Millions in the Arab world, elites and publics, watched the Turkish elections held last May, which begs the question: Why were these elections important for the Arab world?
To answer this question, we review 5 main reasons:
First: Turkey has become part of the Arab world
Islamic thought and Arab nationalism in the theories of the late twentieth century examined the nature of the relationship with the neighboring countries of the Arab world (Iran and Turkey). This thinking was and still is dominated by the concept of the Arab regional order; there was an Arab world with a minimum of common interactions that allowed it to be called a regime.
Arab nationalist thought introduced the concept of "neighboring countries" to describe the relationship between the Arabs and both Turkey and Iran, in a clear distinction between them and the Zionist enemy. Arab Islamic theorizing introduced the concept of "pillars states" to chart the relationship with the two Muslim neighbors closest to the Arab world.
These descriptions may have worked before Turkey transformed over the last decade into being part of direct interactions in the Arab world, especially after the concept of the Arab regional order weakened, when many of its countries acted without a system that unites them but according to their narrow self-interests.
Turkey grew increasingly present in the first decade of the twentieth century, after Turkey's Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, as a model of Islamic democracy. This period also saw the political rise of the Muslim Brotherhood movement in several countries, and both Turkish and Arabic versions of Islamists were compared.
A significant segment of Arab Islamists saw in the Turkish elections an attempt to regain their presence after they went through multiple defeats during the Arab Spring era in Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and Sudan
Trade exchange between Turkey and the Arab world increased, reaching almost five of Turkey's exports and imports, and Turkish products - for their cheap price compared to European and quality - were popular with the Arab consumer, which deepened confidence in the Turkish product.
The matter developed in the era of the Arab Spring so that Turkey was part of the direct interaction with the Arabs when it supported the Arab movement and lined up behind some political forces, especially the Brotherhood in the region, and sided with countries at the expense of others, as happened in the blockade of Qatar, and thus was an essential part of the polarization and the policy of regional axes that dominated this period and the setbacks or coups that took place in it against these uprisings.
Turkey's presence was not limited to politics and economics, but soft power blended with solidity. Soft power was expressed in Turkish soap operas - historical and social - in addition to the positions of the Turkish president on many issues, foremost of which is the position on the Palestinian issue, in addition to activating the developmental and humanitarian role using aid that exceeded $ 8 billion.
Erdogan has designed a determined foreign policy shift focused on expanding Turkey's military and diplomatic footprint. To this end, Turkey has launched military interventions in countries including Azerbaijan, Iraq, Libya and Syria.
Turkey's military presence in the region is constantly growing
- In Iraq: It operates military bases in northern Iraq to fight the PKK.
- Syria: Occupies territory in the northwest, fighting Kurdish militants.
- Libya: Supports western Libya with military advice and weapons in the face of Haftar and his coalition.
- Qatar: Operates a base and trains local forces.
- Lebanon: Assists UN peacekeeping operations.
- Somalia: operates a base and trains local forces.
- Sudan: Seeking a base on Suakin Island, had it not been for the coup against Bashir in 2019.
Second: Erdogan's Divisive Charisma
Erdogan enjoyed captivating leadership, but it was in no case consensual. His positions were one of the fault lines in the Arab world.
The Brotherhood in Egypt called for secularism in 2012, while in power, infuriating them, while at the same time taking a decisive stance on the coup against them in 2013.
An important observation in this context is the multiplicity of aspects of Erdogan's personality among the Arab public; it is not limited to the political aspects only, but extends to the religious dimensions.
In a 2019 poll of trusted religious figures conducted in a number of Arab countries, Erdogan ranked ahead of all Arab countries, surpassing Sheikh Dr. Yusuf al-Qaradawi, may God have mercy on him. When respondents were asked: Which of the religious leaders below do you agree with? Erdogan also outperformed many well-known religious leaders in most of the countries surveyed.
We note here that the Arab political imagination is looking forward to seeking leadership that expresses its hopes and aspirations. Erdogan has succeeded in invoking a significant sector of this imagination with his statements, positions, and extensive use of identity politics mixed with economics.
Consensus on the Islamic model may not be achieved in the Turkish example, but the fairness of the elections and a turnout of more than 80% stimulated jealousy among all Arab political factions, regardless of their ideological affiliations.
Third: The elections were part of the political polarization in the region and with the West.
A significant segment of Arab Islamists saw in these elections an attempt to regain their presence after going through multiple defeats in the Arab Spring era in Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Sudan and other countries. Some saw Erdogan's victory as a search for the Muslim world for the "model state," not for the Islamists themselves for their lost model, which they lost in the Arab Spring.
We are facing what I called the tyranny of the model with imagination, which sees its embodiment in the Turkish experience in a world that rejects, conspires against and distorts the Islamic idea. The tyranny of the applied realist model with imagination and dreams makes the Islamist mind identify with it without having any critical vision that allows this model to be argued according to the values proclaimed by Islam.
Just as Islamists recalled their experiences of governing the countries of the region, their opponents also saw the Turkish elections as an opportunity to prosecute Islamists in the region and assert their end just as some did. The two sides did not deeply understand the nature of the two alliances competing in the Turkish elections, which were able to transcend secular Islamist polarization and Islamist nationalism, and succeeded in building alliances that cross ideology. The Arab mind did not succeed in realizing this because its political experience failed to build such alliances.
Thus, the Turkish elections were an opportunity to re-evoke polarization around Islamists, but biased and unprofessional coverage by a large segment of the Western media against Erdogan also allowed polarization between the West and the Muslim world to be evoked.
In his first decade in power, Erdogan presented himself as a bridge between the West and the Muslim world. Some argue that Turkey's role in bridging the West and East will continue, but Ankara's focus could now shift to "being firmly established in the East and ready to retain the West. at arm's length." In these elections, identity politics were used on all sides, and manipulated by all for electoral gain. While the economy was the main driver of voting, identity issues have also proved resilient.
Fourth: Longing for Freedom and the Turkish Example
Consensus on the Islamist model may not be achieved in the Turkish example, but the fairness of the elections and turnout of more than 80% stimulated jealousy among all Arab political factions, regardless of their ideological affiliations.
I followed as much as possible the Egyptian elite's controversy over the Turkish elections, and the main feature of it was jealousy of the experience and comparisons between Turkey and Egypt, especially as Egypt is about to witness presidential elections in 2024.
These elections were compared to the realities of the presidential elections in Egypt 2012, when they were not decided in the first round – as in Turkey – and were won by the Brotherhood candidate by a small percentage compared to his rival, as well as the awareness of voters in both countries.
Is the Arab imagination still excited and driven by the yearning for freedom inaugurated by the Arab Spring era? A question that we have been exposed to a lot in several articles, the latest of which was the article published a few days ago on the Al Jazeera Net website, in which we concluded that the aspiration of Arabs – especially young people and women – to freedom, justice and human dignity continues, which is a general human aspiration.
Fifth: Arab refugees in Turkey
The Turkish elections are no longer a matter for Turks inside and outside alone, but will affect the results of the 5 million refugees who have been displaced over the past decade.
The issue of refugees was at the heart of the electoral struggle, polarized around it, and I think many of them breathed a sigh of relief after Erdogan's victory. Erdogan has adopted a compromise on this matter that allows for the voluntary and safe return of them, especially Syrians.