Turkey: The First Mideast Revolution

06/20/2011 02:12 pm ET | Updated Aug 20, 2011

The revolutions and uprising that have been sweeping across the Mideast are widely believed to have begun in Tunisia. In fact, the first seeds of revolution were planted in 2002 in Turkey, as its Justice and Development Party began the long, arduous battle against eight decades of disguised military dictatorship.

To understand the importance of the June 12 Turkish elections, step back for a moment to distant 1960 when I was in high school in Switzerland.

A Turkish classmate named Turgut told me, tears in his eyes, "The generals hanged my daddy!" His father had been a cabinet minister in the government recently overthrown by a military coup.

The 510,000-man Turkish armed forces, NATO's second biggest after the US, have mounted four military coups since 1950. Turkey's current constitution, which facilitates military intervention in politics, was written by the military after its 1980 coup.

Ever since the era of national hero turned strongman, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey has been run by its powerful military behind a thin façade of squabbling politicians. In the process, it suffered widescale political violence, Kurdish secessionism, rigged elections, and endless, ruinous financial crises and the constant threat of war with Greece.

Americans always liked to point to pre-2002 Turkey as the ideal Muslim state. "Why can't those Arabs be more like the sensible Turks?" was a refrain often heard in Washington. Americans chose to ignore, or simply failed to see, that Turkey was an iron-fisted military dictatorship.

Turkey began to change in 2002 when the new Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Abdullah Gul (today president) won an historic electoral victory. The shift from the traditional leftists and rightist Kemalist parties was due to a major demographic shift. Rural and middle class Turks began moving into the cities, diluting the political and economic power of the minority secular elite made up of the military, big business, media, academia, and judiciary.

Turkey's tame Muslim religious establishment was kept under tight security control. Under Ataturk and his successors, Islam, the bedrock of Turkish culture and ethos, was savagely attacked, nearly destroyed and brought under state control -- just as the Russian Orthodox Church was during Stalin's era.

What Turks called "the deep government" -- hard rightists, security organizations, gangsters, the rich elite, and rabid nationalists -- wielded power and crushed dissenters.

AK called for Islamic political principles: welfare for the poor and old, fighting corruption, ethical political leaders who heeded their own people, good relations with neighbors. Turkey's right and its military allies screamed that their nation was about to fall to Iranian-style Islamists, or be torn apart by Kurdish rebels.

In fact, AK's decade of rule has given Turkey its longest period of steadily improving human rights, stunning economic growth, financial stability, and democratic government.

Under AK, Turkey has moved closer to the European Union's legal norms than, for example, new members Bulgaria and Romania. Even so, French and German conservatives insist Turkey will never be accepted in the EU. Europe -- particularly its farmers -- does not want 75 million mostly Muslim Turks. Nor competition from Turkey's lower cost, superior agricultural products, and its fast-growing industrial sector.

Largely unseen by outsiders, AK has relentlessly pushed Turkey's reactionary military back to its barracks. This long struggle culminated in attempts by the military, known as the Ergenekon affaire, to again overthrow the civilian government.

The plot was broken: numbers of high-raking officers were arrested and put on trial. So were a score of journalists and media figures involved in the plot -- probably too many. Investigators are examining questionable arms deals between Turkey's military and Israel.

Ergenekon broke the power of Turkey's generals, who were closely allied to the US military establishment and Israel's Likud party. In fact, the Pentagon often had more influence over Turkey than its civilian leaders. Until AK, the US nurtured bitter Turkish hostility to Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas, and, at times, Iraq, and an artificial friendship with Israel that dismayed many Turks.

Today, all has changed. Popular prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, backed by a majority of voters, has turned Turkey into the Mideast's role model for successful democracy, and unleashed the latent economic power of this nation of 75 million.

Turkey's capable foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, engineered a "zero problems" policy that vastly improved Turkey's relations with all its formerly hostile neighbors, excepting Armenia and Greek-Cyprus. Turkey's foreign policy now reflects Turkish rather than US and Israeli interests.

"Zero problems' opened the Mideast's doors to Turkish business, restoring Turkey to the former dominant regional leadership it held before World War I.

Turkey's popular support for the Palestinians led to a bitter clash with Israel. As a result, Turkey has become the target of fierce attacks by the US Congress and media for no longer being responsive to Israeli interests. The Wall Street Journal, the North American voice of Israel's hard right Likud Party, has led fierce attacks against Turkey.

Claims by the right that Erdogan is turning Turkey into an Islamic dictatorship are false. The stable, democratic, productive Turkey he is building is a boon for all concerned. Istanbul used to be the Paris of the Muslim world. It's returning to that role again.

Erdogan's third electoral victory fell short of allowing him to rewrite the obsolete constitution without consensus from other parties, but his victory means years more democratic and economic progress for this vitally important nation that will play a key role in stabilizing and building a new, modern Mideast.

copyright Eric S. Margolis 2011