Category Archives: Middle East Politics

Elections in Turkey

The victory of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) was very much expected in the recent Turkish Parliamentary elections that took place on June 12. The AKP managed to get 49.9% of the votes which is not sufficient for an overall majority in the parliament and means that the winners will likely have to seek cooperation with their opponents in order to achieve certain goals. Below we examine the possible outcomes of the AKP’s attempts to create a new constitution as well as assessing the broader outlook for Turkey as it goes forward.
Even without the vast majority that many expected, the AKP’s victory is clear and will help it to start implementing its agenda, albeit with more difficulty than it would like. Of course, this agenda has been much discussed over the last weeks and many of its points are probably known by now. Among other things it includes Turkey’s relations with the EU, the Kurdish question, energy policy and the effort to create a new constitution. The latter point about the new constitution is the culmination of Erdogan’s policy since the AKP’s first election in 2002 which aims to weaken Turkey’s “Deep State” – or in other words the military’s influence in political life – and reduce its influence in the state’s governing apparatus. This will enhance and ease the AKP’s rule by promoting its political objectives, especially its challenging foreign policy agenda.
The efforts to create a new constitution seem like a relatively easy and mostly bureaucratic undertaking since, as has been argued by many, the AKP will likely be able to implement it eventually, either through cooperation in parliament or a referendum. That would, of course, be yet another victory for the AKP after the success of the referendum of September 12, 2010 and the past elections. But this is far from the reality. The political battle[1] that Erdogan and the AKP are about to fight, is perhaps the hardest since the “Ergenekon” case where Kemalists, linked to the army, planned to overthrow Erdogan’s government.
It is important to note that a large part of Turkish society, approximately 30% or more, still supports the Kemalist character of the state and is concerned about the future of the country under the Islamist government of Erdogan. Perhaps the gradual emergence and strengthening of Islam in the country’s political life was inevitable since Kemal’s attempt for modernisation overlooked the extent to which Islam was part of the culture of the people and elites. Nonetheless, Erdogan’s policy today is not all that different. Since 2002, using the guise of Turkey’s candidacy for EU accession and its quest for democratisation, the AKP has implemented various reform packages which aimed, among other things, to undermine the Kemalist influence. We have seen, however, that this process has not left the Kemalist generals unmoved for yet again in the history of the Turkish state, they have tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to overthrow the government.
In this light, Erdogan’s attempt to implement a new constitution could be shown to be an even greater danger to the country’s stability. The Kemalists, though weakened, are likely to react unpredictably if a serious attempt to revise the constitution were to take place, since it is this very constitution that made them protectors of the Turkish state and the guardians of the Kemalist principles. In essence, Erdogan is methodically trying to uproot the ideology upon which the creation of the Turkish state rests.
The AKP’s challenges in establishing a new constitution are expected to be stiff. In terms of Turkey’s policy on issues such as the Kurdish Question, the Greek-Turkish Relations and the Cyprus problem, the country’s behaviour is not likely to change. This is mainly because of the geo-economic developments in the Eastern Mediterranean as well as because of Turkey’s questionable ambition to become part of the EU. At its core, the clash between Islam and Kemalism is a conflict over power. However, in national issues (e.g. Armenia, Cyprus, Greece), the interests at stake are the same for both sides.

[1] There has always been a political battle between Kemalism and Islamism (in this case the AKP). Kemalism (named after Kemal, the founder of Turkey) is the ideology upon which the creation of Turkey was based and is mainly driven by secularism and nationalism while opposing the engagement of religion (Islam) in politics. The armed forces are by law the protectors of the Kemalist principles. Islamism – and particularly Turkish political Islam – has its roots in the Ottoman tradition and culture. Since the mid-20th century up until today it has been getting stronger and more involved in the state’s political life, thus causing a clash between the secular Kemalists and neo-Ottoman Islamists.
Zenonas Tziarras
Posted on June 26, 2011, on

Will Libya be the New Iraq?

The coalition military intervention in Libya that began on March 19th was an example of a well coordinated and organised operation, with a legitimate legal mandate in the form of UN Resolution 1973. Nonetheless, there are several debates regarding the intervention in question as well as the strategy that is being followed by the coalition.

