Is Turkey the best model for Arab democracy?

Despite the country’s remarkable progress, Turkey has yet to solve the ‘Kurdish problem’ and allow press freedom.

turkey flags
Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, Turkey has taken on a leadership role in the Middle East [GALLO/GETTY]

Judging by the hero’s welcome given to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in his just-completed tour of the Arab world, it’s not surprising that, once again, Turkey is being held up as “the best model for change” across the region.

Those boosting Turkey’s standing include not merely Erdogan and the country’s increasingly bold leadership, but equally political commentators across the Arab world (and indeed, around the globe), and millions of Arabs hoping to establish truly democratic societies in the wake of the Arab revolutions.

There is no doubt that the Turkey of 2011 is a remarkable success story in many areas, particularly compared with the political, economic and cultural state of the country less than a generation ago.

But is the country really a model for Arab pro-democracy revolutionaries to look to, as they struggle to establish democratic political systems in the ashes of decades of dictatorship, amid political and economic marginalisation? Let’s look at the record.

Democracy – less than meets the eye

At first glance, Turkey has become a model of democracy and pluralism, and is serving as a beacon for other Islamically oriented parties looking to participate in their emerging political systems. Culturally speaking, the country is, ostensibly, an equally inspiring model: Istanbul is one of the world’s most vibrant and open cities, while the country’s long Mediterranean coastline remains largely a (thankfully) undiscovered hybrid of local and cosmopolitan cultures.

Turkey has had several substantially free and fair elections and a national referendum in the past decade, which have seen one party – the Justice and Development Party (AKP) – achieve and maintain power, and substantively change the country’s constitution, all against the wishes of the previously all-powerful military. Just as importantly, the AKP is not trying to stamp out criticism by its rivals; last year’s constitutional referendum saw particularly intense debate, with Istanbul and other cities festooned with posters freely comparing Erdogan to Hitler.

Yet a slightly deeper look at Turkey’s record on political democracy, an examination that moves beyond the usual focus on elections, reveals a country that still has a long way to go before it can be considered fully “free”.

“[The Internet Law] considerably limits freedom of expression and severely restricts citizen’s rights to access information.”

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe

The Economist Intelligence Unit scores Turkey 89th of 167 countries, which puts it well below the former Sovet Bloc countries of Eastern Europe, or African success stories such as Mali and Ghana – and only a few steps above Palestine and Venezuela. Freedom House’s latest report scores Turkey at only a three out of seven on both political rights and civil liberties, giving it a rating of “partly free”.

A core problem continues to be the large gender gap in political participation, which Turkey ranked 126 out of 134 countries by the Economic Forum in its 2010 Global Gender Gap Index. Given the problems with women’s empowerment in the Arab world, this should be of serious concern to anyone looking to copy the Turkish model.

As important, corruption continues to plague the Turkish political system and economy, and is closely tied to the ongoing restrictions on political parties, on civilian oversight of the military, and press freedoms that belie claims to be a well-functioning democratic system.

Media and press freedoms still restricted

The Economist Intelligence Unit ranking in particular focused on the deteriorating media freedoms in Turkey in recent years, a crucial marker of the environment of political freedom. 

Europe’s main human rights and security body, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, complained last year that more than 5,000 websites had been blocked in recent years. It called for “a very much needed reform” of Turkey’s so-called Internet Law, arguing that it “considerably limits freedom of expression and severely restricts citizens’ right to access information”.

Opposition parties have complained loudly against the AKP’s intention to further restrict internet freedoms, whose loss is evidenced by the slide in Turkey’s ranking in the World Economic Forum’s annual index from 50th place to 89th between 2003 and 2010. Turkey is a “country under surveillance” according to Reporters Without Borders, which places it alongside Russia and Venezuela, two countries with less-than-stellar records on a variety of democracy-related metrics.

Internet censorship is only part of the story, however. Journalists and news outlets can be prosecuted for various offences involving “insulting” the basic principles of the republic. Reporters face arrest, trial and jail terms merely for doing their jobs or expressing opinions. Turkey “still remains a dangerous place”, despite clear advances in the last twenty years, with more than 40 journalists currently imprisoned for their writings or views.

