Political passions in Turkey are rising as Ankara becomes more assertive in trying to project its brand of democracy across the Muslim world.
“Mubarak the dictator go!” shouted hundreds of Turkish protestors outside one of Istanbul's main mosques, after Friday prayers. Many of the demonstrators chanted for the anti-government unrest in Cairo to spread across the Middle East, while some carried placards that said "Tunisia yesterday, Egypt today and Syria tomorrow.”
The protest close to the main gates of Istanbul University drew a throng of students, including 22-year-old Havva: "We want to show the Egyptian people that we support them on their journey to freedom. We just want to show people that Muslim presidents and prime ministers don’t have to be there by force, people can choose them as well. "
The demonstrators were mainly supporters of Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP). Their protest followed comments by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that firmly placed him with the Egyptian protestors seeking to push Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak from power.
On February 6, Erdogan continued to stoke the passions of his supporters with fresh comments: "All we want is that the democratic will of the Egyptian people regarding their rights and freedoms be addressed.”
The strong show of support in Turkey for the anti-Mubarak protests is a relatively recent phenomenon, appearing after weeks of silence over the Tunisia uprising and the first days of Egyptian protest.
Critics say Erdogan spoke out only after the Egyptian Islamist movement Muslim Brotherhood joined anti-Mubarak protests, and Iran added its voice in support. The Islamic-rooted AKP has developed strong ties with both Tehran and Muslim Brotherhood groups across the Middle East. At the same time, some experts see Turkey as in competition with Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood for a leading role in charting the Muslim world’s development path.
While his political base has reacted enthusiastically, Erdogan’s ardent support for Egyptian protesters has faced criticism from Turkish political analysts.
“Too little too late" said Cengiz Aktar, a political scientist at Istanbul's Bahcesehir University. “They (government leaders) are very suspicious of any mass protests of people, whether at home or abroad, they only spoke because so many opinion makers were criticizing Turkey's silence.”
Aktar pointed out that Erdogan’s position on Egypt was “totally inconsistent” with the prime minister’s stance on Iran’s controversial presidential election in 2009. In that instance, Erdogan backed Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, despite the allegations of massive fraud that enabled the Iranian hardliner to claim reelection.
Diplomatic considerations explain the discrepancy, Aktar added. "The prime minister [Erdogan] feels freer to criticize Mubarak because relations are so bad between Turkey and Egypt,” Aktar said. The expert also noted that Erdogan and Mubarak are also rivals for “leadership over the Palestinian conflict.”
Beyond possible personal motivations, the prime minister is also interested in seeing Turkey emerge as the leading role model for political and economic development in the Muslim world.
Polling data indicates that Turks are comfortable with projecting their style of government to other, mainly Muslim states. A survey conducted by the Turkish think tank Tesev found that 66 percent of respondents saw Turkey as an ideal role model for the region, and 68 percent wanted to see the Turkish government play a more active diplomatic role in the Muslim world.
Turkey’s democratic system has demonstrated that it is resilient – enduring despite three military coups. "There are certain historical choices that Turkey had made, that others haven't or could not make" said Soli Ozel, and international relations expert at Kadir Has University, "The most important thing is that we have managed by and large to have free-and-fair elections since 1950. Turkey has a real economy that functions, and a middle class that is actually a productive one .”
In striving to serve as a role model, Turkey has to surmount its past. As the former colonial ruler of much of the Middle East, Turkey has been traditionally viewed by many Arabs with caution. Erdogan has sought to counteract the effects of history by courting the Arab street. His tough anti-Israel rhetoric, for example, bolstered his image, and Turkey’s image, in Arab eyes, the Tesev survey found.
Erdogan’s AKP has devoted lots of time in recent years to developing relations with what are widely perceived outside the Muslim world as radical organizations. The apparent Turkish aim has been to exert a moderating influence over these groups. According to Tesev's project director, Jonathan Levack, the strategy appears to be working.
“A lot of Islamists, be they from the Muslim Brotherhood or whatever, actually look to the Justice and Development Party, as a model of how to become a part of the democratic system, how to become a political player,” Levack said.
Dorian Jones is a radio journalist living in Turkey.