There are two central questions that should be answered in order to understand the discourse regarding the intervention in Libya: (a) what do we want to achieve? (b) How far are we willing to go? If the operation has limited goals such as the maintenance of the no-fly zone it would probably be qualified as a success whereas if the plan is to intervene politically undertaking peace/state-building operations, it might result in a catastrophe or in a long-lasting, torturous situation like Iraq.

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The Bahrain Chess Game

While the revolution in Libya has for many turned into a civil war between the rebels and the pro-Gaddafi forces, the situation in Bahrain is also deteriorating. The intensification of the demonstrations and the possibility of this turning into a violent conflict could have serious implications for the Middle East and the US in the near future.

Even though the revolution in Bahrain has similar socio-economic characteristics as other revolutions in the region, it also has an ethnic-religious component. The uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya led the Shiias to escalate their already protracted struggle against the discriminatory policies of the ruling Sunni minority. Furthermore, the Sunni government has strong relations with America’s ally, Saudi Arabia whereas the Shiias have strong bonds with Iran, which has been accused of fuelling the demonstrations in Bahrain.

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Between Democracy and Islam

The seismic uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya coupled with the riots and demonstrations in Jordan and Iran have shaken the region and the world. Whilst the results of these revolutions thus far have varied, no one can doubt that the Middle East left behind will never be the same again. What do these revolutionary movements herald for this volatile part of the globe and what would democratic reform mean for these countries and the West?
In the cases of Libya and Egypt, what has happened could be characterised as a revolution since elements within either the police or the military sided with the demonstrators to a greater or lesser extent. However, in other cases such as Iran or Bahrain the demonstrations have so far been contained relatively easily by the regimes.

One characteristic of the revolutions in the Middle East has been the lack of organisation, the absence of common goals amongst the demonstrators, and an inability to look beyond the present task of getting rid of the incumbent. In this sense, even though the media have presented these demonstrations as being pro-democratic, they are essentially anti-regime. They have also been characterised as movements driven by radical Islamist ideas which could, as Gadaffi warned ominously, transform one state after another into a potentially more extreme version of Iran. Yet in the example of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – the party most likely to rise to power after Mubarak – we have not seen evidence that it is willing or able to take the reins of power. On the other hand, we cannot easily disregard the possibility that Islamist radicals might take advantage of the virtual state of civil war in Libya. Moreover, since the Libyan military is already deeply divided it is unlikely that it will be able to maintain the same degree of relative stability as its Egyptian counterpart did recently, leaving a definite opening for Islamist groups to exploit in a post-Gadaffi state.

After such powerful demonstrations against Arab regimes, it is clear that whatever forms of governance develop, due attention must be given to the public’s demands if peace and stability are to be sustained. In Egypt and Libya, as well as in most of the other states where repressed societies are confronting their respective regimes, the next governments that come to power either by force or through elections could easily be Islamist. Whether the states that emerge are moderate or radical, the parliaments which are formed will almost certainly have a strong Islamist representation.

Thus, the pluralistic template of government which the West is advocating as the answer to the region’s problems could easily have negative results for western interests if Islamic parties gain influence, even if they are democratically-inclined. The result would be a region where an element of Islamic governance and democracy coexist as seen in the case of Turkey. Such a model, containing a paradoxical mixture of economic liberalism and cultural-religious conservatism, would likely preserve a significant degree of Islamic nationalism, both in foreign and domestic policy, in order to maintain social cohesion.

If we use the Turkish model of governance to analyse the future of the regimes in transition, we can easily envisage a region where Islamism has a very prominent role. Such a model would allow the Arab-Muslim states to develop economically through trade and increased financial ties with the West. Conversely though, the common element of Islamism could also intensify feelings of solidarity among Muslim states, while not necessarily reviving the idea of Pan-Arabism.

Equally significant is the impact that such a development might have on the balance of power not only in the Middle East but also internationally. Countries such as Egypt and Libya might no longer support American operations in the Middle East as they have previously. As seen in 2003, Ankara refused to allow American troops to enter Northern Iraq though Turkish soil to prevent any negative ramifications for Turkish interests in Kurdish Iraq or Kurdistan.

