When anti-government protests spread from Tunisia to Egypt, Libya, and Syria five years ago, optimists declared that the Middle East was on the precipice of a dramatic democratic transformation. Among the most optimistic were the leaders of Turkey, who saw the upheaval as an opportunity to realize their neo-Ottoman dream of positioning Turkey, a Muslim democracy with close ties to both the West and Arab nations, as a regional leader. Five years later, Arab Spring optimism has collapsed, and with it, Turkish ambitions. Libya and Syria are caught in civil wars, Egypt grows increasingly authoritarian, and Tunisia—arguably the only success story among them—is a magnet for the Islamic State (ISIS). Turkey, meanwhile, has experienced its own rapid reversal of fortune. Rather than projecting influence, Ankara is more isolated than ever.
Years before the Arab Spring erupted, back in 2002, Turkey’s Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) sought to establish better ties with the Middle East. Ankara adopted what it called a “zero problems with neighbors” policy, which involved new diplomatic and economic initiatives with all of its neighbors, including countries where Turkey had faced troubles in the past, such as Iran and Syria, and even established deeper ties with countries in Africa, such as Somalia. But President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the founder of the AKP, and Ahmet Davutoglu, his foreign minister (now prime minister), had more in mind than settling old scores and boosting trade. Rather, they aspired to revive the regional supremacy of the once all-powerful Ottoman Empire, striving to become the leaders of a pan-Islamic movement in the Middle East—just as the Ottoman caliphs did until the twentieth century.
The Arab Spring, as they saw it, provided a golden opportunity to realize this dream. As early as September 2011, Erdogan toured Libya and Egypt,unabashedly positioning his AKP government as the model for all of the Arab world’s transitioning countries, and himself as the leader of that movement. Erdogan called for democracy and stressed the compatibility of Islam and secular governance. With optimism surging as dictator after dictator fell, Erdogan became a rockstar of sorts for those seeking a soft landing for the Arab Spring.
For its part, the West not only accepted Erdogan’s quest for regional leadership, but also appeared to encourage it. A growing herd of Westernmedia and scholars pointed to Turkey as the paragon of Western-oriented Muslim-majority democracy for the region, and to the AKP as an Islamist-rooted but reformed and secular party. With his Middle East policy hedged on a pivot to Asia and a withdrawal from conflict with violent Islamist groups, U.S. President Barack Obama was more than happy to have a partner like Erdogan, whom he effectively anointed to manage the region’s transformation. The two leaders spoke regularly by phone, and all appeared to be going according to plan.
Erdogan’s strategy was not as advertised. Far from championing pluralism and protection of civil liberties in the region, Erdogan opted to champion the chauvinistic style of political Islam primarily associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. With its own roots associated with the movement, it was a natural evolution for the AKP. Indeed, Erdogan had already built closer ties with many of the regional Muslim Brotherhood movements over the years, perhaps best exemplified by his close and personal relationship the leadership of the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas, itself a splinter of the Brotherhood. Ankara also teamed up with Qatar, a longtime sponsor of Brotherhood movements region-wide that isviewed by many of its Gulf Arab neighbors as dangerously provocative in this regard.
The AKP’s support for the Brotherhood was clear in Tunisia and Libya, but was arguably most evident in Egypt. Erdogan enjoyed widespread popularity among the Egyptian Ikwan soon after the revolution, not least for his firm support for Palestinians and his outward hostility toward Israel. With the Brotherhood set to inherit the mantle of power in Egypt, Ankara quickly committed to helping strengthen Egypt’s economy through investment, aid, and trade. When the Brotherhood-affiliated Mohamed Morsi did become president, Davutoglu solidified Turkey’s economic support, pledging nearly $2 billion in aid to the new government in Cairo in September 2012. A month later, Morsi had already become an honorary guest at the AKP’s annual convention in Ankara. Erdogan met Morsi several times throughout his one-year stint in office, advising the Brotherhood leader on a wide range of issues from governance and economics.
Ankara’s assistance to the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria was more covert than in Egypt, but no less significant. The Baathist Syrian regime had banned the Muslim Brotherhood’s activities in the 1960s and exiled the group in 1982. Even before the uprising against President Bashar al Assad erupted in 2011, the AKP pushed for a Damascus–Brotherhood reconciliation. But its real support to the organization came after the revolution began. Although the Brotherhood was largely irrelevant to the Syrian revolution in its early stages, Ankara propelled the group to the top echelons of nearly all the opposition groups that organized in Turkey, including the Free Syrian Army.
As is now clear, though, Turkey’s bets failed to pay off. Morsi faced massive protests in Egypt and, within a year of his election, was ousted by secular military forces in July 2013. Ankara and Cairo have had no diplomatic relations ever since. Tunisians democratically replaced their Islamist-led government the next year. Syria and Libya are still embroiled in bloody civil wars, and Turkey’s contribution to the Islamist factions in these conflicts has provoked the ire of Western countries and some of the Sunni Gulf Arab states that seek to weaken the Brotherhood and strengthen the power of the monarchies.
Ankara is not solely responsible for the failure of the Arab Spring. Indeed, the autocratic forces that feared the rise of the Brotherhood played an outsized role in that. But Turkey’s full support for the Brotherhood, as opposed to a commitment to pluralism, rule of law, and other democratic values, helped fuel the anxiety that led to the counter-revolutions. The promise of a moderate Islamist rule in the Middle East now appears a far-fetched dream. And Ankara’s hegemonic ambitions have failed along with it. Turkey is now isolated in a neighborhood filled with autocracies that deem it an enemy, and civil wars in which Turkey is seen as having fanned the flames.
With its neo-Ottoman aspirations dashed and scant opportunities for regional gain, Ankara still supports the Brotherhood’s various movements across the Middle East, even after their fall from grace. Turkey is widely believed to still be providing covert support to Islamist fighters in Syria and Libya and many Egyptian Brotherhood fugitives escaped to Turkey after the coup. Global Muslim Brotherhood leaders have held several conferences in Istanbul and Ankara. Hamas still maintains a headquarters in Turkey, too. Indeed, Turkey has emerged a safe haven for the Brotherhood and its affiliated groups, and its alliance with fellow brotherhood patron Qatar is still strong. The two countries recently agreed on visa-free travel for their citizens and conducted their first joint military drill. Turkey is now taking that friendship one step further by planning a military base in Qatar—its first in the Middle East.
Its dream of an ascendant Brotherhood might be gone if not forgotten, but Ankara has adopted other policies that demonstrate the AKP maintains its appetite for risk. In November 2015, Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet thus prompting a diplomatic crisis with Moscow. The following month, Ankara sent troops into northern Iraq, ostensibly to assist the Kurds and Sunni Iraqis in their fight against ISIS, much to the fury of the Baghdad government. Turkey’s relationship with Iran is also strained, since the two sides support opposing camps in Syria and blame each other for fueling sectarianism in the region. To Tehran’s dismay, Turkey joined the Saudi-led anti-Houthi coalition in Yemen, even if its participation is nominal. Meanwhile, even though Turkey is officially part of the U.S.-led coalition to fight ISIS, the United States and other European countries continue to criticize Ankara for not doing enough to curb the flow of extremist fighters across its border with Syria.
Whatever Turkey’s new policies bring, Erdogan’s Arab Spring legacy is written. He claimed to champion a synthesis of Islamism and pluralism, but he promoted another brand of Islamism entirely. This was evident among the Brotherhood branches he sought to empower, and also at home, where civil liberties and democracy have suffered. In that, he has done perhaps insurmountable harm to the very ideas he once professed.