The Arab Spring in Perspective: Implications for Europe and Turkey by Mesut Özcan

17 March 2014, İstanbul Policy Center 

I will analyze the Arab Spring in the Middle East, what has changed after the Arab Spring and its effects on Turkish foreign policy. To start with, when we look at Turkish foreign policy towards the Middle East, we can say that the year 1999 was an important turning point for two main reasons.

Mesut OzcanOne reason is the capture of Ocalan and decline of security threat against Turkey. The second reason is the EU candidacy. These two points dramatically affected Turkish policy in general and also Turkish policy towards the Middle East in particular. From that year on, we see a kind of engagement with the region. There are several ways of this engagement.On the one hand, Turkey tried to develop good political relations with the Middle Eastern countries. In order to do this Turkish policy makers and the regional actors established a kind of rapprochement. If we look at the Syrian example we would see that the relationship between Turkey and Syria has been problematic maybe since the very beginning of the establishment of the Republic. The death of Hafiz Esad and Ahmed Nejdet Sezer's (President of time) participation to his funeral enabled a new beginning in the bilateral relations. Regarding the engagement policies of Turkey, the aim was to have good political connections. Unless you have connections with the political actors there, then you will not have any economic or cultural connections either. In order to achieve these connections, several high level political dialogues were conducted between Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and other countries.

To support this political dialogue and political engagement, there was also a kind of economic engagement. Turkey signed several free trade agreements with the countries in the region; with Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia, and other countries. Just after the economic crisis in 2001, the Turkish government supported the export oriented business people, thus the share of the Middle East increased in the Turkish economic development.

Another type of engagement was the cultural engagement. Turkey and some countries in the region abolished visas mutually. This was an engagement policy in Turkish foreign policy towards the region before the Arab Spring. The main aim for policy makers was to achieve 'evolutionary change' through using these types of engagements. On the one hand Turkey is changing and on the other hand there might be a similar change in the region. In the light of these developments we could expect a kind of an evolutionary change. However, with the onset of the Arab Spring, or Arab Awakening, we had the 'revolutionary change'. In such revolutionary changes it is not very easy to predict what is going to happen afterwards. It was very difficult for many actors and for Turkey to forecast the outcomes and to device their policies accordingly.

When we look at what happened after the Arab Spring, case by case, and how Turkey reacted to different cases we can describe a general trend. The general trend in Turkish foreign policy was to be in favor of the change. Turkey was siding with the change. And as it was mentioned by Mr. Polenz, people who experienced the Arab Spring had some political demands. They were asking for more freedom and political participation. These were the political motivations for the uprisings.

When we look at the economic reasons of the revolutions in the Middle East, we easily see the impact of global economic crisis on the regional countries. Although they were also having other economic difficulties, the global economic crisis in 2008- 2009 had further negative implications on the Middle Eastern countries for several reasons. The countries in the Middle East were very much relying on the gains by Arab workers working in France and Germany and the others in Europe. With the economic crisis, a decline started in the money coming from European countries. Similarly, there was decline in the revenues gained by tourism industry. With the economic crisis in Europe, the number of tourist visiting the region has decreased. These were all the reasons of the revolution.

Turkey sided with the change and at the same time adapted its policies according to different cases. In the case of Tunisia, it was easy for Turkey because the transition was smooth. It took only two weeks with little blood. It was easy to adapt to the conditions there. The Egyptian case was more difficult. The change took longer time and there were several protests on the streets in Turkey about the developments happening in Egypt. Turkey still welcomed the changes in Egypt as well. However, the Libyan case was different. The transition in Libya happened with NATO intervening to the country. If the intervention did not take place most probably there would not be a change in Libya. For this reason, in the beginning, there were protection concerns of the Turkish Foreign policy. There were around more than 25000 Turkish citizens living in Libya. Thus, the priority of Turkey was to evacuate these people. At the same time, it is said that, more than 15 billion US dollars of Turkish investment was held there due to Turkish construction companies. Therefore, the aim of Turkish policy makers was first, to evacuate these people and second, to secure the economic interest there. For this reason, we can say, beginning with the Libyan case, the priority of Turkey was to achieve change through negotiations, if possible. In the case of Yemen, the change came with a kind of negotiated settlement. Although the regime of Ali Abdullah Salih came to an end, he and his close associates and relatives were given legal immunities from prosecution.