The Kurdish problem, Turkeys Palestine question

The Kurds have long been among the most repressed minorities in the Middle East, whose suffering is comparable in many ways to that of the Palestinians. It is indeed hypocritical for Prime Minister Erdogan to castigate Israel for its ongoing occupation and treatment of Palestinians, as the Turkish government continues to deny basic rights to Kurds, engages in cross-border raids into Iraq, perhaps most importantly, refuses to recognise the national rights of Kurds to some form of self-government, or even robust autonomy.

Historically, the birth of the post-Ottoman Turkish Republic saw the new state’s army conquer territory that was to be allotted for Kurdish self rule by the 1920 Treaty of Sevres, an action that mirrored the British and French inclusion of much of the rest of Kurdistan into their mandates in Syria and Iraq.

The 2009 announcement by the Erdogan government to provide the Kurdish minority more freedom was welcome, but has not been followed through substantively. As Human Rights Watch describes it: “Following the Justice and Development Party government’s encouraging talk of pursuing democratisation in Turkey and of trying to solve the Kurdish problem, prosecutors have turned right around and taken new menacing steps against legal Kurdish political organisations.”

The gap between rhetoric and reality is also evident in the continuing government prohibition against scholars investigating the Turkish narrative surrounding the Armenian genocide, the basic realities of which Turkey still refuses to acknowledge, similar to Israel’s ongoing refusal to acknowledge the basic facts of the Nakba.

Human rights still a broad concern

The Kurdish problem is at the heart of Turkey’s continually troubled human rights record. Kurds have been arrested and jailed merely for being in the vicinity of demonstrations in southeastern Turkey. More broadly, despite the changes made last year to the constitution, numerous provisions restrict human rights and fundamental freedoms, with the criminalisation of opinion a continued obstacle to the protection of human rights.

“Journalists, writers, publishers, academics, human rights defenders, and officials of Kurdish political parties and associations” all continue to be prosecuted on a variety of issues, especially for investigative reporting on matters such as the conduct of the military, adds Human Rights Watch. Newspapers and websites continue to face temporary closures or large fines that are understood to be punishment for their views or reporting.

Trade union activists have been tried for supposed PKK membership merely for supporting Kurdish-language education, and senior leaders of the country’s human rights NGO community have been put on trial because of their support for greater rights, especially for Kurds.

There is ongoing torture and other abuses of prisoners, while the culture of impunity towards abuses committed by security forces continues unabated. Such practices may not touch ordinary Turks or even social activists the way they once did, but they still constitute a significant drag on the country’s democratic development.

The so-called ‘Kurdish problem’ is at the heart of Turkey’s troubled human rights record [GALLO/GETTY]

An economic miracle that is hard to share

At the heart of Turkey’s rise to becoming a regional powerhouse and a role model has been the rapid development of the country’s economy during the past fifteen years or more. Today Turkey stands with Brazil atop the list of developing countries in the levels of development and growth of its economy.

Annual growth jumped from just over two per cent in the 1990s to well over eight per cent in the mid-2000s, as did worker productivity in the all-important manufacturing sector. The country’s growing foreign trade, a position that rivals Egypt and other Arab countries, can only be viewed with envy, as does its low budget deficits and even surpluses it boasts.


However enticing, there are several reasons why the Turkish “miracle” will be hard to emulate across the Arab world.

First, the present dynamic emerged in good measure out of a severe banking crisis early in the decade, which saw the imposition of a reform plan that helped stabilise the financial sector, allowing it to weather the storm of the past few years, while banks in Europe and the US have faltered.

Second, the economy was liberalised in many ways from within, rather than neoliberalised from outside. The rise of the AKP and the period of rapid growth corresponds with the rise of a class of “Muslim” entrepreneurs, symbolised by MUSIAD, or Independent Industrialists and Businessmen’s Association, which helped challenge the previously dominant TUSIAD, or the Turkish Industry and Business association. The latter was long tied to the state-dominated economy, which was riveted by corruption, cronyism, and a lack of farsighted economic leadership.

