( President Erdogan- Photo via AP)
In a historic election, the Turkish government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan has lost its parliamentary majority. The consequences of these results are felt not just in Turkey, but also throughout the Arab world. Erdogan lost his bid to dominate Turkey through a new presidential system that he advocated; he further lost his unchallenged clout among his Egyptian and Arab admirers. The results have forced Arab Islamists to defend Erdogan instead of pursuing their usual grand celebrations that have become common after Turkish elections.
The fascination with Turkey is relatively new in the Arab world. At the university, I was mocked for reading about modern Turkish leaders like Turgut Ozal and Suleyman Demirel, which others, including Islamists, perceived as a waste of time. Indifference to Turkey was common, even among those most passionate about regional politics. However, following Erdogan’s rise in Turkey, the interest in the country surged, particularly among Islamists, to an unhealthy level.
As I wrote before, the relationship between Erdogan and his Arab Islamists is based on mutual exploitation. Erdogan engineers more domestic popularity for himself by harping on the misfortunes of Islamists while Arab Islamists market Erdogan’s success as proof of the soundness of their ideology. Erdogan’s non-Turkish Islamist fans have elevated him to a semi-sacred level, taking his Ottoman rhetoric literally. Egyptian and Arab Sunni Islamists have put all their eggs in one virtual Ottoman basket created by Erdogan’s charm, thereby linking their own success with his Turkish dominance. Indeed, they see him as the new prophet of modern Islamism.
Some Arab Islamists have argued that they have limited options. In their eyes, their support for Erdogan is out of necessity, not choice, because of the lack of successful Islamist leaders in the region. They have also argued that non-Islamists, not radical Islam, are the main obstacles preventing political Islam from dominating the Muslim World. They see no problem in embracing a foreign leader as a patron, ignoring Erdogan’s arrogance and desire for dominance, which are not exactly the model that will convince non-Islamists to embrace or even accept Islamism.
Furthermore, as I have argued before, Ottoman Islamists have no clear theory regarding the role of religion in political life. Their own experiences are mainly the slow introduction of religious teaching and symbols to replace the Kemalist doctrine. They have not developed a clear strategy to buttress against Islamic radicalism, as is subsequently proven in Syria in the murky relationship between Turkey and radical Islamists fighting Assad’s regime. Again, this is another reason why non-Islamists in the Arab world are not buying Erdogan’s “model” of Islamic democracy.
On the other hand, some non-Islamists have been fascinated with Turkey, albeit in a different way. When the Turkish assistant of my uncle (who used to work as a diplomat in the Egyptian Embassy in Ankara) visited Egypt, I was struck by her liberalism, which was so different and more open. The rest of Egypt and the Arab world started to get to know Turkey somewhat later, mainly through the television series invading many Arabic satellite channels that painted a very misplaced liberal, secular image of Turkey. Erdogan’s Turkey was initially happy to perpetuate this image as part of his marketing strategy to win as many Muslims as possible.
Eventually, the Ottoman image slowly started to emerge and flood the Arab TVs, particularly the popular television series “Magnificent Century.” The stunningly beautiful Ottoman women portrayed in the series fascinated many Arab men and women. The glorification of the Ottoman Empire initially worked. Later, however, one episode changed that perception: the killing of Mustafa, the Sultan’s eldest son, upon his father’s order, which is apparently not entirely fictional, as Mustafa’s tomb still exists in Turkey’s Bursa. This episode shattered the myth of the good Ottomans that Erdogan tried so hard to sell to the Arabs. Needless to say, Erdogan’s hostile views of Egypt after the ousting of Morsi dampened his popularity among Egyptians. His manufactured perception of Egypt’s complex political scene into a binary of good Islamists versus evil coup supporters was received with contempt by many, who saw how Erdogan purposefully used Egypt as tool in his domestic agenda.
Over the last decade, both Islamists and non-Islamists have learned to explore more about Turkey, the neighbor that once ruled them, then later drifted away. This knowledge was initially marred by misconceptions, and myths. Nevertheless—and despite Erdogan’s propaganda’s machine—both Islamist and non-Islamist Arabs have started to develop a clearer picture regarding Turkish politics and society.
The latest Turkish parliamentary election has generated unprecedented responses among Egyptians and Arabs. Undoubtedly, and regardless of the impact of the results on Turkey’s domestic politics, Erdogan has lost, at least part of his clout among Arabs. Islamists might defiantly claim that winning 40% of votes is not a bad result, but deep inside they acknowledge that this new Turkey will force Erdogan to look inward and could distract him from his grand Ottoman ambitions for the region. Their patron may not be capable of providing them with the support and help they desperately need. As for non-Islamist Muslims, who naturally reject political Islam as an ideology, they take the results of the Turkish election as the silver lining they have been looking for amidst the doom and gloom of their turbulent region. Turkey has finally provided them with the hope that they can prevail against political Islam without the help of authoritarian regimes and army generals.