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Opinion: Turkey is bigger than Erdoğan | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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People walk in Istanbul’s Eminonu district, Turkey, on June 8, 2015. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)


It was as if everyone was sorely in need of the surprise which the Turkish people delivered on June 7, when they dealt a severe blow to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the polls. The Kurds certainly needed it, in order to prove that they are not as marginal in Turkey as some would have them be. The opposition needed it, to show that Turkey’s political system was not broken as some have said and is still strong and robust enough to include everyone. And the AKP itself also needed this shock to the system—before its once-dominant popularity threatened to fizzle out for good. But Arab countries also needed this result, for in recent years they have felt that Turkey was slipping away from them, during what have by anyone’s reckoning been historic, and trying, times for the region.

However, all Arabs, whether they love all things Turkish, or hate anything even remotely related to Erdoğan, must face an incontrovertible truth, one not amenable to falsification on emotional grounds or one’s own personal whims: There is a huge difference between Turkey and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, one as marked as the difference between the concept of the Caliphate in a (real) Islamic state and the presidency in a fully functioning democracy. Turkey is vitally important, indispensable even, both regionally and strategically; its president, meanwhile—whoever he may be—is temporary and replaceable, always subject to the ever-changing circumstances in the country and the whims of the ballot box. Erdoğan’s achievements cannot be denied; but as much as he was able to develop and put in place an economic plan for his country that helped it reach dizzying heights it had not experienced in recent memory, his foreign policy failed to secure strategic relationships for his country with many others around the world. Erdoğan’s positions dashed Turkey’s dream of becoming part of the European Union, resulted in a relationship with the United States that could only be described as uncomfortable, and angered many of his Arab neighbors. With the exception of Qatar, Turkey’s relationships with Arab countries currently range from extremely tense and near-nonexistent, as they now are with Egypt, to decidedly cold, as they are with Gulf countries. But so long as Mr. Erdoğan insists on forming better relations with questionable regional groups than he does with actual countries located there, he will be unable to form any important relationship in the Middle East that will strategically benefit either his country or anyone else’s.

All the indications are that Turkey’s current foreign policy will not change any time soon, and that under Erdoğan’s presidency Ankara will continue to put narrow, short-term, fleeting, populist interests over the long-term, wider interests of the entire region. Gulf countries, for example, will never deny that an alliance with Turkey, a regional Sunni powerhouse, would not be beneficial and would not have positive repercussions for the entire region, completely tipping the scale for many of its most pressing and dangerous crises. At the same time, however, no one can deny that Turkey’s current position means it prefers to dominate and dictate than collaborate and cooperate. Take Erdoğan’s recent visit to Iran, which coincided with the start of Operation Decisive Storm, the Saudi-led coalition’s aerial campaign against the Iran-backed Houthi movement in Yemen. What angered Gulf countries here was not that Erdoğan visited Iran per se—no one is asking him to completely cut off ties with Tehran; what angered them was the timing of the visit. All attempts to give the benefit of the doubt here fail completely. The visit could therefore only be interpreted as being directed against Gulf interests and timed to take pressure off their main foe Tehran.

While Turkey is certainly a democracy—we cannot doubt this—it is not a fully developed one in the mold of some Western countries. You have in Turkey a group of intellectuals who act as a kind of non-official public relations outfit for Erdoğan and the AKP, playing a game that, quite frankly, is unbecoming in any democratic country. They display a kind of dismissiveness and even cultural chauvinism against any point of view that doesn’t fall in line with that of their beloved president. With respect to the Gulf states, their whole logic here is that these countries are not democracies as Turkey is, and so have no right to criticize Ankara or differ with it. Here they forget that the Gulf countries never presented themselves as bastions of democracy in the first place. Moreover, in Turkey the Gulf issue is often dealt with in tones that are provocative, derisive and even insulting. And it is not as if anyone has once asked Turkey to sideline the Gulf.

In any case, what is most important regarding Turkey is to reiterate its indispensable regional standing. Even if for the time being it is adopting certain unpalatable policies, these will eventually fade. The country’s importance will not.