From the July/August, 2011 issue of Touchstone

Muddle East by Peter Riddell

Muddle East

The “Arab Spring” As Viewed by Three Non-Arab Neighbors

by Peter Riddell

Huge international media attention has fallen on the uprisings in the Arab world, collectively known as the Arab Spring, in recent months. Three key nations in the Middle East—Turkey, Iran and Israel—are, in fact, non-Arab (though all have significant Arab minorities), and their responses are worthy of consideration.


The Turkish secular republic, established in 1924 on the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, was dominated by military or military-endorsed governments for its first 75 years, accompanied by an increasing orientation towards the West. However, governments led by the AK Party under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdog˘an during the first decade of the 21st century have been reshaping the Turkish republic, rebuilding bridges with Turkey’s Muslim neighbors, and at the same time loosening ties with Israel. Nevertheless, Turkey’s developing relationships with the Muslim world have been variegated, as seen in its response to the Arab uprisings.

On the one hand, Prime Minister Erdog˘an openly supported Egyptians demonstrating against the Mubarak regime, addressing Mubarak in a public speech on February 1: “No government can stay in power despite the people. . . . Therefore I’m asking you to . . . welcome the will of the nation for change without any hesitation.”

However, Erdog˘an’s initial response to the Libyan crisis was cautious, warning that “military intervention by NATO in Libya or any other country would be totally counter-productive.” Once the coalition strikes on Libya began on March 18, Erdog˘an did an about-face, probably through fear of being marginalized in the rapidly unfolding events. Interestingly, the Turkish response to the mass protests by the Iranian opposition to the regime of President Ahmadinejad in 2009 was similarly muted.

The difference can be explained in several ways. Economic interests are key, with the Turkish media reporting that “Turkey . . . had projects worth more than $15 billion in Libya, mostly construction, and trade volume between them was about $2.4 billion last year.” Moreover, the Turkish and Libyan governments had aimed to increase trading volume fourfold over the next five years. Clearly, turmoil in Libya would put these plans at risk. In contrast, the relationship between Turkey’s AKP government and the Mubarak regime in Egypt had been poor for some time—not least because of Egypt’s solid working relationship with Israel and Turkey’s deteriorating relationship with the Jewish state—with resulting sluggishness in the bilateral trade relationship.

Furthermore, the ongoing turmoil in neighbouring Syria has clearly placed Erdog˘an and his regime in a quandary. Again, economic factors are important; Turkey is Syria’s largest trading partner. But there is more to this than simple economics. Social unrest on Turkey’s borders is a major factor in Erdog˘an’s hedging his bets, with stability his preferred outcome: preferably a Syrian stability that will not translate to Turkish instability. Thus, while gently calling on Syrian President Assad to carry out reforms, Erdog˘an was quick to follow this up with praise for Assad for his subsequent reforming steps. The outrage so evident in the responses of major world powers to Assad’s heavy-handed military reaction to protests has been noticeably absent from Turkish government comment on the Syrian situation.

Questions also arise concerning the AKP’s unqualified commitment to liberal democracy. Erdog˘an is widely quoted as saying in 1995: “Democracy is like a streetcar. When you come to your stop, you get off.” Though some treat this attribution with caution, the gradual spread of a soft Islamization process in Turkey under the AKP does raise questions about the country’s future directions. Turkish commentator Ays˛e Zarakol observes that “the AKP and its supporters have exhibited a very misguided tendency to identify with whoever most loudly claims the banner of Islam, without appreciating the particular substance of such claims.” This may explain in part the Turkish response to the Egyptian uprising. Key Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood opposition figure, Ashraf Abdel Ghaffar, visited Turkey at the height of unrest in Egypt and gave a press conference on February 8, which some took as implying mutual interest between the Brotherhood and the AKP government of Turkey.

The question about commitment to democratic values also emerges from the government’s management of internal affairs. Turks are far from enjoying the right to protest, so widespread in the West. In early March nine journalists and writers were charged with plotting to overthrow the AKP government. Some 400 people have been arrested in connection with this alleged plot since 2007. So a Turkish reluctance to champion protest rights without qualification has a context, and accounts in part for the ambiguous Turkish response to the Arab uprisings.


Like Turkey, Iran’s reaction to the Arab uprisings has varied according to country and context, though not always for the same reasons.

The Iranian leadership gave strong support to the Egyptian protestors, with a much more vitriolic critique of President Mubarak than came from Turkey. In a February 4 sermon, Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei labelled Mubarak “a Western and Zionist lackey,” and issued a call for action in the Arab world in distinctly Islamic terms: “The awakening of the Islamic Egyptian people is an Islamic liberation movement . . . I call on God to help you and bring about victory for you.”

Fierce criticism was also levelled at the authorities in neighbouring Bahrain for their crackdown on protestors. But a marked contrast is seen in Iranian official comment on the protests in Syria, where the Iranian government depicted the protestors as “agitators” and “terrorists” acting on instructions from Israel.

Again the difference relates to national interests. Iran had little to lose in attacking the Egyptian leadership, considering the long-standing problems in the Iranian-Egyptian relationship since the time of Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel. Indeed Khamenei pointed to the centrality of the Israel issue in saying, “If Egypt halts its alliance with (Israel) and takes its real position, what a great event will happen in the region. All the late Imam’s prophecies will come true.”

Similarly, Iran has long championed the rights of Shi’ites in Sunni-dominated Bahrain. However, Shi’ites were not on the receiving end of the government clampdown in Syria. Furthermore, the relationship between the Iranian and Syrian regimes has warmed in recent years, with the Assad regime being one of Iran’s few friends on the international stage.

