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Monday, June 13, 2011
Turkey Will Stay The Course, Whoever Wins In The Arab Revolts
By Sema Kalaycioglu
The initial impact on Turkey of the Arab uprisings is economic. From Libya alone, Turkey had to evacuate nearly 25,000 workers within two months.
Considering the households that relying on the salaries and profits of those workers and their contractors, Turkey has to face an unexpected economic contraction for the short and medium terms.
Unless new overseas opportunities are found immediately, Turkey is also likely to experience further deterioration in its current account deficit because of this sharp reduction in workers’ remittances and declining exports to countries in turmoil. The preferences of new establishments in Egypt and Tunisia to keep Turkey as a trade partner should not drastically change.
However, there is a growing need to replace the Libyan market with new options to avoid further export revenue loss for Turkey. The old regimes in Libya and Egypt meant certainty and continuity for Turkish contractors, exporters and investors. So far, the interim situation has produced only uncertainty.
The Arab revolt imposes additional security costs on Turkey. Beyond participating in the NATO mission in Libya, Turkey has had to take extra measures to guard its border with Syria against an influx of illegal immigrants and refugees, and more importantly against infiltration of terrorists and suicide bombers.
Additional land and naval border controls means cumbersome screening processes that impose additional nominal and real costs for the country.
Turkey has displayed a clear preference toward the Middle East in recent years. By turning its back on the International Monetary Fund and proving itself an economic success on its own merits, Turkey has also attracted the appreciation and envy of its Arab neighbors.
With its growing anti-Israel gestures, Turkey has found an increasingly favorable atmosphere in the Arab Middle East for its boisterous regional political assertions and economic muscle. However, even if political establishments of a more religious inclination replace the old secular ones in the Arab Middle East, it is not certain whether and for how long such a favorable climate for Turkey will persist.
In Yemen, Tunisia and Egypt, drastic changes that work against Turkey should not be expected. As long as the Assad regime stays in power, good relations with Syria are likely to last as well. However, the situation is not clear for Libya. After all, Turkey has changed its diplomatic position on Libya four times since the start of the turmoil there: from supporting Moammar Gadhafi to demanding that he step down.
If by any chance Gadhafi wins the struggle, it is not clear how Turkey might mend the loss of confidence. And if the opposition wins in Libya, Turkey may need a new confidence-building strategy despite its humanitarian support for rebel forces and its participation in the NATO campaign against the Gadhafi regime.
All hell has broken loose in the Arab Middle East. As a consequence, the peoples of Syria, Libya and Egypt are further impoverished. This may mean the continuation of social unrest in those countries for the foreseeable future unless foreign aid and assistance arrive. It is not easy to predict in what direction radical forces will take these societies and their politics.
It is not implausible that the Arab revolt will trim Turkey’s ambitions and chances of becoming a regional leader or power. Therefore it is wiser for Turkey to confine its role to economics rather than politics in the region. Turkey would do well to extend as much aid and assistance as possible to Middle East countries in need.
The lack of democratic practice in most of the Middle East and North Africa still prevents us from knowing how Arab populations perceive the role Turkey is to play in the region. Some studies, for example, indicate that countries in the region appreciate Turkey and the mediation role it volunteers to play in political disputes.
However, in old and new Arab establishments alike, the street (like the masses in Turkey) puts a premium on Turkish condemnation of Israel. The more tension Turkey seems to have with Israel over issues relating to Palestine in general and Gaza in particular, the more support the Turkish government finds in the Middle East as well as at home.
Therefore, unless there is progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Turkey is likely to continue using its anti-Israel rhetoric in the hope of yielding domestic and regional political reward in the short and medium-run. Yet beyond appreciative responses, no tangible reward is certain. There is no guarantee that Turkey will even get sizable economic contracts from new Arab regimes. More important, if there is no Arab support on unresolved issues like Cyprus or Turkey’s European Union membership, the political reward will be confined solely to gains in political prestige by Turkish leaders.
Turkey is likely to maintain the same foreign policy line no matter which faction gains power in Libya, Syria, Egypt or elsewhere. In order to maintain its political role in the Arab world, it will continue to institute good relations with new establishments and invest in anti-Israel sentiments that are so popular with the Arab street. The Turkish government will not officially or unofficially admit disappointment with its attempts at mediating peace initiatives in the region. Its anti-Israel rhetoric shows its determination to keep the Palestinian issue active on the Turkish foreign policy agenda. The government will continue to claim to be “the voice of the most oppressed” until either a two-state solution is reached or the ruling Justice and Development Party bows out of office – whichever comes first.
-This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 13/06/2011. It first appeared at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter
-Sema Kalaycioglu is a professor of economics