Turkey can’t avoid new post-Arab Spring mindset

Occupied with old fears, Turkey must not lose sight of the bigger picture of the Arab uprisings.

People walk in city''s busy Istiklal Street in Istanbul [AP]
People walk in Istanbul's busy Istiklal Street [AP]

Before the onset of the Arab uprisings, Turkey had a functionalist approach to the region. It prioritised economic integration over the push to open up politics, in the belief that deepening economic ties would inevitably have a political spillover. The logic behind this approach was that once countries developed economically, political opening would be a matter of when, not if. 

When the wave of people’s uprisings swept across the streets of the Arab world, Turkey faced an unexpected challenge. The political foundation of Turkey’s economic integration-based approach began to crumble.

Turkey then swiftly readjusted its policy by allying itself with these waves, which it saw as, in the words of Ahmet Davutoglu, then foreign minister, “the natural flow of history”.

This flow, they felt, was destined to reshape the future of individual Arab societies, but also the region at large.

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Following this reading of the uprisings, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then Turkey’s prime minister, was the first  statesman to call upon the ageing Egyptian autocrat Hosni Mubarak to step down in response to the mass protests.

The mood in Turkey was upbeat, and the political elites considered the turn of events an irreversible process that would define the region’s future. In sum, Turkey firmly supported these uprisings.

Turkey’s identity considerations

Critics claimed that this policy was ideological and driven by Turkey’s identity considerations at the time. Policymakers in Ankara rebuffed these criticisms. In fact, countries’ perception of their identities and interests aren’t mutually exclusive. To the contrary, most countries have historically seen their identities and interests as very much aligned.

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As such, the ruling elites were firm believers of the veracity of their approach. As the main supporter of the people who took to the streets demanding change, Turkey considered itself a beneficiary of this process of change because at the time it was believed that the people Turkey was supporting would come to power in their respective countries.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu [EPA]
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu [EPA]

The reason for Turkey’s interpretation of the uprisings can be found in its own political history. These events were not only a political phenomenon, but also a social issue for Turkey. For Ankara, the uprisings in the Arab world were as much a domestic political issue as they were a foreign policy matter.

The government’s stance on the Arab Spring has come to serve as a political marker. The Islamists and other conservative segments of society have staunchly supported the uprisings, seeing them as a natural irreversible historical process.

The secularist section of society harboured reservations towards these events. As a corollary, the uprisings sharpened and strengthened the ideological convictions of the Islamists/conservative sections and reshaped their political inclinations.

The causes of democracy and Islamism were seen to be in sync, which was deemed in accordance with the zeitgeist of the time.


As I have previously argued, the perception that Islamist movements across the region were leading the way for change rekindled Islamist sentiments among the conservative segments of Turkish society, resulting in a sort of soul-searching.

The causes of democracy and Islamism were seen to be in sync, which was deemed in accordance with the zeitgeist of the time.

Moreover, conservatives believed that affinity with Islam rather than secularism, nationalism, or a combination of both, was set to become the new and “required” reference point and source of legitimacy for political movements preparing to come to power region-wide.

Such a reading of the event emboldened conservatives to be more at ease with publicly promoting their Islamist identities.

Old fears resurrected

Yet the protracted nature of the Syrian conflict has dented this optimism, and the Egyptian coup has almost shattered it. Faced with the challenges of the messy process of change and a civil war in Syria, Turkey is once again gripped by some of its old fears.

It now strives to tackle the ramifications of the regional collapse, be it in the form of millions of refugees, the spillover of radicalism illustrated by the recent waves of bombing in Turkey, or a growing Kurdish challenge brought by the Kurdistan Worker Party’s (PKK) militancy as well as the Democratic Union Party’s (PYD) armed forces’ territorial expansion in northern Syria along the Turkish border.

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With these new considerations, the previous region-wide vision has turned into a more introverted reading of the implications of the Arab Spring. Turkey increasingly sees the Arab Spring through the lens of its domestic political challenges.


Internal debates surrounding Geneva III Syrian peace talks confirmed this point. Turkey’s PKK issue was playing itself out in these debates. Turkey spent most of its energy in the run-up to Geneva III on trying to exclude the PYD, an offshoot of the PKK, from the talks, which it has achieved for the time being.

Developments in Syria were the primary factors that derailed Turkey’s Kurdish peace process.   

Driven by these fears, Turkey risks losing sight of the bigger picture in the region. There is already a great deal written on the failure of the Arab uprisings, with their unfulfilled promises, and there is no need for further rhetoric on what Arab uprisings have not delivered. Instead, it is appropriate to talk about what they have delivered.

New political psychology

The events in the Arab world have ushered in a new political psychology. Irrespective of all the pangs of transitions and the resilience and brutality of the authoritarian regimes, this new psychology does not accept the authoritarian stability thesis – Syria and Egypt are clear examples.

The major battle in the region is taking place over the reshaping of this new political psychology. Regional countries, radical groups and defunct authoritarian structures are striving to fashion this political psychology in their own image.

Unfortunately, Turkey is ill-prepared to reshape this political psychology. The country’s tumultuous domestic political scene saps most of its energy. However, this is no excuse for Turkey to reduce the scale of its involvement with the Arab uprisings and their implications. There is no island in this sea of instability.

As the region collapses, Turkey needs to fully engage in the battle of reshaping the new political psychology, for it is this new psychology that will redefine the region’s future.

Galip Dalay is a senior associate fellow on Turkey and Kurdish Affairs at the Al Jazeera Centre for Studies, and research director at Al Sharq Forum.

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