Istanbul: As Islamist groups emerge triumphant in Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco, Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party or AKP) under Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan seems set to act as their mentor — and to throw its weight behind the Syrian opposition seeking to oust President Bashar Al Assad, a former ally.

Ankara's evolving response to the upheavals of the Arab Spring is broadly in harmony with its North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) and European Union (EU) allies, who had balked at the AKP's previous "zero problems with the neighbours" policy, that indulged Syria and its ally Iran, and which some derided as a neo-Ottoman turn away from Turkey's long-standing Western ties.

Both Turkey and its Western allies now hope the success of the AKP in transiting from Islamist roots to a sort of Muslim version of Christian Democracy, and in running a dynamic economy that has doubled the income of its people, will be an attractive model to Arab Islamist parties now coming to the fore.

"I think the AKP hope is that they will be really an example for the Islamists of the region and they will moderate themselves and become parties like AKP which respects Islamic values, but mainly focuses on economic development and doesn't support a radical agenda," said Mustafa Akyol, author of the recent book Islam without extremes: a Muslim Case For Liberty.

Erdogan and his government are nonetheless intent on influencing the reformists in the Arab Islamist parties.


On a triumphant tour in September of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya — the three countries that successfully overthrew their dictatorships this year — he pointedly defended Turkey's model of a secular state as a shield that defended the beliefs of all, including Islamists.

Tunisia's Al Nahda party has publicly embraced the AKP as a source of inspiration, while the new generation of the Muslim Brotherhood, especially in Egypt, look to the AKP as an example. "They want to be a mentor to all these Islamist groups in Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia," says Soli Ozel, a prominent academic and commentator in Istanbul.

Islamists did not instigate the Arab uprisings that have shaken Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen, but in the last two months, Islamist parties have come out top in parliamentary elections in Morocco and post-revolutionary Tunisia. Egyptian Islamists, who have won a first round of elections, want to emulate those triumphs, but it is unclear how much influence the previously toothless legislature in Cairo can wield while the generals remain in power.

Sinan Ulgen, head of the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies or Edam, an independent think-tank in Istanbul, said the Arab Spring offered Turkey an immense opportunity because it allowed the AKP to engage the new emerging political actors on the ground.

"There is a political factor that is at play here. There is a good opportunity for years to come for the AKP to start to chaperon these parties in the region. It will be a demand driven dynamic rather than supply-driven," he added, emphasising that Ankara would be careful to avoid reviving memories of Ottoman domination of the region or playing "Big Brother".

This year's upheavals across the region have nevertheless brought new pressures to bear on Turkey's ruling government.

Worried that the conflict in neighbouring Syria is taking a sectarian turn as the minority Alawite rule of the Al Assads tries to paint its opponents as Sunni fundamentalists, the mainly Sunni AKP, whose natural sympathies lie with Syria's Sunni majority, has adopted a resolutely non-sectarian line, evident in its dealings with all parties in fractious multi-confessional states such as Lebanon, Iraq and even Bosnia.

Coming into the centre of society

The experience of Turkey, where the AKP was built from the debris of several failed and proscribed Islamist parties, but widened to include centre-right elements and nationalists, suggests Islamism can be synthesised with secular norms and that there is a middle way between the extremes of despotism and Islamic radicalism, argues Mustafa Akyol, author of the recent book Islam without extremes: a Muslim Case For Liberty. "In the past century the Middle East has been doomed by those secular dictators suppressing opposition, including Islamist groups, and those becoming more radical. I call them the two extremes. The middle way is something now represented by the AKP: It restores respect for religion, it is run by pious Muslims, but it does not envision a theocratic state. It creates room for Islamists to come to the centre of society," he added.