Therefore, there is a huge amount at stake for the US and the West as these momentous events continue to play out. Crises like those in Egypt and Libya recently illustrate the misguided strategic planning of the US with respect to the Middle East in emphasizing the stability of local regimes over a desire to see their Arab clients promote genuine democratic values. If the revolutions in the Middle East unfold as has been suggested above, then, the emergence of a distinct Islamic pole in the center of the world map is far from implausible.

Posted on on March 5, 2011

Turkey’s Grand Unknown Strategy

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Barak Obama

Turkey’s actions and foreign policy are evidence of a well shaped long-term geopolitical strategy. Analysing the facts brings us to the understanding that Turkey’s foreign policy objectives extend further than it seems.
Overall, Turkey has aligned itself towards the West. It is an ally of NATO and the U.S, it seeks E.U membership, its government strives for democratization and westernization with a very expanded diplomatic agenda. On a regional level, it follows a peaceful ‘zero problems’ policy with its neighbours, in addition to becoming an energy transportation hub. Through these strategies the country seems to want to emerge as a regional superpower with strategic weight to the West.
Although the above illustration of Turkey is, to a great extent, valid, it is relatively simplified compared to reality. Ankara’s ambitions seem to be much greater. Although its relations with the U.S. remain largely stable, Ankara does not hesitate to challenge them by collaborating with Iran and Russia in the economic and energy/nuclear field. Furthermore, Erdogan’s recent statements on the Palestinian problem conflict show a hostile attitude towards Turkey’s traditional ally, Israel. This action primarily aims to approach the Arab-Islamic states using Islamic solidarism and also to internationally “alienate” Israel.
Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has released provocative statements on the importance of Turkey to the E.U. and also on the fact that Turkey does not need the E.U. to emerge as a major strategic power which indicate the balanced diplomatic rhetoric of Ankara.
Regarding the wider Eastern Mediterranean region, Turkey is doing everything it can to prevent the control – through mutual agreements and the delimitation of the Exclusive Economic Zones – of underwater energy resources from Cyprus, Greece, Israel and Egypt. Finally, regarding the Cyprus Conflict, although Turkey seems to want a solution, it keeps delaying it seeking more concessions or new parameters that would allow it to handle not only the North but also the South marine part of the island. However this does not seem to be easy because of the increased diplomatic relations of Nicosia with its neighbours.

A clear shift
The result of the above equation, which includes many other summands, is clearly indicative of an emerging Turkey spreading its “tentacles” in every direction. Turkey aims to play not only a regional but also a global role. Its changing relations with Israel, the provocative attitude towards the U.S., NATO and the EU, the prospect for its own nuclear program, its cooperation with Iran and Russia and the closer relations with the Arab-Muslim world show a gradual but clear shift of foreign policy towards a more autonomous, stronger and global role. It should be noted, however, that although this scenario is realistic, is not a near future scenario.

Means to an End
An important point to be made is that Turkey has currently an absolute need for the millions of Euros of EU funding it receives for its development and in order to achieve its objectives. In this light, Ankara appears to be using the EU for its own gain but at the same time is not showing the necessary political will to properly entering it. Let us not forget that while in past years Turkish public opinion was in favour of joining the EU, this has now changed dramatically. Erdogan’s government cannot just disregard this fact because the Turkish public opinion has always been a key factor in Turkish foreign policy and because, now more than ever, AKP (Erdogan’s party) needs the support of the people in the upcoming elections. Furthermore, Ankara seems to be using its position in the NATO alliance to seek funding and the placement of weapons facilities in its territory which is one of the reasons why Turkey still keeps close relations with the US and NATO.

Conclusion: Realistic but not so easy
To conclude, it is clear that Ankara’s ambitions extend beyond the borders of the Middle East and the greater Mediterranean region. The emergence of Turkey as a global power is visible and its efforts for a global and regional Islamic cooperation under the Turkish umbrella is not impossible to be materialised. To fulfil its goals mobilizes all means available; exploits all the resources; takes advantage of all of its allies and creates policies with long-term results. However, Turkey has still a long way to go and plenty of time to get there. We should not forget that a lot of things might happen during this course, given the fact that we live in a constantly changing local, regional and international system.

Zenonas Tziarras
Posted on on December 10, 2010