Turkey’s popularity in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) has shrunk over last three years, with particular sharp drops among the Syrian and Egyptian public, a field study conducted by a Turkish think-tank says.
While 78 percent of respondents in the 16 countries subject to the study had a positive view on Turkey in 2011, the percentage declined to 69 percent in 2012 and 59 percent in 2013.
Conducting the research for the fifth time, the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV) made phone interviews with 2,800 people in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Tunisia, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait, Yemen and Libya. Respondents were asked questions on their views on Turkey as well as issues related to the MENA region in general.
In Egypt, Turkey’s approval rate was registered as 38 percent in 2013, whereas the same data was 84 percent in 2012 and 86 percent in 2011. Syrians' support for Turkey was 22 percent in 2013, dropping from an already low rate of 28 percent in 2012 and 44 percent in 2011.
Following the July coup that overthrew Mohamed Morsi, the former Egyptian president, Turkey’s conservative Justice and Development Party government has been an outspoken critic of the new regime, frequently bashing its crackdowns in public statements and expressing support for Muslim Brotherhood-backed Morsi. The countries recently expelled each other's ambassadors.
Similarly, Ankara has stood against the regime in Damascus in the Syrian crisis, expressing support for the opposition, harbouring thousands of Syrian refugees and letting armed rebels using its territory in various ways.
Syrians think Turkey is ‘unfriendly’
Eighty-eight percent of those surveyed in Syria think that the Turkish government has been "unfriendly" towards their country, while the same rate is 68 percent in Egypt. In Iraq, 58 percent of the people polled gave answers in the same direction.
Iraq’s Shia dominated government and Ankara have had a thorny relationship for the last couple of years as a result of sectarian tensions and Ankara’s close ties with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq. Baghdad and the KRG have been in dispute over sharing of oil wealth, land and other issues.
The decline recorded [in Turkey's popularity] in the last three years is due to the turmoil in the region and Turkey’s related policies
Meanwhile, among the interviewees, 90 percent in Libya, 88 percent in Tunisia, 87 percent in Palestine, 80 percent in Gulf Cooperation Council countries (excluding Saudi Arabia), 79 percent in Saudi Arabia and 78 percent in Iran believe the Turkish government is "very friendly" to their country.
"The Perception of Turkey in the Middle East Survey has been conducted for the last five years. Popularity of Turkey was very high in 2009. The decline recorded in the last three years is due to the turmoil in the region and Turkey’s related policies," Dr. Sabiha Senyucel, the director of the TESEV's foreign policy programme and one of the writers of the report, told Al Jazeera.
While 64 percent of those polled think that Turkey’s influence on MENA politics is growing day after day, a decreasing number of people believe Ankara should play a larger role in the region – decreased from 71 percent in 2011 to 60 percent in 2011. Fewer believe Turkey can be a model for the region compared to the previous two years, the rate dropping from 61 in 2011 percent to 51 percent in 2013. The rate is particularly low in Syria, Egypt and Iran, with a significant drop in Egypt's approval rating.
Respondents increasingly think that Turkey is pursuing sectarian policies, with data increasing compared to 2012 in all of the subject countries. Thirty-eight percent said Turkey had been following sectarian policies, an increase of 9 percent from last year. The rate is 54 percent in Syria and 45 percent in Egypt, both increasing significantly.
In comparison, 65 percent said Iraq, 62 percent said Syria and 61 percent said Iran had been involved in sectarian policies.
"Respondents generally think that regional politics have become increasingly sectarian. Turkey's policies are also seen as more sectarian than last year. Although I personally do not think this is the case [Ankara pursuing more sectarian policies], Turkey being perceived this way does not help its image in terms of neutrality," Senyucel said.
|Graph for Turkey story [Al Jazeera]
Middle East issues
Across the MENA region, the UAE is rated first in terms of positive perceptions, followed by Saudi Arabia and Turkey. In 2011 and 2012, Turkey topped the ranking.
Among the respondents in 16 countries, 43 percent said the coup was good for Egypt, whereas 46 percent said it was a bad development for the country.
Meanwhile, positive views on the Arab Spring have decreased. Only 37 percent said that the process had been good for their country – the ratio was 52 percent in 2011 and 44 percent in 2012.
In 2012, economic problems had topped the list of the most important regional issues in all 16 countries except Iraq, while in 2013 political issues and security/terrorism issues were frontrunners in various countries such as Egypt, Lebanon and Tunisia. In Iraq and Libya, the Western presence or threat is seen as the number one issue of importance.
When respondents were asked about the most pressing issue in their home country – instead of the whole region – economic issues still far topped the list with 39 percent followed by security/terrorism issues at 16 percent.
Economic issues remained the far highest national concern for Iranians at 86 percent while 54 percent in Libya and 30 percent in Syria think security issues or terrorism is the most pressing national problem.
Regarding powers outside the region, positive perceptions on Russia and China have increased. The percentage of people thinking these country’s governments are friendly to their country stand at 80 and 71 percent respectively.