Amidst the tsunami of social change sweeping Arab shores, French President Nicolas Sarkozy made a landmark visit to Turkey. He has always refused to visit Turkey, and had publicly declared his opposition to ‘Muslim’ Turkey joining ‘Christian’ Europe — as he sees them. He visited it only this once as a leader of the G20 and stayed for only six hours. He arrived there chewing gum; and met Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan sitting cross-legged all the while.
What is extraordinary about this event is the calculated and calibrated Turkish response to this western patronising and arrogance. The response was characteristic of Turkey which, with its democratic system, Islamic character, pluralistic democratic government, the power sharing, the rule of law in a Muslim society, the pride and wisdom of its leaders who reject any form of subordination or submission, has become an inspiration to Arab peoples.
The news story was accompanied by a photograph showing Erdogan standing on top of the stairs, a sphinx of pride and dignity, while Sarkozy extended his hand from below.
Erdogan looked very much unlike some other leaders who shake and kiss hands stained with the blood of their brothers in Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon and kiss, with humility, the hands and cheeks of secretaries of state of countries threatening Arab countries, blockading their brothers in Gaza and funding colonisation and occupation in Palestine.
In order to drive the message home, Erdogan’s gift to Sarkozy was a letter written by the Ottoman Sultan Sulaiman the Magnificent in 1526, in response to a plea from the ‘Christian’ king of France, Francis I, when he fell prisoner to ‘Christian’ Spaniards, asking for the assistance of the Ottoman state. Sulaiman assured him that he would save him; and indeed, the Sultan sent a military force which freed him.
Sarkozy, who repeats his opposition to Turkey’s accession to the European Union, no doubt needed a reminder of a civilised conduct which befits the history and status of Turkey and its tolerant Islamic values in contrast with shameful Islamophobia in Europe.
We all still remember Erdogan’s defence of the dignity of his people, when Israeli soldiers killed, in cold blood, unarmed Turkish activists on the Mavi Marmara, part of the aid flotilla en route to breaking the blockade on Gaza. We also remember his dignified anger in Davos when he withdrew from a panel chaired by David Ignatius, when the latter refused to let him speak and gave the floor to Israeli President Shimon Peres instead.
This Turkish-French news story, with its small gestures but significant implications, is of interest to us, Arabs, at this critical historical juncture. It is an expression of the maturity of the political institutions and the energy of those running them because they are in touch with their people and their confidence that the people support them through a democratic process. Compare this with the performance of Arab officialdom and you see the waste in Arab energy, capabilities, institutions, resources and heritage.
When nations achieve progress, it usually covers all areas of life and knowledge. The same is true of backwardness. Take, for example, the Arab awakening at the beginning of the 20th century, when it was accompanied by free media, proliferation of political parties which were associated with the struggle for freedom from colonialism and despotism. It coincided with building schools and universities, women’s liberation and a revival of art and culture.
Today, too, we see that progress and stagnation never meet in the same country. When one of them prevails, it covers all areas of life. At this historic moment, we can see similarities between most Arab countries, most importantly the weakness of their official political institutions, particularly the absence of young people in these institutions. There are even no venues for them to express their views and aspirations, except the streets in which they demonstrate to make their voice heard.
The revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, now spreading to other Arab countries, have shown that existing government institutions are governed, in terms of structure and personnel, by the mentality of the Middle Ages, and the most advanced among them date back to the middle of the last century. This alienates future generations and deprives state institutions of the energy and vitality of youth and their enthusiasm for building and creativity.
It caused a near paralysis in the political, administrative and knowledge systems. Societies should mobilise the creative powers of every generation and the best competencies and make the best use of university outputs to build a better homeland for everyone, not only for a small elite.
And that is why Arab regimes have failed to remedy weaknesses in government institutions and keep abreast with creativity and progress in the fields of management, economics and politics.
These events have also exposed the weaknesses of basic and university education and the weak, or non-existent, links between universities and the labour market. That is why students leave universities either to join the unemployed or immigrate. Intellectuals have also been alienated both from each other and from the suffering and aspirations of the people; so, culture stopped being a factor empowering national dignity. The same weaknesses have also spread to the media, the legal system and elsewhere to destroy trust between regimes and peoples.
The list of weakness indicators goes on and on, but it can be summed up in the weakness of regimes which have not developed since independence from foreign powers. These countries have been run through different political systems; but the common denominator is the absence of political institutions which rejuvenate themselves through new blood and innovative ideas.
What Turkey has done in the past two decades was laying the foundations for a national democracy where the whole of Turkey — government and people — reap the benefits and where all play the role of faithful soldiers and builders of this status. This is what Arabs must learn in order to rid their countries of backwardness, stagnation, oppression and unrest.