As a predominantly-Muslim democracy, ally of the West, a booming market economy and emerging “soft power”, Turkey has long been identified as a model for the political transformation in the Middle East. However, once the revolutions began, Turkey’s ability to contribute to democracy and stabilization appeared more limited than many thought. Semih Idiz and Ian Lesser explained that Turkey’s longstanding business interests in Libya, Syria and Egypt made it difficult for the country to side with the revolutionaries or for the Middle East civil society groups to trust Turkey as an impartial arbiter.

Another factor that has made it difficult for Turkey to intervene in the Middle East revolutions is their diversity. Semih Idiz noted that the Turkish government has had a difficult time creating a uniform response to the revolutions. Idiz argued that each revolution should be evaluated individually by Turkish policymakers in order to determine any changes in the country’s foreign policy. Without a clear set of values to follow, however, Turkey may ultimately put its commercial interests and personal relationships with leaders first, as seems to be the case in Bashar Al-Assad in Syria or Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. Turkey’s inability to build a strong foreign policy, Idiz said, could diminish Turkey’s influence in the world.

Without Turkey’s model of Islamic democracy to follow, Idiz warned, citizens participating in the revolutions may allow radicals to fill the leadership vacuum and settle for something less than full democracy. In place of Turkey, however, Idiz hoped that Egypt might break through to become a model for the other countries to follow, though its revolution remains far from settled.

Turkey has been fostering relationships with its neighbors in the Middle East for many years, which had contributed to the expectation that it would hold a position of influence the Middle East, Ian Lesser said. However, event Turkey’s role in NATO showed that it values maintaining the status quo. Lesser contended, that Turkey should no longer rely on a commercially-driven foreign policy if it wants to become a regional power.

By Andri Orphanides and Elise Alexander
Edited by Nida Gelazis
Christian Ostermann, Director, European Studies and History and Public Policy Program 

The event was co-sponsored by the Turkish Policy Quarterly, with the support from the Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation.