TRT-Arabic in action

TRT-Arabic in action

TRT, Turkey’s public broadcaster, launched its Arabic-language station about a year ago. This was supposed to be the landmark for Turkey’s return to the region. What a return! Prime Minister Erdoğan has started his tour of North Africa right after the Arab Spring. He was disembarking the plane. All Turkish channels were broadcasting the event live. I switched to TRT-Arabic. I was just curious. And surely enough, during a historic moment for Turkey in the Arab World, TRT-Arabic was running a documentary on timber production in Turkey.

Is there a change of mindset in Turkey? “You turned your back on us 80 years ago and never looked back,” a friend said at a meeting at the American University of Beirut more than 15 years ago. “I was looking in the Turkish newspapers, nothing about us. Look at ours, there is always something that happened or is happening in Istanbul. It is dear to us.” That was then. Turkey had just signed the Customs Union Agreement with the European Union. We were preoccupied with plans to join the EU. My friend was definitely right. There was not much in Turkish papers about the region and too much about European centers. No interest for regional news. Has that changed now? It seems so. We are talking a lot about the developments on the Arab Street. And it’s not just about the upheavals - we are also doing a lot of business there. The Turkish business community has growing investments there. That is the basis of the mindset change. Business ties are mutually beneficial. However, I still feel that something is missing.

That something is not about discussions at the higher level. Mr. Erdoğan’s remarks about the importance of a secular constitution for a democratic Egypt are timely. That is what Egyptian factions have been debating. As a person indicted and spent time in jail for inciting violence against the secular constitution of Turkey about 10 years ago, Mr. Erdoğan’s remarks should be taken seriously. He played the role of a European soft power, explaining secularism, a European historical achievement. The prime minister of Turkey, not President Sarkozy of France, is the representative of European soft power in the region.

No, it’s not what Mr. Erdoğan’s Turkey represents in the region that makes me wonder. Turkey is a spectacular example of transformation by consent, a concept the EU has invented in this region. Turkey as an unfinished project demonstrates the EU’s transformational powers. Our regional neighbors are all too aware of the change we have gone through. Turkey is one of two industrial powers of our region, Israel being the other. The Arab Spring has accelerated Turkey’s transformation.

What is missing at the moment are the skills and capabilities needed to be more operational in this region. More Arabic-speaking Turkish nationals. More Arab immigrants working and studying in Turkey. More Arabic studies in Turkish universities. If Turkey has the hardware to be influential, this is about developing the software. TRT-Arabic shows that we are not there yet.