Beginning with the rule of Prime Minister Turgut Ozal in the 1980s, Turkey opened up as much, if not more, from within than as a result of foreign-imposed structural adjustment. These changes were part of a larger project of wresting control of the economy from the military-dominated state by the country’s once proud, but long-suffering, entrepreneurial class.

In contrast, externally imposed structural adjustment reforms that are the norm in the developing world usually have no roots in the local economy, and thus benefit only a small section of the country’s population.

This economic plan allowed Turkey to chart its own path towards indigenous-generated and locally controlled growth, something most post-revolutionary Arab countries (with the exception of Libya and its huge petroleum reserves) will have a hard time copying, given their much weaker position vis-a-vis the global financial system – a key, if largely unstated, element of the “system” of which “the people” have “wanted the downfall” in this revolutionary year.

Moreover, the Turkish “miracle” would not have happened without a strong bit of historical and geographical good luck: Turkey’s opening accelerated in the wake of the disintegration of the Soviet Union, out of which emerged a group of Central Asian states with strong historical, cultural and linguistic ties to Turkey. As important, many of them were sitting on huge petroleum reserves. The sudden creation of huge potential market right next door to Turkey, with countries with whom it has centuries worth of economic and cultural links, is a situation no Arab country, whether in North Africa, the horn of Africa, or the Levant, can hope to match.

“[Turkey is a] country under surveillance.”

Reporters Without Borders

Although African and Levantine economies have significant potential for development, at this time they are simply not poised to provide markets for Egypt, Tunisia, or Syria – to take three examples – of the kind that Central Asia has provided to Turkey. Because of this, much needed economic growth in the Arab world will depend on a combination of greater trade with a weakened Europe and the developing of myriad more creative, smaller-scale economic relations with surrounding countries that won’t provide the same quick jolt that Turkey’s Central Asia neighbours provided it with at the start of its growth spurt.

It will also mean small producers, manufacturers and traders operating with a level of independence that the country’s elites would likely not support, since they could not control operations – and in so doing siphon off some of the wealth such relations generate.

Religion and the hope for democracy

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Turkey’s political and economic rise has been the positive role of religion within the country’s political and cultural systems. Given the intense debates surrounding the potential role of religion in the new constitutions being developed by post-revolutionary countries across the region, the stable leadership of an officially secular country by an Islamist party – that not too long ago was considered a threat to demcoracy – is quite a development.

Indeed, to witness Erdogan telling the assembled leaders at last week’s Arab League summit – not one of whom yet represents a functioning democracy, despite three seasons of revolution so far – that Egypt should become a “secular state”, sends a powerful message to the region that Islamically oriented parties should not seek to create a state bounded by sharia, even as it angers local movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

Yet here again, the Turkish model is less replicable than might first meet the eye.

Erdogan might well be an “Islamist” (whatever that means), whose party has come a long way from its roots in the conservative and anti-Western Milli Gorush movement. But he operates within a political culture that is still powerfully bound by the six founding principles of the Turkish Republic, chief among them being the secular foundation of the state.

Ataturk removed the language identifying Islam as the official religion of the state in the original post-Ottoman constitution, and secularism has been enshrined in the constitution since 1937, article two of which describes Turkey as a “democratic, secular and social state governed by the rule of law”.

Moreover, despite its official self-identification, Turkey is not really a secular state in the sense many people would understand the term. The state is supposed to take a position of “active neutrality” towards religion – something it’s hard to imagine any newly forming Arab government having the courage to advocate – but in reality the state actively controlled religion through the Diyanet, or State Presidency of Islamic Affairs, which ensured (or perhaps better, enforced) the cooperation of the official religious hierarchy in the new system.

Turks have protested over the role of religion in the country’s politics over the last decade [GALLO/GETTY]

It is in this context of upwards of eight decades of firm state control of religious affairs, within a larger dynamic of the resurgence of a kind of “sufi republican” Islam in the public and economic spheres and the concominate weakening of a military that still plays a powerful role in maintaining the secular order of the state, that Turkey’s possible use as a model for Arab countries in transition must be assessed.

