The Middle East Channel

Return of the Turks as Middle East kingmaker

"Enough we say, the decision belongs to the people of the brotherly Egyptian and Tunisian nations... Turkey shares the grief of these nations as well as their hopes." So-declared a self-confident Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday in his prime-time speech on recent events in the Middle East that received broad coverage regionally. While commentators point to the protests and revolutions in the Arab world as being the most recent example of the crumbling vestiges of the Cold War, the more significant long-term global trend is strangely familiar to the Turks. Protests in Tunisia have already overthrown the rule of a 23 year-old regime and inspired a similar uprising in the form of Egypt's ongoing protest movement. Lebanon's continuing instability and threats of Tunisian-inspired revolutions in Yemen and even Jordan further add to the significance of the moment we are witnessing in the Arab world.

The unprecedented levels and inter-linkages of the protests against the traditional authoritarian regimes represented most starkly by President Mubarak, has brought the Middle East back to a period more reminiscent of the breakup of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of Arab nationalism than anything seen in recent memory.

The declarations and prognostications of analysts across the Arab world in the wake of these events has focused on the grassroots movements and pent-up resentments that led to the protests along with debates about the level of US involvement from twitter feeds to President Obama's statements. However the effect of this on the regional dynamics that has ushered in the remarkable arrival of a new player to the game of Middle Eastern great-power politics and the sidelining of traditional players is equally important to pay attention to.

At no time since their days at the helm of the Ottoman Empire have the Turks been as actively involved diplomatically (record number of visits bilaterally to Arab world in the last month alone with multiple visits to Lebanon and Syria for the foreign minister), economically (greatest increase in trade volume over any two year period), or politically (inclusion of Turkey into the Arab League and head of the Organization of Islamic Conference) as they are in the Arab world today. While this imperial baggage continues to cast a shadow over Turkish-Arab relations, the expediency of the present seems to have overcome the past. The almost immediate involvement of Turkey and Qatar in brokering a compromise after the government of Saad Hariri collapsed demonstrated the countries' interest in fostering regional stability. Prime Minister Erdogan's most recent speech, in which he warned President Mubarak to "step down" and "take steps that will satisfy his people," is a clear indicator of Turkey's arrival as the Middle East's self-appointed kingmaker.

Having waited for close to a week to make a grand proclamation on the events taking place in his neighborhood, Erdogan responded clearly and forcibly to his domestic critics of his foreign policy by placing Turkey on the side of the anti-regime movements throughout the Middle East. Proclaiming that, "Turkey is playing a role that can upturn all the stones in the region and that can change the course of history." Erdogan shone a spotlight on his Justice and Development Party's (AKP) pursuit of "foreign policy with character." Critics quickly pointed to Erdogan's hypocrisy when it came to his embrace of Iranian President Ahmadenijad's oppression of the Green Movement in 2009 and President Omar Al-Bashir's regime in Sudan, but few Turks seem concerned.

As seen from the region, Turkey's strategy of diplomatic and economic engagement has been a welcome one. With its non-sectarian and pragmatic focus, Ankara offers the greatest economic incentives to find a political and sustainable as opposed to violent solutions to the problems of the Middle East today. The opportunity for Ankara comes in part because of the lack of Arab leadership and in part because of its own proactive policies in a region that it once ignored. While leading Arab states, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have been less enthusiastic about the protest movements and Turkey's emerging role, particularly in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and intra-Arab affairs, fearing a loss of primacy in these areas they have little choice. Their very weakness in comparison to the economic opportunities and popularity of an indigenous democracy led by a freely elected legitimate conservative Muslim party makes the case for Turkey even stronger. On the whole, the Turks have been embraced by both the Arab states and street that welcome the pragmatic and business-savvy nature of Turkish diplomacy. As a gateway to both Europe and America, Turkey has already established itself an important player and convening spot for the actors of the region.

The popularity of Turkey and Erdogan within the Arab world has already allowed the AKP to turn traditional Turkish foreign policy on its head by drawing strength from its common heritage and history with its Middle Eastern neighbors rather than being a handicap. Turkish foreign policy under the AKP has come to articulate a vision for improving relations with all its neighbors, particularly by privileging its former Ottoman space in the Middle East, such as Lebanon, Jordan, Iran, Iraq, and Syria where agreements are being negotiated for a free-trade zone and an eventual Middle Eastern Union. The growing economic and political engagement of Turkey with the Middle East has already lead to a significant realignment in the region.

Turkey offers the prospect of realigning the region by countering revisionist and securitizing trends rampant in the Middle East geopolitically while serving as an economic engine to propel the region. In today's Middle East, states like Iran and Israel through their rhetoric (particularly in the case of the former) and actions (more in the case of the latter) raise suspicion, anxiety and fear of revisionism, triggering an accelerated securitization in the region and do not offer a compelling sustainable economic or political model of success. By contrast, Turkey as an entrepreneurial free marketplace is trying to foster relations with all parties through bilateral relations and regional integration.

