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Turkey can be a democratic model for the Middle East

Epiphanies from Abdullah Gul

Turkey can be a democratic model for the Middle East, its president says.

As the first openly devout president of Turkey, Abdullah Gul believes his country can be a model for the new wave of Islamic democracies sprouting across the Arab world. But a region that seemed so hopeful when Gul landed in Egypt just days after the revolution in Tahrir Square is now beset with tension: a brewing conflict between Israel and Iran and a brutal crackdown in Syria.

I don’t think things will go in a negative direction in the countries of the Arab Spring. If you look at Turkey, we have had for many years the basic tenets and rules of democracy in place. We’ve always enjoyed freedom of expression and pluralism. But Arab countries for many years were closed; they were looking inward, and they suffered under dictators who were quite harsh in the way they treated their people. And that’s why the opposition in those countries looked to be more radical. The prime minister in Tunisia, for example, spent more than 10 years in jail — many of these new leaders were jailed in the last 10 to 15 years. But I don’t see any type of revanchist approach in any of these people. They don’t look to the past; they look to the future.

America’s open support for these democratic transitions was much appreciated by the people, particularly the youth. This moral support improved the American image, which was negative. For many years there were authoritarian regimes here that were supported by the West. Those kinds of feelings won’t go away overnight.

Turkey has done a lot to encourage peaceful change in Syria. In Assad’s father’s time, you didn’t have the Internet; you didn’t have Facebook; you didn’t have Twitter. It was a different world. I’ve spoken to Bashar al-Assad about this, telling him that times have changed and that you can’t continue to do things like this. Now, after all this bloodshed, we have reached the point of no return. But Russia and Iran can’t keep carrying his water. They have to be a part of the international community and must act jointly to resolve this crisis.

I can understand the Iranian desire to develop their nuclear capacity. But I cannot say anything as to whether they are planning to make nuclear weapons. I’m one of those that believe this has to be resolved diplomatically. All these statements that Israel makes about making war — I think this is wrong. Whether or not we like a country, every country has their honor and their national feelings. I don’t mean to in any way disregard the threat perception on the part of Israel either, but it’s very important to look at issues from a broader perspective.

Relations between Turkey and Israel haven’t deteriorated just because of our government.That’s a very wrong image. What happened was that there was an attack on a humanitarian aid ship 72 miles off the coast, in international waters, and nine Turks were killed. That’s not something we can forget. And until Israel does the things it needs to do, one cannot speak of a normalization of relations.

Israel does not really appreciate the value of their friends. And those who govern Israel at the moment do not seem to have a farsighted look in the long term. They seem to be more engaged in a shortsighted strategic outlook. That seems to be the problem.

Interview:  BENJAMIN PAUKER is senior editor at Foreign Policy.



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