Turkey enjoys ‘soft power’ in Arab countries

Turkey enjoys ‘soft power’ in Arab countries

ISTANBUL - Hürriyet Daily News
Turkey enjoys ‘soft power’ in Arab countries

The sense of euphoria is gone, people are realizing that it’s not going to be easy, says Lisa Anderson, President of American University in Cairo, describing the current mood in Egypt. DAILY NEWS photo, Hasan ALTINIŞIK

Turkish soap operas have become extremely popular throughout the Arab world because they are seen by locals as having reconciled modernity with Islam, according to the President of the American University in Cairo.

At the same time, however, the series’ popularity does not mean the “Turkish model” can be applied to the Arab world because there are fundamental differences between Turkey and Arab countries, said Lisa Anderson.

“People are taking bits and pieces of it; everyone is [just] taking what suits them the most,” she told the Hürriyet Daily News in a recent interview.

What’s the current mood in Egypt?

Much of the vote for the
Muslim Brootherhood
was not an endorsement
of their policies but an
opportunity to vote for
what was so far

There was a sense of euphoria last spring; “we got rid of the regime, now we can relax.” People now know they can’t relax; people are realizing that it’s not going to be easy. Everything they will accomplish they will have to fight for. But people are ready to do that; there is no sense of demoralization.

An Egyptian court recently decided to cancel a panel drafting a new constitution. Are liberals trying to prevent the ascent of the Islamists by making a coalition with the judicial-military institutions of the old regime? Some liken this to what happened in Turkey in the past.

Egypt is a deeply pious country. People are religious and they are comfortable with it. There will always be a place for what in the United States are called social conservatives in politics. At the same time, there is not an appetite for a government that is exclusively religious either.

What’s interesting right now is that the Muslim Brotherhood [MB] is being seen as increasingly too tactical. This was always the movement that was righteous. They have always positioned themselves as principled. But people are disappointed with how the MB has operated. They have repeatedly gone back on their word; they said they would not [run] a presidential candidate but then they did.

Is the Arab Spring becoming the Islamist Spring?

Not yet. I think the suppression of Islamist opinion has created a situation in which you lift the pot lid and it boils over. If you look at Egypt, much of the vote for the MB was not an endorsement of their policies as much as an opportunity to vote for somebody you were not allowed to vote for before. There will be a period of experiencing what was forbidden. People will say, “Let’s see what they can do,” without necessarily saying, “I always want to see an Islamist in office.”

Islamists are accused of adopting anti-democratic policies once they come to power.

There is less concern that [Egypt will turn into Iran]. There is a process that people are wary of and they are alert to it. A new government comes into power and, very slowly, [enacts] its institutional arrangements; [then], all of a sudden, you realize you lost your gains. People in Tunisia and Egypt think this is really what happened in Iran. It is precisely the Iranian example that has made everybody alert to that possibility. One of the great strengths of the revolutionaries is that they really believe they can go to the streets and bring down a government. They did it once; they can do it again if they want to. That’s why the revolution continues.

There are two things heartening in Egypt and Tunisia; first, no one has given up. Everybody is still vigilant. Second, when I say everybody, that is [everybody] across the whole country. The unintended consequences of the 18 days when police [abandoned] the streets was that people came to protect their own neighborhood and that had a permanent effect on people. They now think they are responsible. There is this incredible sense of empowerment among ordinary people. They are completely unfamiliar with that role and are struggling with that. That’s hugely positive for the long term.

There is less concern that
Egypt would evolve to an
Iranian style situatuon.
It is precisely the
Iranian example that has
made everybody
wary and alert

The MB criticized Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan when he called for secularism, but then its candidate’s slogan is “Egypt’s Erdoğan is coming.” How do you explain this contradiction?

I think this is partly an effort to reassure the West and the liberals in Egypt. Erdoğan is very highly regarded as a figure to reconcile more explicit commitment to Islam with an open, democratic domestic and foreign policy. From the point of view of the MB, this is the way to say we are not Iranians, we are not fanatics – we can be modern.

This [contradiction] is an indication that they are trying to figure [things] out now that they are public; they don’t even know themselves who they are or what they believe.

Having operated in the shadows for almost 80 years, coming out into the sunshine is almost blinding. That’s why there are contradictions.

Everyone is talking about the Turkish model, but is there an understanding of what the gist of that model is. For some, the key word could be secularism; but secularism does not resonate in the Arab world.

No, it does not resonate at all. There are some fundamental differences between Turkey and the Arab world. When the Ottoman Empire collapsed, 80 percent of the Ottoman bureaucrats came to Turkey and they became the core of the state apparatus, while most of the provinces of the empire which became mandates were completely denuded of experienced bureaucrats.

Turkey started with a very sophisticated state apparatus while the Arab world has been in the process of state building.

That’s why you will see different trajectories. But there are reasons why there are people that will look to the Turkish model and use it. The liberals, the MB, everyone will use it for their own purpose. It is a credit to Turkey that people will take whatever will suit them because Turkey is considered a success. But the model is not translating at all; people are taking bits and pieces of it.

How is Turkey’s increasing profile perceived?

They are very comfortable with it. It varies from country to country. Turkish soap operas are popular all over the Arab world. Turkey has a cultural, soft power influence right now. People will refer to soap operas as an indication that a Muslim country can produce modern, culturally authentic TV stories; there is a kind of Turkey [showing that there] is a way to be modern and Muslim. Since many of these old governments, including [Hosni] Mubarak’s, said basically that these two things were not reconcilable, but people want that and they love to see Turkey [doing] that. People think Turkey is respected as a country; this is also appealing. There is more interest and hope for attention in Libya and Syria than there is in Egypt and Tunisia. By and large, people are pleased to see Turkey taking an interest in what is going on in the region.

Finally, what do you think about the future of the Arab Spring?

A: There have been the same regimes in office since the beginning of the 1970s; for 40 years, you had relatively stable, repressive military-backed regimes. It won’t be easy to construct the future in 40 months. It will take a long time. If we don’t expect things to be simple but also say it’s not going to take 40 years, then I am optimistic. The empowerment of people is very important.

Syria: a difficult set of choices

Syria is the hardest problem in the region, as there is anxiety that the collapse of Syrian regime will lead to an ethnic sectarian conflict similar to that of Libya and Iraq, according to Lisa Anderson. “But nobody wants to see a repressive regime survive. It is a difficult set of choices,” she said.

Turkey’s stance as the leading country seeking the end of Bashar al–Assad’s regime “is a reasonable position,” said Anderson. “The longer he is in power and the rebellion continues, the more difficult and the longer will be for any successor to put the country together. In some respects you want whatever will happen to happen fast. If he is not going to stay in power he needs to be removed from power as fast as possible. A long drown out guerilla war would be debilitating for the country as a whole and it would create and reinforce social cleavages, which would be very hard to put back together,” she said.

Who is Lisa Anderson?


Lisa Anderson was appointed President of the American University in Cairo on January 1, 2011 after previously serving as Provost of the American University since 2008.

Anderson has also served as dean of the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University from 1996 to 2008, being a faculty member there since 1986. Prior to her work at Columbia, Anderson taught at Harvard University in the Government and Social Studies departments.

Her research has included work on state formation in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as regime change and democratization in developing countries.

In 1986 Anderson wrote “The State and Social Transformation in Tunisia and Libya: 1830-1980,” co-edited “The Origins of Arab Nationalism” in 1991 and edited “Transitions to Democracy” in 1999.
Anderson is emeritus member of the board of Human Rights Watch, and served as President of the Middle East Studies Association in 2003 and the Council of the American Political Science Association from 2004-2006.