Strategic Developments in the MENA ( Middle East and North Africa ) Region


My topic of study would be to have a closer look at the recent developments in the MENA region. I personally find the developments remarkable, since the very beginning of this year, I mean since January 2011, which all started in Tunisia. I find this date very meaningful, because it is the first month of the second decade of the 21st Century and thus the end of the first ten years of the Millennium. It is unforgettable and very easy to remember. In that sense it is historic....

My topic of study would be to have a closer look at the recent developments in the MENA region. I personally find the developments remarkable, since the very beginning of this year, I mean since January 2011, which all started in Tunisia. I find this date very meaningful, because it is the first month of the second decade of the 21st Century and thus the end of the first ten years of the Millennium. It is unforgettable and very easy to remember. In that sense it is historic.

Forgive my ignorance if I am wrong, but as far as I know, this is the first ever grassroots revolt, i.e. bottom up flourishing popular movement in the Arab world, in history. Because I don’t remember any democratic rights introduced, in this part of the world other than the ones given graciously by the ruling elite from above or, by the external powers from beyond until now. Until recently this phenomenon was diametrically opposite to what we see in the Western World. So the West has been fighting for centuries for its freedoms, democratic rights and their reflections on these people’s way of living. Even the West has not reached a perfect democracy yet. They have still many shortcomings in their democratic standards, such as extremist political tendencies, racism, ethnocentrism, lack of transparency in many fields of national and international relations, corruption levels not much different from and as high as non-European countries, their restrictive attitudes towards free travelling and free circulation of movement, violence in various forms, such as hate literature, language and behaviour, aggressive attitudes towards foreigners, xenophobia, egocentric way of living in their society, intolerance to differences, especially in religious differences, etc.

But to have a clear conscience, we have to be honest at least with ourselves as well. We know that we have not been governed democratically in our countries until now. The package of rights we so far enjoyed are either given to us from above and by our rulers; or by external powers from beyond. Anyway, these rights should not be left at the mercy or judgement, or monopoly of internal or external rulers. These ruling personalities may not necessarily be tyrants, autocrats, or dictators; they might be good leaders, but still they cannot be entrusted the full authority, because their mistakes may harm the people’s interests willingly or unwillingly. These rights which we enjoy until now are not obtained after our demands or struggle. I mean they are not earned by sweat, blood and tears. But under good leadership and good governance, we may transform ourselves without blood, or tears. Under the present circumstances I see two examples of painless transformation to good governance in the right direction, Morocco and Jordan. I am confident that they will reach the highest standards of advanced democracy pretty soon, under the inspiring leadership of both Kings.

At this point I would like to underline that we should all agree on what we expect and what we mean by democracy. If the concept of democracy is interpereted differently, then it will be beyond reach. In this respect we should come to the conclusion that the equation democracy = ballot box is short of what democracy exactly is intended to explain and that equation is not sufficiently describing democracy. Can we reach democracy by only having free elections and applying it to the system of government? Most people will say yes. I say no. It is much shorter than a desired level of proper democracy. I must be clear on one thing: Is democracy possible without the ballot box? No, it is not possible. So a popular vote and elections is a sine qua non for democracy. But it can not be rounded up to define democracy by itself as a whole. It is much less than democracy. What are the other factors to reach democratic values? Some of them are as follows: a good educational system, transparency, accountability, rule of law, separation of state powers (legislative, executive and judiciary) and the balance between them, relations between secularism and religion, participation by every segment of the society, multilateralism versus unilateralism, pluralism versus majoritarianism (minorities and opposition can survive only under democracy), civil society organizations and civil liberties, gender equality, the role of the military and security apparatus in a democratic society, connection between stability and democracy (no autocratic rule should be tolerated for the sake of stability) and rational mixture of internal and external dynamics in democratization process etc. These could be only rounded up and summed up by protection of human rights, knowing the fact that this could be the only road to democracy. Nothing less nothing more. So you can see how dwarf becomes the ballot box in the whole conceptual universe of democracy.

Now you can judge for yourself at which point on the road to democracy are our societies. After setting that straight, we can now look at the global map and see that our MENA region is just a very small fraction of our Globe. And the regions beyond our MENA area are much different from us. Whether they are in the right place, or we are standing in the right place, I leave it to your judgement. If they are right, which means we are wrong, this should show us the way or the direction which we should go to, in a simple definition. And no pretext, or excuse would be explicable for our grievances, if we donot choose the right track.

Now at this point we must ask for ourselves, whether we honestly need such a transformation or not. If we consider ourselves ready for such a transformation, we should judge on how to deal with internal and external dimensions of this process. If we decide that we should use any or both of these dimensions appropriately for this transformation, we should conclude on the right methods of doing it. At this point, we see two diametrically opposite views. On the one hand, some people think that external dimensions are dangerous, they are the products of foreign, imperialist powers; they are tinted with selfish interests, trying to capture our rich natural resources; so our countries would not like to be preys to egoistic powers. Some of us believe that they are not following a democratization process in our countries, but they want to control our countries. They are interfering with our internal affairs. That is exactly a conspiracy theory and is it true? Yes and no. In fact it is a half truth. I mean the glass is half full and half empty, so the conspiracy theories are not reflecting always the exact truths. Anyway should we think that major powers -American or European- are capable of fully controlling us? I do not think so.

