One of the unexpected consequences of the current unrest in the Middle East and North Africa is the potential elevation of Turkey’s role to that of regional power.
On Feb. 8, a leader of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Ashraf Abdel Ghaffar, stated inIstanbul that he would be taking refuge in Turkey until the demonstrations back home to remove Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak from power succeeded. Abdel Ghaffar praisedTurkey, referring to the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) political role, and declared that his movement considered the AKP to be a model for Egypt after Mubarak. On Feb. 10, Turkish media quoted Abdel Ghaffar as saying “there might be dialogue” between the Muslim Brotherhood and the AKP.
These developments and the AKP’s comments critical of Mubarak during the crisis makeAnkara a de facto protector of the Muslim Brotherhood and a potential powerbroker in post-Mubarak Egypt.
Since the AKP came to power in Ankara in 2002, there has been an intense debate over whether the party’s Middle East-focused foreign policy has genuinely made Turkey a regional power with influence in Middle Eastern capitals. Until the upheavals in Tunisia andEgypt, this did not seem to be the case. The AKP’s foreign policy line, defending Hamas andIran’s nuclear program, fell on deaf ears in most Arab states where regimes were worried about Hamas-related instability and Tehran’s growing regional influence.
Now, with the Muslim Brotherhood emerging as a key player in Egyptian politics, the AKP, as an advocate of the movement, has found an ally and a voice in Cairo. The same may apply toTunisia, where the Islamist Renaissance Party has emerged from the shadows since the fall of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. Moreover, if unrest in other Arab countries were to topple more dictatorships as in Tunisia, or force them to recognize opposition groups as inEgypt, the AKP could gain a significant number of allies in Arab capitals.
Ties between the AKP and the Muslim Brotherhood go beyond short-term political expediency. In recent years, leading AKP politicians, including Turkish Prime Minister RecepTayyip Erdogan, broke their political teeth in the Muslim Brotherhood’s Turkish derivatives. This included the Welfare Party, the predecessor of the AKP, during the 1990s; and the National Salvation Party during the 1970s. The Muslim Brotherhood, the Welfare Party and the National Salvation Party have all had similar political and social objectives, such as a desire to turn a narrowly-defined conservative brand of Islam into the moral compass of Turkish society. They have also displayed a strong dislike of secular democracy as well as of the U.S.
The networks that emerged from the collaboration between Muslim movements has lasted for decades. The links between the AKP and the Muslim Brotherhood members allowed for the development of mutually supportive political and personal friendships.
Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is likely to take part in the transition process now that HosniMubarak has been removed from office, and the movement may eventually join a new government. Throughout this process, the AKP will likely defend the Muslim Brotherhood as an ally and strive to maximize its role in Egyptian politics. The Brotherhood, in turn, will seek to provide its foreign policy vision, one shared by the AKP in Ankara, with greater leverage in Cairo.
We are witnessing the effective end of Turkey’s decades-long policy of strategic isolation from the Middle East. The secular parties that ran Turkey until 2002 chose to coordinate regional policy with the West. After 2002, however, AKP supporters argued that the party’s new Middle East-centered approach would help to transform Turkey into a regional power, especially since the AKP did not seek to act in concert with the West. Until the Arab protests this year, this approach did not produce many results. Not only did the AKP fail to wield influence in Arab capitals, it also alienated the country’s traditional Western partners for it often broke ranks with the West on Middle Eastern issues. In other words, the AKP could neither have its cake nor eat it.
Now, the AKP may at least be able to eat its cake. The party will not only continue to pursue its own path on issues such as Sudan and Hamas, it will also have the benefit of a receptive audience and political relationships to support such policies in Cairo and elsewhere. After nearly a decade of disappointments, the AKP’s Turkey is now emerging as a regional power thanks to Arab revolts all around.
Soner Cagaptayis director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where he is also a senior fellow. This article is reprinted by permissionfrom the author.