ARAB SPRING AND TURKEY
Former Minister of Foreign Affairs
Arab Spring has become the generic name of a series of uprisings that took place in several Arab countries one after the other during the year of 2011. One may argue whether this name is still relevant but I believe that everybody understands what is meant when we say Arab Spring.
In this article, first I will say a few words regarding the developments in every single Arab Spring country, and then I will try to assess their implication on Turkey.
Tunisia is the first country where it started. It started with the self-immolation of a young Tunisian by the name of Bouazizi on 17 December 2010. His cause had nothing to do with what happened afterwards. He was neither aiming at overthrowing the regime of the President Zain el Abideen Ben Ali in Tunisia nor start a contagious uprising in several Arab countries. He set fire on himself to protest the offense directed at his human dignity.
The way the events unfolded in Tunisia indicate that the public opinion was already unhappy with the regime of Ben Ali and that this unhappiness had reached such a point that it needed only a small spark to explode.
Upon the uprising that followed the self-immolation of Bouazizi, President Ben Ali had to abdicate and leave his country for Saudi Arabia.
The transitional administration that took over the administration after the fall of the Ben Ali regime organized the elections on 23 October 2011 as promised. The seats won by the major parties are as follows:
En-Nahdha (Moderate Islamist): 89
Congres pour la Republique (Social democrat): 29
Areedha shaabia (Islamist reformist): 26
Et-Takatul (Social democrat): 21
The other parties won small numbers of seats that is not necessary to mention here.
This distribution indicates that the moderate Islamist party En-Nahdha emerged as the strongest party. However, it cannot form a government without the support of one of the three parties mentioned above, because parliamentary arithmetic that is necessary to form a majority government requires that the number of the seats that is controlled by the government should be at least more than 108 in a parliament of 217 seats in total. Therefore, the biggest party En-Nahdha will need a coalition partner to form a government. Since En-Nahdha is the most pious Islamist party, any other party that will be invited to become coalition partner of En-Nahdha will be less motivated with Islamic ideology.
Aware of this subtlety, Mr Ghannoushi, the leader of En-Nahdha, pointed out in a statement that he made immediately after his election victory that his party will not try to impose Sharia in the Tunisian society, that it will not force the ladies to wear scarf and that it will not ban serving alcohol in the restaurants.
One may expect that political parties of other Arab Spring countries with similar Islamist background will be inspired from this moderating attitude of En-Nahdha party.
Events in Libya started when the security forces of the Gaddafi regime opened fire on the crowd that was demonstrating against the government. The United Nations Security Council, upon the initiative of France, adopted on 17 March 2011 a Resolution to “protect the civilians from Gaddafi’s soldiers”. A “Coalition of the Willing” is formed with the participation of certain NATO member countries and their air force carried out a big number of air attacks to destroy the operational capacity of the Gaddafi forces. Mainly thanks to this support Gaddafi was captured and shot dead.
The future of Libya is full of uncertainties because the opposition is much fractured. Furthermore, the parties that were fighting did not return their weapons to the authorities. They are still holding them most probably to be used when power sharing will be disputed at the aftermath of the uprising. This is all the more important because power sharing is also connected to the sharing of the country’s enormous oil revenues.
Transition to the post-Mubarek era took place more or less orderly since it was the SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) that took over the administration.
The first round of the elections is held on 28 November 2011. The proportions of the votes won by the major political parties are as follows:
Freedom and Justice Party (Muslim Brothers):36.6 %
En-Nour (Salafis-Conservative Muslim): 24.4 %
Liberal Bloc of Egypt: 13.4 %
Wafd (liberal): 7.3 %
Wasat (Conservative): 4.3 %.
These are the results of 9 constituencies where the elections are held. There will be two more rounds of elections to be held in the remaining 18 constituencies. These proportions are likely to change further in favour of the Islamist parties because the remaining 18 constituencies are in the rural areas where the Islamist parties are stronger.
When the SCAF started to drag its feet and pointed out that it should be allowed to select 80 of the 100 members of the Drafting Council of the new Constitution, the Tahrir Youth who started the Egyptian revolution took again to the streets and challenged this attitude of the military. The SCAF made also statements aiming at preserving several privileges that the military enjoyed during the Mubarek era. The Tahrir Youth opposed this as well. However, one may expect that the military establishment will do everything possible to preserve as much privileges as possible before turning the administration to the elected civilians.
