Ed Husain

The Arab Street

Husain examines politics, society, and radicalism in the greater Middle East.

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Guest Post: Arab Transitions, Turkish Ambitions

by Ed Husain
November 11, 2011

A view of Istanbul's financial district from the city's Asian side (Murad Sezer/Courtesy Reuters).

This post is written by my colleague, Charles Landow, associate director of the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Whether for its economic dynamism or its increasingly visible role in the Middle East, Turkey today is much in the news. I recently visited the country and found good reasons for the attention. The purpose of the trip was to attend a conference on “The Economies of the Arab Spring” organized by the Hollings Center for International Dialogue, a small but energetic think tank that fosters policy conversations and connections between the United States and the Muslim world.

What I saw made clear that Istanbul is the hub of a booming economy with growing ambitions. The IMF projects that Turkey’s GDP, less than $200 billion as recently as 2001, will exceed $1 trillion by 2015. Per capita GDP has reached $10,000, on its way to nearly $15,000 in the next five years. This growth has many Turks thinking big. For example, the massive Marmaray Tunnel, which will traverse the Bosphorus to connect Istanbul’s European and Asian sides by rail, is under construction to address the city’s transport woes. Even the U.S. transportation secretary has praised its engineering prowess. And in April Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced plans for a colossal new canal that would keep freighters and their often hazardous cargo out of the jammed Bosphorus.

For some, Turkey’s economic success, as well as its political and religious dynamics, make it a compelling analogy for Arab countries in transition. But there was no consensus about a Turkish model at the Hollings Center conference. One participant noted that Turkey’s economic and political system had changed dramatically over time, and advocates of a Turkish model often have different eras in mind. Polls also show that the vast majority of Egyptians do not see Turkey as a political model.

Some Turkish business representatives promoted the Levant Quartet, a nascent group aiming to foster economic integration among Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey. This, however, provoked concern that Turkey seeks nothing more than export markets. Ayşe Zarakol, a conference participant and Turkish-born professor living in Virginia, tweeted about the Quartet plan. “Turks have to tread a bit more lightly,” she said. “We should not assume that Arab countries will jump on board just because we say so.”

The other salient conclusion was deep pessimism about Egypt. Many participants argued that the political transition planned by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) is too long and complex. Some questioned whether a revolution has really occurred. We also discussed Egypt’s precarious fiscal situation, exacerbated by popular demands for subsidies, jobs, and wage increases. Some bemoaned the SCAF’s decision, after apparently driving a hard bargain, to decline an IMF and World Bank loan in June. There are no magic solutions, of course, though ideas included speeding the transition to an elected government and launching a public works program to bolster infrastructure and provide jobs. A few participants suggested that tangible projects with clear benefits—irrigation systems, say—are good objects for U.S. assistance. Public-private investments in infrastructure strike me as a sound idea, not only in Egypt but also in the United States.

Debates go on over how events will unfold in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, and elsewhere—and over whether these countries should try to follow Turkey’s path. But all of us would do well to emulate the energy and ambition I found in Istanbul.

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