Turkey in minefield as popular uprisings engulf Arab world



Libya’s leader Muammar Gaddafi has been facing massive protests for a week

For any foreign policy maker in any country, the Arab world looks like nothing but a minefield these days as massive protests erupt one after another, bringing down not only oppressive but stable administrations of the past decades but also any sense of predictability as to what a post-turmoil order will look like.
For a smaller group of a few countries that also includes Turkey, the situation is even more complicated as the wave of unrest hit Libya, a country home to 25,000 Turkish citizens, some of whom run business projects worth $15 billion.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an openly backed protesters demanding now-former President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation and repeatedly urged the long-time leader of Egypt to do as the protesters say during an 18-day protest campaign that began in late January. Less than two weeks after Mubarak’s resignation, massive protests are now being held in Libya against Col. Muammar Gaddafi and, in Turkey, many have already begun to call on Erdo?an to speak out against Gaddafi as he did against Mubarak in the name of consistency in foreign policy.

Once the imminent concerns about the safety of its nationals in Libya are addressed, Turkey will be facing a daunting task of drafting a strategy on how to deal with the new situation in the Arab world. The famous democracy-or-stability dilemma will keep being revisited, as seeds of unrest are visible in several other Mideast countries

But as thousands of Turks flock to Libyan airports to be evacuated, confronting the Libyan administration may not be the most wise policy option. Mindful of dangers facing Turks in Libya, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davuto?lu declared the safety of 25,000 Turkish nationals on Monday the government’s top priority. Turkey, an emerging regional leader, has long favored stability in its dealings with Middle Eastern governments and dramatically expanded political and business ties with its southern neighbors. When Egyptians took to the streets seeking to overthrow their long-time president, Turkish policy makers found themselves facing a dilemma over whether to go for stability or democracy. The result was a cautious policy that apparently favored stability, a stance that was in place even in the first days of the Egyptian uprising. But when Erdo?an urged Mubarak to heed the protesters’ call for change in an emotional speech on Feb. 1, a message he repeated frequently until Mubarak’s resignation, Turkey emerged as a leading proponent of democratic transition in the Middle East. The reaction to the uprising in Libya, in which dozens were reported killed, represents a return to caution simply because this is the kind of stance that the realities on the ground require.

“No one can blame the government for considering the safety of Turkish nationals as its top priority,” said Soli Özel, a foreign policy columnist. While Turkey still has the moral responsibility of defending democracy, it should be aware that it has to work with the Gaddafi administration to ensure the safety of its citizens, Sami Kohen, another foreign policy columnist, pointed out in a telephone interview with Today’s Zaman.

Prime Minister Erdo?an spoke to Gaddafi over the phone on Sunday evening to discuss the safe evacuation of the Turks, officials said on Monday. In contrast, Erdo?an avoided any contact with Mubarak in the course of the 18-day campaign against his rule. The prime minister also refused to return a controversial human rights award he received from Gaddafi a few months ago despite calls from Turkish liberals, according to a statement from his office on Monday.

In remarks that appeared to be mindful of the ethical responsibility of defending democracy on the one hand and pressing concerns about the safety of Turkish nationals on the other, President Abdullah Gül said all rulers should listen to people’s demands while emphasizing that the government’s work has now focused on what to do to ensure the safety of Turkish nationals and businesses in Libya.

Uncharted waters

Once the imminent concerns about the safety of its nationals are addressed, Turkey will be facing a daunting task of drafting a strategy on how to deal with the new situation in the Arab world. The famous democracy-or-stability dilemma will keep recurring, as seeds of unrest are visible in several other Arab countries, ranging from Bahrain to Jordan, and even in non-Arab countries such as Iran.

For Kohen, the way Turkey has conducted relations with its Middle Eastern neighbors also needs to be reconsidered in the light of lessons from the recent turmoil because the old way of closing business deals with autocratic leaders is unlikely to work in a post-revolution Middle East. “Basing relations on good ties with autocratic leaders will prove to be risky,” said Kohen.

The uprising in Libya also confirm that Turkey’s policy will be based on a wait-and-see approach as events keep unfolding in the Middle East. This pragmatic stance means no one should expect Turkish leaders to come up with the same strong pro-democracy rhetoric if similar protests break out in other Middle Eastern countries, such as Turkey’s close friend Syria. In recent remarks, a senior diplomat explained that the proper stance to take is to go case by case, assessing every situation in its own merit and, inevitably, on the basis of Turkey’s national interests. “Principles are good, but it is interests that guide a country’s foreign policy,” said the diplomat. “This is valid for every country, not just for Turkey.”

For Özel, the turmoil in the Middle East is also a wake-up call for the Turkish government, which at times appeared excessively confident about Turkey’s capacity to establish an order in its region. The lack of an established opposition in any of these Arab countries means predicting what the future holds for these countries and their relations with Turkey is highly difficult. Modesty as to limits of Turkey’s capacity to influence events is key given the fact that there are too many things about these countries that neither Turkey nor another country sufficiently understands.

Leaving Libya to Turks

One of the things that might have stunned Turks about Libya is the apparent skepticism towards Turkey. Libyan television on Saturday broadcast pictures of dozens of people, said to be from Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan, Syria and Palestine as well as Turkey, who were arrested in several cities in Libya for alleged involvement in a broad conspiracy to destabilize the country and undermine national unity. “It is out of the question that Turks were involved in political activities in a foreign country,” Gül said when asked to comment on the charges.

Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam Gaddafi also made an unpleasant reference to Turkey when he vowed to fight the popular revolt to “the last man standing,” saying “we will not leave Libya to the Italians or the Turks.”

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