Yemen and Bahrain
The events in these two countries have taken a more predictable course. In Yemen the President Ali Abdullah Salih agreed to hand over the administration though he did not do so yet.
In Bahrain the uprising of the Shia population of the country against the Sunni ruling family is repressed by the Saudi forces who rushed to send a military contingent under the label of the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) forces.
The developments in Syria are very important for Turkey, because Turkey shares a long border with Syria and it has more common points with Syria than with other Arab countries. Furthermore, Syria is also important for the Middle East in general. There is widespread perception that “In the Middle East, no war could be fought without Egypt and no peace could be made without Syria”.
Almost 20-25 people are killed each passing day in Syria. The death toll is believed to have risen to around 5000 in mid-December 2011.
The Arab League persuaded the Syrian regime to receive observers from Arab countries to observe whether unarmed civilians are killed in the country. However, it remains to be seen to what extent Beshar Assad regime will honour this promise.
Turkish leaders suggested to Beshar Assad to lend his ears to the voice of the public opinion, to manage the reform process and to be remembered in the history of Syria as a leader who led his country to modernity. Assad promised to do so but he did not keep this promise.
There are internal and external factors that limit the freedom of action of Assad.
One of the internal factors is the possible outcome of democratic reforms. The power basis of the Assad regime relies mainly on the Allawite minority that constitutes around 8 % of the Syrian population while around 80 % of the population is Sunni. If democratic reforms are carried out in the country, a political party that will gather the support of this Sunni majority is most likely to come to power. Then the electorate will urge its government to keep the present leaders accountable for the killing of around 5000 people since the beginning of the year. The same electorate may also attempt to take the revenge of a much bigger massacre that took place in 1982 in the Syrian city of Hama, at the time of father Hafez al Assad. The death toll of Hama repression is believed to be around 30 000. I was the Counsellor of the Turkish Embassy at that time and visited Hama immediately after the massacre. I still remember the devastation that was caused to the city. I presume that those who lost their loved ones remember all the more so that massacre and that they will put pressure on their government to bring to justice the perpetrators of these massacres. Beshar Assad may be reluctant to carry out democratic reforms in order to avoid such a consequence.
Another internal reason that may have limited the freedom of action of Beshar Assad is the attitude of the corrupt ring that is nestled in the leadership of the Baath Party. Most of the corruption rings have extensions in the close entourage of Assad. These people will most probably do their best in order to persuade Assad that he should not go along with the suggestions made to carry out democratic reforms.
As to the external factors, one of them is the attitude of the Russian Federation. Russia pointed out that it will oppose any military intervention from outside in the internal affairs of Syria. It is not easy to overthrow the Assad regime with the forces of the domestic opposition. Foreign countries will most probably refrain from a military intervention in Syria unless international legitimacy is ascertained. International legitimacy can be ascertained only in case there is a United Nations Security Council resolution to this effect. Since Russia says that it will oppose such a resolution, there is no way to forge international legitimacy without the support of all permanent members of the Security Council including Russia. Therefore, this attitude of Russia will encourage Assad regime to resist any pressure on the question of democratic reforms.
The second external factor is Iran’s attitude. Iran has already expanded its political influence in Iraq. This influence will become more pronounced now that the US troops are withdrawn from Iraq. Iran has also a strong influence in Lebanon through the Hezbollah that is very strong in the country. Therefore, the missing link for Iran to expand its zone of influence all the way to the Mediterranean is Syria. Iran will do, for this reason, everything possible with a view to maintaining Assad regime in power in Syria.
In view of these internal and external factors Beshar Assad is likely to resist as much as he could to the pressures for the democratic reforms.
The effects of the Arab Spring on Turkey
Turkey will definitely be affected from the Arab Spring. Developments regarding Egypt and more so regarding Syria will affect Turkey more than the other Arab Spring countries.
Egypt is an important country for the entire world but especially for the Arab countries. Its role in the Arab region will be limited if the turmoil continues to prevail in the country. Its relations with Israel will remain unpredictable as long as stability is not established. Its relations with Turkey will not take their final shape before a stable government is formed and the domestic politics calm down.
