy. If I have understood what you have said correctly, individual countries do have enough room for policy manoeuver to make this reconciliation possible. Many countries, the US for instance, are a very big failure in this sense: the rich have gotten much richer, the middle classes have suffered a relative decline, and the poor are poorer than ever.

AB: We control our own economic policies, but we need to think more broadly as we will be chair of the G20 nations next year and we need to put more emphasis on global economic policy. We need to develop better links between the G20 and the less developed countries. We are going to host the first humanitarian summit ever held.

How can we introduce some humanitarian aspects into the G20 process? These are the issues that we are thinking about. In cooperation with Queen Maxima of Netherlands we are introducing a new financial item onto our G20 agenda. She has responsibilities for this; she is the Special Representative of Ban-ki Moon. She visited me last week, and we discussed these subjects.

On immigration issues Peter Sutherland, chairman of Goldman Sachs International, also has responsibility for global immigration and we are going to be working with him on the UN’s immigration agenda. Determining how to have the G20 reach out beyond purely economic policy is very important for us.

RF: What about the agricultural policy? Do you have any specific comparisons of Turkey to other countries? It used to be that Turkey was an agricultural country, but I guess it is changing internally and globally.

AB: 34% of our population used to be engaged in agriculture but now it is 24%. It has changed in the last 12 years. We used to be the eleventh ranked country in the world in agricultural GDP, but now we are seventh because as we grow, our agriculture also grows, although as a percentage of GDP it has decreased. The fact that we have passed through a period of hyper growth enabled us also to increase our agriculture. Bear in mind that when it comes to agriculture we are a closed economy, but when it comes to industry, we are a member of a customs union. That doesn’t affect our agricultural goods. [Turkey has a Customs Union with the EU that ensures that most goods are traded without tariffs. Agriculture is excluded from it to protect European farmers, since Turkish agricultural produce would be significantly cheaper than in most of Europe.] On the other hand, we are now in talks with the EU to enlarge the scope of the customs union to encompass agriculture and services.

RF: Is the trans-Atlantic trade agreement between the US and EU going to affect Turkey?

AB: TTIP is a very big development and we support it. A similar process is under way in the Pacific with TPP. We have already started to talk with the EU and US about how to link Turkey into these frameworks. The president also mentioned this to Obama. But we do not yet have a specific mechanism to link Turkey to these organizations and are looking for the best way. Food safety is something we are working on as part of the G20 agenda. We are also planning to have a meeting of agricultural ministries within the framework of G20, but we are not sure how to conduct this. It has never been done before.

RF: Is it true that Turkey is buying large tracts of land in Africa?

AB: We have just one deal with Sudan, but this is in the framework of a partnership enabling Turkish companies and the Sudanese government to work together. We are going to be providing the finance and technology and Sudan will provide the land, and this is basically for agricultural development. It is not the land grabbing or exploiting China might go in for. It is based on an equal partnership.

RF:  I am sure the Sudanese government protects its interests.

AB: All the workers in the project will be Sudanese. And the government in Sudan has many problems, including a budget deficit, so they don’t have the means to finance this kind of project. One way of helping them may be giving cash, but another way is to offer them the possibility of using their lands productively. When I went to Sudan a few years ago and had a chat with the president we thought that this was the best way of helping Sudan. The arrangement then is best understood as a partnership.

AD: The German mentality says that Poland should be a buffer zone between them and Russia. The opposite mind set operates in the Middle East. The Gulf could have financed a democracy in the region, but instead they have financed autocrats. The Gulf states are surviving solely because of oil.

Western democrats are no different from democracies anywhere, but the situation is different in the Middle East because of oil. For the survival of Saudi Arabia, there must not be a democratic regime in Egypt. And another issue is the security umbrella. Nato, for instance, provided a security umbrella in Bosnia and Serbia, but in the Middle East there was no security umbrella. As a result of this, the military in these countries is the only force able to restore peace and public order. And the military, as we discussed in relation to Turkey, prefers autocratic regimes to democratic governments.

RF: You spoke of the need to adapt to US economic policies in your speech to the parliament, but failed to make any reference to China throughout your comprehensive presentation. Yet China is expected to be the number one economy in the world before 2023. How does China figure in your vision of the world of the 'new Turkey'? 

AD: We have deep-rooted, historical, ethnic and cultural relations with the countries in East Asia and we attach special importance to our relations with China. As two ancient civilizations and developing countries, we have recorded considerable progress in our relations since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1971. Our relations are based on mutual trust and respect in many fields.

Reciprocal high-level visits in recent years have been instrumental in further enhancing, developing and diversifying our bilateral relations. As a continuation of our close cooperation with China in various fields, our relations were elevated to the level of ‘strategic cooperation’ in 2010. 

