In the early days of 2011, the winds of change have swept through the Middle East and North Africa not only for the residents of this volatile region but also for the world as a whole. The Arab message this year was: the people, not the governments, have the power to determine their future.
As the Arab Spring spread across the Middle East, new key players, partnerships and allegiances have moulded the shifting Arab political landscape; particularly with the decline of Egypt's role in the few years preceding what has been dubbed the “Year of the dictator.” European analysts began describing Saudi Arabia as the state that indirectly leads the Arab and Islamic world. More prominently, Turkey, under the leadership of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, emerged as an old-new player bridging the gap between Europe and the Middle East.
The region, pre-revolution, was divided into two inconsistent and incompatible camps in terms of both interests and attitudes. The “axis of moderation” (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the UAE and most Gulf states) and the “axis of resistance” (Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas), which determined political allegiances before December 2010, have also significantly changed.
Ahram Online interviewed Dr. Mustafa El-Labbad, director of Al-Sharq Centre for Regional and Strategic Studies, about the changing political arena.
Up until a decade ago, says El-Labbad, Turkey had adopted a zero-problem policy among its Arab neighbours and was mainly bound to the European Union. However after the Justice and Development Party assumed power in 2002, things began to change. In 2007 and 2008 Turkey positioned itself as mediator between these shifting “axes.”
Turkey, four years before the Arab Spring revolutions, tried to consolidate its relations with Egypt in order to reduce the influence Israel held over the Middle East, despite Turkey historically enjoying good relations with the Jewish state.
This change became abundantly clear when Erdogan publically stormed off the stage at the 2009 World Economic Forum in Davos, after verbally sparring with Israeli President Shimon Peres over the war on Gaza, known as “Operation Cast Lead”, which started on 27 December, 2008 and ended on 18 January, 2009.
By supporting the ongoing revolutions across the Middle East, and Egypt’s in particular, Turkey’s popularity, which rose on the back of its response to Israel's deadly attack on the Mavi Marmara aid flotilla in 2010, reached its peak, says El-Labbad. The protester’s slogans that called for freedom, dignity, democracy and peaceful exchange of power, were consistent with the policies and attitudes of the ruling party in Turkey.
In the early days of the uprising in Libya, Turkey was reluctant to endorse the rebels instead choosing to maintain its investments in the African country that was worth $15 billion. After NATO forces intervened to topple Gaddafi and it became clear that the Colonel’s regime was on the verge of collapse, Turkey slowly showed its support of the Libyan revolution.
The Syrian question
The revolution in Syria, as a geographical and political lynchpin for many of the surrounding states, has emerged as a significant game changer.
Certainly for Turkey their biggest dilemma and ongoing impasse has been Syria. Aside from sharing a border, Turkey has historically enjoyed trade agreements and firm political relations with Syria. The geopolitical structure of Syria controls access to Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan, also making it a pivotal state.
There are three key reasons that Turkey was keen on maintaining ties: to counter balance the Iranian influence on Syria, to curb the power of the Kurds living on Syrian soil and to maintain their geographical access to the rest of the Arab world via Syrian land. Turkey was also keen on shoring up relations with Syria in order to encourage trade between the two countries and to build up bilateral relations with Iran's sole ally in the region, particularly if there was a possibility of Syria falling under the influence of the Islamic state.
As the protests against Bashar Al-Assad's regime gained popular support and the violence against protesters escalated, Turkey increasingly pursued rapprochement with the Syrian opposition at the expense of the regime.
In a politically courageous move, Turkey harboured the opposition in Istanbul, which saw the formation of the Syrian National Council, so becoming the regional advocate of the Syrian opposition against Bashar al-Assad. Turkey’s relationship with Iran, consequently, grew worse, particularly as Turkey is competing with Iran about who will assume leadership in the region. This will become a major issue for the two countries if the Syrian National Council assumes power after toppling the regime.
Turkey, according to Dr. El-Labbad, is expected to forge a more significant role in the coming years. Its influence, too, is expected to grow in areas where its political allies, notably the Freedom and Justice Party (the political arm of the Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood) have comfortably secured seats in parliament.
A regime change in Syria would deal Iran a massive blow. Syria is Iran’s main political ally and physical gateway to the Arab World, as well as being their only real window on the Mediterranean Sea. Iran’s interest in the situation in Syria is not ideological or religious but geopolitical –Iran will defend the Assad regime until the end.
This public support of the regime has changed perceptions on Iran in the Middle East, which has moved from optimistic to one of caution. Dr Al-Labbad has revealed that Iran is seemingly coming to be a “dead loser” of the Arab spring revolutions.
Iran and the Arab Spring
With the exception of Syria, Iran’s relations with the Arab states, even before the Arab Spring, have been tense. Iran exploited its support of resistance movements in the region, such as Hezbollah, in order to widen the gap between the rulers and the peoples, particularly focusing on areas of social injustice and where there were was popular condemnation of the dictatorial governments (the axis of moderation states).
Iran further drove a wedge between Arab regimes and their people, following irrational rhetoric from the Iranian President Ahmadinejad that reached its peak during the 2006 Lebanon war and the Israeli “Operation Cast Lead” on Gaza.
Direct connections have been made between Iran and the ongoing protests in Egypt. There have been unfounded claims that Tehran administered the Egyptian revolution, despite the lack of ideological common ground and the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s calls for the creation of an Islamic regime in Egypt back in February.
However post-Mubarak Egypt has seen a change in policy towards the Islamic state, independent of regional and international influences. This was demonstrated on 22 February, 2011 when Egyptian authorities historically granted two Iranian warships access through the Suez Canal en route to Latakia, Syria. It was the first passage by Iranian naval vessels through the canal since the Iranian Revolution in 1979.
The West expects positive relations between Cairo and Tehran following April’s statement from the Egypt’s former foreign minister Nabil El-Arabi that extended an olive branch to Iran whilst recognising the legitimacy of Hezbollah; a move that surely intimated Israel.
Egypt will maintain a careful balance with its relations to Iran but not at the expense of the other partnerships, El-Labbad explained. Any significant alliance between Iran and Egypt could trigger international disequilibrium.
Egypt also closely monitors the Gulf States and their revolutions, particularly as the Gulf enjoys a large share of foreign investments in the country, such as remittances, Arab tourists and Suez Canal revenues.
Iran, as a predominantly Shia state, announced its full support of the largely Shiite uprising in Bahrain. Iran also condemned the intervention of Peninsula Shield Force, the military arm of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that forcibly quelled the demonstrations in the small kingdom.
In a report sent to the United Nations, Bahrain accused Hezbollah of training Bahraini opposition groups in Lebanon and Iran. Bahrain’s foreign minister, Khalid bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa, who was quoted in the document, added “Some foreign countries have actively provided logistical support to Hezbollah to assist in destabilizing Bahrain over recent months.” American intelligence officials have also reported observing communication between Bahraini opposition groups, Hezbollah, and Iran since the protests began in February.
Turkey and Iran, the largest two states of the Arab vicinity, wait for the final outcome of the dramatic and evolving turmoil in the Middle East. The identity of those who will emerge as the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria is yet to be seen and will determine the relationships Turkey and Iran will forge with the fledging new states.
Turkey’s gains from the Arab Spring revolutions should greatly outweigh the gains of any other Middle Eastern state. As for Iran, it is likely to come out empty-handed, as the international community increases its pressure on Tehran because of its nuclear program. The Arab Spring revolutions are currently an open-ended narrative. 2012 is the deciding year, that will unveil the winners and losers.