The Iranian regime’s inconsistent response is also no doubt partly influenced by its continuing problems at home. Indonesian observer Endy M. Bayuni commented:

The Islamic Republic of Iran, after congratulating the protesters in Egypt for their successful revolution, quickly and brutally quelled its own uprising. The Iranian government’s response dashed suggestions that Iran might offer its Arab neighbors and predominantly Muslim societies any viable model of democracy.

Indeed, repressive measures by the Iranian regime are more akin to tactics used by regimes currently targeted by protestors in the Arab world than to the protestors’ cries for freedom. Victims of these measures have included Christians, with 282 now confirmed to have been arrested in 34 Iranian cities since June 2010.

It is worth noting that bilateral Turkish-Iranian relations are growing. Iran represents Turkey’s second largest energy supplier, and Turkey and Iran consult on issues related to Kurdish separatism. Nevertheless, both nations compete for influence in the Middle East, and each is watching the Arab uprisings closely and is to some extent placing bets both ways, in the hope of furthering an aspiration of regional leadership.


The official Israeli response to the Arab uprisings is no less driven by national interest than those of Turkey and Iran. But there is a key additional dimension: a chronic perception by Israelis that the survival of their state is under threat. As Meron Medzini has observed:

Few question the legitimacy of the Jordanian or the Lebanese states. . . . Few ask how Bangladesh came into being. The idea that the Jewish people deserve a state of their own has not yet been accepted, even by non-Muslim nations, and lies at the core of the Arab refusal to come to terms with Israel.

So Israeli responses have been driven to a large extent by anxiety: What will emerge in the post-uprising Arab states, and will it mean renewed threat to Israel? However, there is debate within Israel about the method of addressing such concerns.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’ s statements have implied that Israel should hunker down and be cautious of the Arab world unrest. In contrast, many Israeli officials have argued in the opposite direction, calling for bold Israeli initiatives, both with the Palestinians and also with Syria.

Particular concern is expressed at the possibility of Islamist regimes emerging from the Arab uprisings. Yossi Kuperwasser, Director General of Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs, argues that “radical Islam . . . den[ies] the right of Israel to exist, not only as a Jewish state but to exist at all, even as a non-Jewish state. They see Israel as a temporary situation [that] should be destroyed.”

In this context, Israeli commentators complain that populations across the Arab world have long been fed a diet of material impregnated with anti-Semitic motifs. Kuperwasser adds: “The number of versions of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in Arabic in Egypt is very large; you see it in the Egyptian curriculum, textbooks, all these things.”

In the wake of the fall of the Mubarak regime in Egypt, Israeli commentators have noted signs of increasing Egyptian hostility to Israel. Egypt’s new foreign minister, Nabil el-Araby, expressed support for trials of Israeli leaders in international courts for crimes of aggression. Israeli officials have been particularly concerned with likely erosion in Israeli-Egyptian cooperation in various areas. The ongoing Israeli blockade of Gaza had been assisted by Egypt in keeping the border crossing closed and in monitoring smuggling tunnels to Gaza. But Hamas militants jailed by the Mubarak regime have now been released, and public hatred of Israel is becoming more visible and vocal in post-Mubarak Egypt. The increasing public assertiveness of Salafi groups and the greater political organization of the Muslim Brotherhood in the new Egypt are causing much anxiety in Israel.

Nevertheless, some Israeli commentators observe more positively that the protests across the Arab world have made little reference to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Zvi Mazel observes that “the Israeli question, used for decades by Arab rulers to focus their peoples’ attention away from their sorry economic state, is now revealed for what it was: just a ploy.” Whether this is a temporary lull or a permanent change of discourse remains to be seen.

Possible Scenarios

The impact of the Arab uprisings on Turkey, Iran, and Israel will depend crucially on their outcomes.

One possible outcome, what we might term the optimistic scenario, foresees liberal democratic governments emerging across the Arab world. This is no doubt the hope of the West. Many Arabs would support this outcome also, but the AKP government in Turkey would be hesitant on this score, and Iran’s Islamist regime would view it as a nightmare scenario. Israel, in contrast, would see this outcome as representing a promising new dawn for its relations with the Arab world.

The pessimistic scenario, in contrast, would involve the replacement of long-serving dictators with a new generation of long-serving dictators. As far as Turkey, Iran, and Israel are concerned, this would be an uncertain outcome, for the past has shown that dictators come in various guises, from pro-Western examples such as Mubarak, to rogue despots such as Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein.

Another outcome suggested by many commentators, which might be termed a nightmare scenario, foresees the emergence of Islamist political regimes throughout the Arab world. This would be the dream of powerful and not-so-powerful Islamist groups in the region, from the Muslim Brotherhood to Lebanon’s Hizbullah to al-Qaeda-aligned elements. Indeed, the Iranian regime would welcome this outcome in principle, as might AKP-governed Turkey, though in practice, Islamism comes in all shapes and sizes, and intra-Islamist tensions would quickly emerge between the different regimes.

A fourth and probably more realistic scenario than any of the above anticipates a highly contested region, with the short to medium term ushering in a mixture of the options listed above. In this vein, Zvi Mazel, former Israeli ambassador to Egypt, observes: “It is unfortunately clear that the Middle East will go through years of instability before the new regimes can find the right balance between the demands of the emerging political forces and those of traditional Arab societies.” •

Peter Riddell is Senior Fellow with Kairos Journal and serves as Professorial Dean of the BCV Centre for the Study of Islam and Other Faiths of the Australian College of Theology in Melbourne, Australia.

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