At the start of the Arab revolutions, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) tentatively placed Turkey on the side of the pro-democracy movements, starting with Tunisia and then Egypt. In contrast to 2009, when Ankara backed the Ahmadinejad administration following Iran's disputed elections, Turkey was the first country to call for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step down at a time when other leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama, were hedging their bets. In doing so, Erdogan positioned himself and Turkey as regional leaders in encouraging democracy in other Muslim countries, based on Turkey's experience. However, Turkey's role as an "inspiration" was jeopardized only weeks later by its inconsistent policy on Libya, which led to protests outside the Turkish Consulate in Benghazi and put a damper on Turkey's popularity within the Arab world.
With Erdogan's recent admonishment of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, Turkey has finally reclaimed the initiative as regional inspiration for democracy and reform. Turkey's flip-flop on Libya was an acknowledgement that, sometimes, hard power is needed when soft power fails to sway autocrats. Echoing his earlier words about Tunisia and Egypt, Erdogan warned, "We don't want to live through new Halabjas, new Hamas and Humus, new Bosnias." Going further, Erdogan scolded Gaddafi, in what has also been read as a warning to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, saying, "Leaders must take responsibility, make sacrifice, choose the humane and conscientious path with a view to changing the face, fate and image of these lands. While doing so, they should be inspired by the ancient civilizations of these lands."
The Turks have not been so actively involved in the Middle East since the days of the Ottoman Empire. But Turkey's leaders have found it difficult to balance the competing interests of the region while staying above the fray. The breakdown in Turkish-Israeli relations after the Gaza flotilla incident dealt a significant blow to Turkey's attempts to position itself as regional mediator, even though its relations with the Arab world were flourishing at the time. So in many ways, Turkey's regional standing is dependent on how it reconciles its complex relationship with Israel.
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Dr. Joshua W. Walker is a postdoctoral fellow at the Crown Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Brandeis University and a research fellow at the Belfer Center at the Harvard Kennedy School.