With the exception of Syria and Tunisia, no Arab states have a strong recent history of state secularism, and even in those two cases, secularism was tied ultimately to economic, ethnic and sectarian struggles for power that have ultimately undermined the kind of culture of democracy and pluralism that secularism is supposed to foster.

The growing power of “moderate” Islamist movements (and now political parties) such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Ennahda in Tunisia is thus occuring in a very different social and political context than that of the rise of the AKP in Turkey. There is no comparable institutional secular grounding to balance an organised and well-financed Islamist tendency. The swift post-revolt rise of the Broherhood and Ennahda, neither of which organisationally played a significant role in their countries’ revolutions, is a sign of the struggle that secular forces will face in the coming transitional period.

The increasingly cosy relationship between the Brotherhood and the Egyptian army has even led some younger members to leave the movement. In Tunis, Ennahda, whose headquarters is covered with signs and posters promoting the achievement of “liberty, justice and development” by Tunisians working “hand in hand”, is clearly the best organised and financed of the myriad new political forces. No matter how hard its leaders and activists try to ameliorate concerns about its true intentions, most activists I know, even religious ones not affiliated with the movement, fear it’s all double-talk.

Even as moderate Islamist movements have become adept at playing the democratic political game across the Arab world, powerful, hard to control and sometimes violent Salafi movements are threatening to rend apart still fragile public and political spheres. Not only are they attempting to wrest control of public space from society as a whole, this dynamic, ironically, reinforces the popularity of mainstream Islamist groups as a check on more extremist forces. What this dynamic means for the larger process of democratisation is, however, anyone’s guess.

Just to provide some context to how difficult it would be to create a new contract between religion, politics and society at large, in the same day last week, one prominent Tunisian constitutional lawyer and long-time activist-turned-candidate for the Constituent Assembly spent an hour telling me how the only way to control Islam would be for Tunisia to declare itself an officially Muslim state (“The most democratic states in the world, in Scandinavia, are all officially Christian,” he exlaimed) and emulate the Turkish Diyanet model, while another international lawyer and human rights activist dismissed the idea as being impossible to implement.

Why? Because in the Arab world, to declare a state officially Muslim is to open the door for Sharia to play a strong role in shaping its constitution, something that is not compatible with contemporary universal norms of democracy.

Prime Minister Erdogan, to his credit, seems to know this, which is why he boldly stated that the best solution for Egypt would be a secular state.

Aiming high is the best hope

In Depth

More from Mark LeVine:

 What a difference a decade makes
 Meet Captain Israel, the anti-BDS superhero
 New York becomes the Occupied Territories
 ‘Corporations are people, my friend…’
 Boycotting fascism?

The point in taking a critical look at Turkey is not to minimise the important advances Turkey has made in the past decade towards becoming a well-functioning democracy which protects the rights of all citizens equally and provides for a minimum base of their welfare (without which, as US citizens are quickly relearning, having a functioning formal democratic system isn’t worth all that much). Instead, it is to point out that what problems remain are not merely incidental bumps on a steady road towards full democracy.

They are deeply structural, and will prevent Turks from developing a fully functioning democracy unless and until they are squarely addressed. The process of doing so, however, will mean taking on interests and ideologies that are deeply entrenched within the country’s political and economic system. If they are slowly becoming weakened, this is thanks to a generation-long process that has been helped along by geostrategic and economic dynamics that will be very hard to repeat in the Arab world.

Given this reality, if the Arab world only looks as far as Turkey, it could well wind up not even reaching close to Turkey’s achievements, because the region is starting from a much lower point of political development, has less favourable internal and regional factors to contend with, and has far less time to improve the lives of its citizens than the Turkish Republic has had, before the moment is lost – and passive revolutions begin to take shape that see the installation of authoritarian regimes in the name of stability and devlopment.

As with the rest of the Arab revolutionary awakening, it seems that Arab societies will have to find their own models, each suited to the unique situation of the region’s 22 countries. Turkey is indeed an inspiring story on many fronts, but for the sake of the millions of people who have risked so much to topple the region’s despots, the emerging leaders need to aim higher still.

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and senior visiting researcher at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. His most recent books are Heavy Metal Islam (Random House) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books).

You can follow Mark Levine on Twitter: @culturejamming

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.