The pre-requisite for Egypt to stabilize is free and fair democratic elections and reduced role of the military.
The mistakes committed by Turkey on the question of the role of the military establishment may set an example and become a source of inspiration for Egypt. Two points are worth being underlined in this context:
One of them is that the generals who carried out a military coup in Turkey in 1980 had inserted a provisional clause in the Constitution that they drafted before turning the power over to the civilian authorities. This clause was providing that the generals who carried out the 1980 military coup could not be brought to justice for what they have done during the military rule of two years. The present ruling party in Turkey submitted this clause to the referendum and it was deleted. As a consequence of this the generals can now be brought to justice. Therefore, if the Egyptian military resorts to a similar measure to protect itself from future prosecution, this experience of Turkey may demonstrate that such a measure does not secure a lasting protection and that the prevalence of the will of the people cannot be limited.
The second point worth underlining is that in Turkey, like in Egypt, the military establishment is regarded as the custodian of the secular regime. As democracy evolves in Turkey, the custody of the secular regime is also shifting gradually from the army to the civilian people.
Of course the political environments are not the same in these two countries. In Turkey secularism is a provision enshrined in the Constitution since more than 70 years. Therefore, secularism is a regime internalised, digested and owned by the Turkish people while the situation is slightly different in Egypt. The Article 2 of the Egyptian Constitution provides that “Sharia is the main source of legislation”. Therefore, it remains to be seen whether the custody of the secular regime could be taken over by the Egyptian people from the military as smoothly as it was done in Turkey.
The effects of the Syrian uprising on Turkey
Turkey cannot remain indifferent to Syrian uprising for several reasons:
Firstly because of the long border that Turkey and Syria share. In case Syria falls into chaos there may be hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing towards Turkey. This happened a few decades ago in the Turkish Iraqi border. More than 300 000 people massed at the border. The international community encouraged Turkey to open its border, but when the refugees entered Turkey the international community turned its back and the burden of looking after these refugees remained in Turkey’s shoulders alone. If I remember correctly, Denmark admitted 7 of these refugees to its country, Sweden admitted 4 and remaining 300 000 stayed in Turkey.
Another reason for Turkey’s interest in the Syrian affairs is that Syria is Turkey’s gate to the Middle East. The most economical routes to the Middle Eastern countries go through Syria.
Did Turkey do the right thing by siding with the opposition to the Assad regime? Turkey could not turn a blind eye to the continuous killings of unarmed civilians in a friendly country. So it did the right thing by advising the Syrian leaders to carry out the democratic reforms. However, Turkey seems to have put all its eggs in the basket that assumes that the Beshar Assad regime will fall soon. According to a basic rule in diplomacy a country should avoid putting all of its eggs in one single basket. It has to split them to several baskets so that the risks of losing its eggs are reduced. Predicting the fall of a regime is like predicting earthquake. It may happen in the next five minutes or it may happen fifty years later. If Turkey’s assumption that Assad’s fall is soon, it may benefit from having made the right assumption. However, if this assumption turns out to be wrong, the Turkish-Syrian relations may remain strained for some time to come. If we were talking about the relations between Turkey and a distant Pacific island country the deterioration of the relations would not be felt much, but when we talk about two neighbouring countries like Turkey and Syria, it becomes a slightly different matter. The strained relations will affect negatively the interest of both countries.
The evolution of events in the Arab Spring countries will vary from one country to the other. The ultimate outcome of the events in each country is also likely to become different.
Democracy cannot be expected to dawn immediately after the uprisings subside. Neither could it be expected to flourish by introducing the legislation similar to the ones in democratically advanced countries. Democracy is more a matter of culture and tradition than that of passing good legislation. It involves free and fair elections. Fair elections require the unrestricted right for individuals to stand as a candidate for civic posts. It involves secret ballot and open counting of votes. It involves transparency in the process of elections. It involves properly functioning recourse procedures for election irregularities.
In conclusion, we will be able to say that democracy has started to take roots in the Arab Spring countries only after the political parties that come to power after the uprisings are replaced by other political parties. Otherwise Mubarek and Assad dynasties will be replaced by other political dynasties.