The most difficult case for Turkey was obviously Syria. The transition taking place in Syria is one of the biggest in the former decade which naturally affected Turkish Foreign Policy towards Syria. We should keep the negative memories of 1980s and 1990s in mind. From the beginning of 1990s and 2000s Turkish policy makers wanted to have a working relationship with Syrian authorities and wanted to prevent a similar scenario of 1980s and 1990s. For this reason, they pursued the policy of engagement with them. They wanted a negotiated change. They tried to convince the Damascus regime for more than six months. Afterwards, they realized that it was not possible to convince the regime. Turkish foreign policy tools were not powerful enough to convince them, so they stopped their relationship with the regime and started to support the opposition. From that point on, we started seeing another scenario there.

Turkey tried to support the new governments in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen after the changes by several means. The first one is the political engagement similar to the former policy. They established high level of political dialogues with the political regimes. They wanted to continue this political relationship and to support this political transition. In that respect, the policy makers, young bureaucrats, and elites were invited to Turkey to have some kind of training on political issues. Besides these political trainings, there were some education sessions at the ministry of foreign affairs for the young diplomats coming from Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and other countries. This was the case for other state institutions as well. They invited their counterparts to Turkey to have training and education on their fields. Besides these political trainings, they also wanted to support this transition with financial means. As it is mentioned by Mr. Polenz, given the economic difficulties and differences between the Middle Eastern and the East European transitions, the funds available to support the former was limited compared with the latter. One of the reasons of having these revolutions was economic difficulties. Without answering the economic difficulties, we cannot expect a real solution and settlement to the demands of the people in the region. Thus, Turkey with its own economic capacity, tried to provide the transition with economic means. Turkey provided credits to Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya to ease the economic hardships. At the same time it continued its trade relationships with the new governments. Turkey provided technical assistance to the countries in terms of facing the challenges of transition. Differently from the East European transition, there were no carrots of the EU membership. The economic tools in hands of Turkey and Europe, unfortunately, were a bit limited if we compare it with the Eastern European case. Just in the aftermath of the global economic crisis no one was very much willing to provide credit to these countries. At the same time, there were some questions and concerns in the minds of people about the Middle Eastern case.

One of the main difficulties after the Arab Revolutions was the management of expectations. With the Arab Awakening, there were great expectations of the people from different political spectrums. You would see these expectations when you go and talk to those people. They believe that they succeeded in toppling the authoritarian regimes and think they would overcome all the economic, political and illiteracy difficulties in a short period of time. When you talk to them about the hardship they may face, they have faith in their culture and civilizations. Thus, it was not very easy to convince them. But with the continuation of the conflict in Syria and it turning to a civil war, the difficulties in different countries also surfaced again. It became much harder to find solutions to the issues. Due to major changes in the countries, there were some groups who are not very happy about the outcomes of the transitions. These actors were active and they came to the scene and supported other actors who were in favor of the old regimes. It was not very easy to achieve transition in the region.

For the time being, when we look at the developments, Tunisia seems promising. At least they agreed to have a new constitution. They are now talking about new elections. In the case of Egypt, there was a coup d'état. Writing a new constitution and also presidential elections are being debated. In my opinion, there will be some difficult times ahead for Egypt. In the case of Libya, this was the case as well. Although it is a rich country in terms of natural resources, it lacks the very basic state structures. Thus, this appears as one of the biggest difficulties for the country. In the case of Yemen, after its transition, we witnessed a dialogue held by several actors within the country. They managed to come up with a new constitution. However, there are some signals that Ali Abdullah Salih and his associates are waiting for a chance to re-gain the power. They still have enormous leverage at the political life in Yemen. We all know the case in Syria which has been more than 3 years.
All these changes create serious challenges to Turkey as well. Although Europe is the main trade partner of Turkey, trade share with Europe declined over the decade from 52% to around %40. The transition of the conflicts in the region negatively affected Turkey both economically and politically. It also created a major refugee problem. Turkey is hosting 700.000 Syrian refugees. This creates serious security concerns.