With the fastest growing and largest economy in the Middle East, Turkey is uniquely placed to play a decisive role in providing alternatives models for the newly emerging governments of the region. As a longtime ally of the West and new partner of Iran and Syria, Turkey has been seeking the role of mediator and model in every available arena including Egypt, Lebanon, and Tunisia. As a G-20 founding member, holder of a seat on the UN Security Council, European Union aspirant, and head of the OIC, Ankara has transformed itself into an international actor, capable of bringing considerable clout and influence to its regions. Turkey did not transform itself from a defeated post-Ottoman state led by Ataturk's military to a flourishing market-democracy overnight, it has been almost a century in the making, however the lessons learned and the opportunities offered by Turkey to Egypt and the rest of the Arab world should be cautiously heeded. The Turks are poised to return as the Middle East's most important and influential kingmaker.

Dr. Joshua W. Walker is a post-doctoral fellow at the Crown Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Brandeis University.

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The Middle East Channel

The Egyptian constitution's rulebook for change

When the White House calls for President Husni Mubarak to resign now, we are not simply calling for a new president to take his place. Mubarak stepping down immediately means something very different than some might think it does. Rather than simply replacing the man on top, we are close to calling for something like regime change. That may be a good thing, and indeed, many of the demonstrators are clearly aiming for precisely that. But it is not clear that those who simply call for Mubarak to leave have thought through the details of what happens next.

In order to think this through, let's go to the rulebook, which is the Egyptian constitution. Does that really matter? Well, it may or may not. But Mubarak on Tuesday and Vice President Omar Sulayman today talked about the constitution explicitly -- and Sulayman in particular sounded more like a constitutional law professor than an intelligence man. And no wonder. The text gives Egypt's current leaders the tools that they want, so they would try to follow it. If Mubarak stays on until September -- even as a figurehead (and listening to Sulayman today it sounded as if that is what the Egyptian president has become) -- the regime can carefully manage the process. If Mubarak leaves early -- as the U.S. and the opposition demands --things become messier

According to the constitution, if the President steps down, he is not succeeded by the Vice President.  That's right -- if Mubarak resigns and gets on an airplane tonight, Omar Sulayman, who seems to be in effect acting president at the moment, would not take his place. Instead, the post would be filled by Fathi Surur, the speaker of the People's Assembly. Surur is a former law professor and a reliable regime stalwart. He is not from the military or the security apparatus and is widely regarded as a figure whose job has been to manage the parliament for the regime. And he has done so effectively. His presidency would delight nobody. (Some elements of the opposition have suggested that Surur should be pressed to turn down the post, in which case the job falls to the chief justice of the Constitutional Court. His profile is much lower than Surur but his career would inspire no more confidence.)  

As acting President, either the speaker or the chief justice would appear to be simply a weak, transition figure. And in fact, that is precisely what he would be. If he takes over as acting President, he cannot run for election for the post -- and new elections have to be held within 60 days. Since there is not enough time to amend the constitution, that means the existing provisions would have to be used. And those provisions were designed with one purpose in mind: to allow the existing leadership to designate the president. There is virtually no way the opposition could field a viable candidate under such conditions.

So if Mubarak resigned, there would be three choices:

1.) Follow the constitution and wind up with the regime handpicking a successor after 60 days for a full presidential term. That hardly resolves anything. The procedures are written in such a way that Sulayman could be nominated, but it would break the promise both Mubarak and Sulayman made for constitutional reform. This procedure would not even put lipstick on the regime's current face.

2.) Follow the constitution with the promise that the new president (presumably Sulayman) pick up the constitutional reform process. That puts the crisis on hold for 60 days and offers the opposition promises for reform that might be redeemed later -- and might not be. This would put lipstick on, but not much else, particularly given the toxic lack of trust in the regime's promises.

3.) Suspend the constitution and negotiate a transition between the current regime leaders and the opposition. And then we are in regime change territory, operating outside the existing rules. If the process were successful, it would not produce merely a reconfigured regime but would be moving toward a different kind of political system. The opposition has made clear that it wants such an outcome, but it has not sketched out any vision in detail. The negotiations over transition would be difficult and confusing, demanding that the opposition transform its negative platform (Mubarak must leave) into a positive one.

If Mubarak resigned today, the third option is the only one that offers anything like real political change. It may be the best outcome and it is what the opposition is effectively demanding. It may very well deserve our support, but we should know that when we call for Mubarak to step down, then legally at least this is where we are effectively pushing.


UPDATE, 10:10pm:  P.S.A group of leading intellectuals (including my good friend and colleague Amr Hamzawy), former officials, and activists and activists) have hit upon an ingenious constitutional solution. Published in the Egyptian daily al-Shuruq and translated by my home away from home, the Carnegie Endowment, the proposal suggests that Mubarak deputize Sulayman to serve as president. This is constitutionally possible—if the president is unable to serve (in this case presumably because of political ill health) he can hand power over temporarily (in this case until the fall when his term is over) to the vice president.By stopping short of a final resignation, the need for immediate elections is removed and there is enough time to amend the constitution.

As I say, this is an ingenious constitutional solution. But would it work politically? It is a promising effort but also one that rests on hopes that may not be warranted. It works only if Mubarak cooperates and those currently running the country make their peace with a real transition. In other words, it would be a way for the regime to sue for a gentle and orderly peace; it has the added benefit of preserving legal forms (always helpful in a country trying to build the rule of law). But there is no sign that the regime is looking for a gentle transition or even a real compromise with the opposition. 



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