No government can stay in power despite the people…Therefore I’m asking you to listen to the people’s voice and their uttermost humane demands. Welcome the will of the nation for change without any hesitation.” So said Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, when he called out to then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak during a public address on February 1st, 2011, a full ten days before Mubarak’s resignation. The speech was delivered in Turkish to an audience of MPs from Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), but quickly translated by his press office and disseminated to various news agencies and list-servs around the world.
The fact that Erdoğan was so willing to publicly side with the demonstrators well before it became evident that Mubarak would be ousted indicates Turkey’s eagerness to assume a leadership position in the new Middle East. Whether the country can achieve that position, however, remains to be seen.
Turkey’s Return to the Middle East Stage
Turkey has shown an increasing interest in the region for some years now, starting with AKP’s rise to power in 2002, and especially after the party’s second electoral victory in 2007. During its first term, the AKP leadership emphasized its commitment to Turkey’s traditional grand strategy and vigorously pursued EU membership, perhaps in part to assuage fears both at home and abroad about its supposedly hidden Islamist agenda.
AKP’s second term, however, has been marked by a great sea change in the country’s foreign policy, away from Europe and towards the Middle East. Under the leadership of the new foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey has shown greater interest in its southern and eastern neighbors than at any other period since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Many in Turkey attribute this change of heart to the AKP’s disillusionment regarding European support for the Turkish headscarf ban in particular and with European attitudes about Islam in general.
This shift may also have been fueled by the virulent opposition from Turkey’s secularists, embodied in domestic legal challenges brought against the AKP by the country’s secular forces. After nearly being dissolved by the Constitutional Court in 2008, the AKP may have calculated that pursuing the secularist agenda of EU membership was unlikely to bring the party any secularist support, making it less of an attractive proposition. In addition, as I have argued elsewhere, the shift was at least partly structural, stemming from changes in the international system, such as the decline in American power and the rise of Asia as a viable geopolitical center.
Whatever the reason, in the last few years, Turkey has pushed for closer economic and political relations with countries such as Pakistan, Syria, Iran and even Sudan. The greatest shift in Turkish policy has, however, occurred with regards to Israel. In January 2009, Erdoğan walked out of the Davos economic summit in outrage over Israel’s December 2008 – January 2009 bombing of the Gaza Strip. Later, the two countries exchanged bitter words over Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s treatment of the Turkish ambassador; upset over how Israel had been depicted in a Turkish soap opera the Israeli government registered its protest by forcing the Turkish ambassador to sit in a seat that was physically lower than that of Lieberman at an official meeting between the two countries.
A near breaking point in diplomatic relations occurred over the flotilla incident in 2010, when Mavi Marmara, a Turkish ship attempting to break the Gaza blockade with the implicit blessing of the AKP government, was boarded by the Israeli military in international waters. In the altercation that followed, Israeli Defense Forces killed by nine activists, causing great outrage in Turkey.