China is our biggest trading partner in East Asia. Our trade and economic relations include large-scale infrastructure projects, energy, space industry, transportation and tourism.

Our common vision with China for a safer and better transportation from and to Asia and Europe as well as the need for increased cultural exchanges and people-to-people contact led to the development of the Silk Road Projects.  

Given the economic characters of our two countries, we are determined to optimize our trade and investment potentials and maintain a sustainable and mutually beneficial trade relationship. Moreover, close cooperation between China and Turkey continues in international fora such as UN, G20 and CICA. China will without doubt continue to have a special place in our vision of the world of the ‘new Turkey’.

RF: A distinctive feature of your vision is the concept of a 'geo-civilizational worldview.' What is implied? How can this be actualized?

AD: One of Turkey’s unique features is its sense of belonging to a number of distinct geographies all at the same time. We enjoy a shared history and culture with all the countries in our vicinity. Our geostrategic location in the midst of a vast Eurasian geography, on the other hand, places us in a position to relate to and influence the developments that are key to the future of the world. This wealth of common culture with the neighboring nations constitutes the moral ground for our policies aimed at reaching a higher level of cooperation and stability in our region.

Actually, in today’s highly interdependent world, building common values is the key to achieving long lasting peace and stability. We have always opposed confrontational categories based on provoking civilisational differences, like the west against Islam or the west against the others.  This approach cannot in any way contribute to global security, nor to the necessary readjustment process of the international system. 

RF: What steps will Turkey take to raise its profile in the upcoming climate change negotiations?

AD: Today, climate change has become one of the major challenges facing humanity and nature. The existence and impact of climate change has been scientifically proven. It is now time for the policy makers to take immediate action to mitigate the impact and adapt to its unavoidable consequences through appropriate policies and resources.

In this regard, negotiations for the post-2020 Climate Change Regime under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) are of utmost importance. Turkey is fully committed to this negotiation process. Turkey trusts that this process will deliver an effective regime for addressing climate change. Turkey calls on all stakeholders to bear responsibility and to continue engaging in the process. The responsibilities should be defined in accordance with the ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ principle of the UNFCCC and the respective capabilities of the parties to the Convention. Turkey expects to reach a fair, flexible, inclusive legally-binding agreement in the Paris conference in 2015.

RF: Turkey continues to emphasise its hopes for full membership in the EU, but the signs from Europe continue to be unforthcoming with respect to achieving this goal. In view of the economic difficulties of the EU, as compared to Turkey, is it really in the interests of Turkey to become a member at this point? Does anything make you think that the EU will move away from its opposition and accept a large Muslim country as a member? Is it really in the interests of Turkey to become an EU member at this point? Does anything make you think that the EU will move away from its opposition and accept a large Muslim country as a member?

AD: Since signing the Association Agreement in 1963, we have developed a multi-faceted and multi-dimensional relationship with the EU. Preserving and carrying forward this relationship is in the interests of both Turkey and the EU. As reiterated in the government programme, EU membership is Turkey’s strategic objective.

Accession negotiations constitute one of the main pillars and the driving force of Turkey-EU relations. As a country that attaches importance to its reform agenda, Turkey will continue to take steps towards full compliance with regards to the political and economic criteria as well as to meeting the norms and standards of the EU.  

The customs union has been an important aspect in our relationship with the EU since 1996. It has been an instrument for modernising our industry and closely integrating the Turkish economy with European and global markets. The customs union has so far been economically beneficial both for Turkey and the EU. Turkey is the sixth largest trade partner of the EU and the EU is Turkey’s biggest trade partner. Foreign Direct Inflow (FDI) to Turkey between 2002 and 2013 was 112.1 billion USD. The share of the EU countries in FDI inflow to Turkey has been around 71% in the last decade. The EU is therefore the main investment destination for Turkish companies.

As a negotiating accession country and a close economic partner of the EU, it is our sincere wish that the EU overcomes the current financial and economic crisis. Historically, the EU has rebounded from previous crises and managed to move to the next stage of integration. We hope that the new EU leadership will navigate through these troubled waters and resume economic growth, as was the case in the past. 

We continue to encourage European leaders to approach our accession process from a strategic perspective rather than the short-term political interests of some member states. We reiterate our firm belief that if the EU is to remain the largest economy in the world, it needs dynamic new members like Turkey. Turkey’s accession will also strengthen the influence of the EU as a global actor and increase its credibility within the Muslim world by confirming that it is not an exclusive ‘Christian Club’ but rather a union of democratic values and economic interests. Turkey’s accession would constitute a great opportunity for the EU to adapt itself to the necessities of our era.

Read on: Here is part 1, part 2 and part 3–and here again is a summary of responses from the Editor in Chief.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email

Related articles


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData