If former US president George W. Bush got one thing right in his understanding of the Middle East, it was picking Turkey as an example of democratic transformation in the region. In fact, there are plenty of reasons to believe that Turkey, which is moving steadily in the path towards democracy, would make a perfect example for the rest of the Arab and Islamic world.
To begin with, Turkey is a big Muslim country and shares with the rest of the Islamic world a religion, culture, traditions and problems. More importantly, Turkey's leading role in social and political change has always been recognised in the Arab world. It was a model for the revolutionary Arab regimes of the 1950s and 1960s, wherein Western-oriented elites from a humble social and economic background used the army as a tool for change and governance. In both Turkey and the Arab republics, the military establishment marginalised the city-based bourgeoisie, transformed the whole fabric of society and replaced social conservatism with a new set of authoritarian codes and practices.
On the socio-economic level, Turkey is relatively poor and, until recently, its political life was dominated by a corrupt political elite, nepotism and mismanagement. Politically, Turkey faces a myriad of external and domestic challenges. It has border disputes with almost all neighbouring countries: Armenia, Greece, Bulgaria, Russia, Iran, Syria and Iraq. Its ethnic problems put extra pressure on state-society relations and feed the fear of sedition and disintegration. Yet Turkey has succeeded in establishing fairly solid democratic traditions over the past few years, whereas the Arab world is still debating whether democracy is culturally and socially acceptable. Furthermore, this has nothing to do with the culture and religious explanation of the Orientalists and Euro-centrists because, as I mentioned before, Turkey shares a religion and culture with the rest of the Arab world. It has nothing to do, also, with the perceived economic criteria for democratisation, which accompany an assumption that prosperous nations are more inclined to embrace democratic traditions.
There are several structural factors that have helped Turkey move fairly quickly towards democracy. Yet, Turkish democracy owes most of its success to a single man, who armed himself and equipped his project with the blessing of his people. Although one must be careful not to personify Turkey's renaissance project, we have nevertheless to recognise the importance of leadership qualities and rulers' willingness and commitment to change and reform. In fact, under the leadership of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey has entered a period of astonishing change. Since he took office in 2004, Turkey has moved further along the road to democracy than ever before since the death of Ataturk in 1938.
Erdogan is a charismatic politician, ambitious and visionary. He brought radical change to Turkey without sacrificing its Islamic identity. Despite stressing differences, he admires Mahathir Mohammad's project in Malaysia. But, unlike Mahathir, for Erdogan Europe is the vehicle of change, democracy is the path and the support of the people is the fuel in the long journey towards establishing a modern and prosperous society.
Today, Turkey is closer than ever to Europe and Turks are becoming more supportive as their trust in Erdogan grows stronger. After five years in office, Erdogan has also proven himself more committed to democracy than any of the self-proclaimed secular leaders, who misruled Turkey throughout the past 50 years. He has abolished the army-administered security courts, lifted restrictions on free speech and brought the military budget under civilian control for the first time in Turkish history. As an honest and clean politician, he has also fought extravagant corruption, institutionalised the state apparatuses and undercut nepotism and clientism. Surplus in the central budget, a relatively stable economy and the rise in living standards testify to Erdogan's sensible economic policies.
Erdogan's revolution in foreign policy was no less important. He realised that the army and the old political elites were using external threats to invent superficial enemies, delay reform and remain in power. As a consequence, he swept aside 30 years of Turkish intransigence on the Cyprus question, eased the tension with Greece and developed good relations with all neighbouring countries, including Armenia, Syria and Iran. This is highlighted by his visit to Syria this week. He has, furthermore, addressed the more sensitive question in Turkish politics: the Kurdish problem. He recognised the special status of the Kurds as Turkish citizens and authorised Kurdish-language broadcasting.
Erdogan has indeed revolutionised Turkish politics in every key aspect. If his project reaches the desired end, he will be remembered by most Turks as their most important leader and may even replace the legendary Ataturk as the founder of the modern Turkish state.
Dr Marwan Kabalan is a lecturer in media and international relations at the Faculty of Political Sciences and Media at Damascus University.