We can see the disastrous defeat of these major powers in their ventures in our region or elsewhere. This means that they are not capable of achieving what they really want. On the other hand, as a consequence of the above, we cross to the other extreme, and that would be to believe that you can transform yourself only by internal dynamics. Well this is also a pipe dream and it is not possible. Because for such a major transformation you need a well educated, democratically minded, cultivated, urbanized people who would be prepared to adopt democratic measures and to absorb tolerance needed. In no countries in our region including mine, can you find such level of tolerance and readiness. Therefore this is also a half truth. In order to have a rational transformation to democracy, you need to mix a reasonable harmony of internal and external dynamics, interactively influencing each other positively.

I would like to give a very interesting example of my own country, Turkey with its historic experience. The Ottoman history is a very good example of how internal and external dynamics have been interactively involved in the transformation of Turkey. Not to go deep into history, I would only refer to the climax date of the rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire after 1699.

Defeat on the gates of Vienna, a backward transition of the Empire has been unfolded and started by recoiling back to its early 20th Century original homeland i.e Anatolia. During the period between 1699 and 1809, roughly for 110 years, not any spectacular development in the democratic direction has taken place, except some domestic (by Ottoman terms domestic) rebellions in the Balkans, in the Caucasus and in Anatolia. In 1809 exactly, approx. 20 years after the French Revolution, we began to see the first waves of impacts on the shores of Turkey which were aimed at limiting the absolute authority of the Emperor. That specific year a petition, organized by several provincial lords was submitted to the Sultan to ask for more local administrative rights and that they should be consulted in decision making by Istanbul. This attempt was unsucccesful. These feudal lords were practically all eliminated. This was called (Sened-i İttifak). You can see the internal, as well as external influences together here.

The second important date was Greek uprising in 1821, which ended in independence of Greece in 1830, again with internal reflexes, coupled with external assistance.

The third memorable date would be 1839, when under the influence of the Great Powers of the day (Austro- Hungary, Germany, England, France and Russia) Sultan has issued a decree named “Tanzimat Fermanı“. This Decree has given many rights and privileges to different religious communities and some administrative and legal reforms. This was almost purely dictated by the external dynamics and reluctantly accepted by the Sultan.

The next date would be another Imperial Decree, giving more rights this time not only to minorities and non- muslims, but also to muslim subjects, again with the encouragement of the foreign powers. This second decree of 1856 has been called “Islahat Fermanı“.

After these steps, bottom-up pressures have stared to adopt this time a Constitution set up a Parliament (Meclis-i Mebusan) to replace the Imperial Divan and to establish Constitutional Monarchy. The date for that was 1876. But it was very short-lived. The same year it was dissolved by Sultan Abdulhamid II, who reestablished his arbitrary and absolute rule for the next 33 years.

A military revolt in Macedonia, when Ottoman military officers took charge of the state, dethroned Abdülhamid II, banished him to Salonica and raised to the throne the soft personalities of the dynasty one after the other, to avoid any charismatic leadership by the new Sultan, or to-be sultans from that date. Nominally the Sultan or Padişah was the Head of State, but he could be easily manipulated by the ruling powerful elite, composed of officers corps, educated people mainly in Medical School and Political Administrative School, (Harbiye, Tıbbiye, Mülkiye) writers , journalists etc. This time the opposition created itself within the power structure. In a bicameral parliament, a biparty system was established, but both chambers, as well as both parties did not represent fully the people, because as would be expected, democratical standards have not yet been instituted for election. The first political party was the Party of Union and Progress (İttihad ve Terakki) and the opposition was Freedom and Accord Party (Hürriyet ve İtilaf). The first one was infiltrated by German influences and the second by the Franco-British Alliance. Thus in Turkey some kind of a multiparty democracy has begun to root itself and has been affected by both external, as well as internal dynamics and influences. There was no way of eliminating any one of these dynamics.

Having come to the years of National Liberation after the dark years of a series of wars starting with Turkish-Italian Tripolitania war (1911), First and Second Balkan Wars (1912 -1913), First World War (1914-1918) and the fatal end of the Ottoman Empire, the new Republic was founded on the ashes of these tragic developments after another wave of War of Independence (1919 – 1922) During all those years of warfare until the demise of the Ottoman state, ruling party was the former mentioned party, the Sultan not much having power in state affairs.

Republican rule started on an elected parliament base, but with only one party in power in 1923. But it was an uphill struggle until 1946, after having twice tried a two party system each having failed in 1930s, the multiparty system was finally established firmly after 1950 elections. The first change of hands on the Power was achieved by elections in 1950.

We still have grievances and conflicts between ideologies, ethnic and religious rivalries, which render our vulnerable democratic system still shaky and not yet ripe enough, not to mention an advanced democracy.

I hope I could have given a Turkish transaction of historical background to our Arab friends, upon which they can make comparisons, before readily accepting a Turkish model.

Ambassador (R) Murat Bilhan

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