Just in case some of us are still skeptical about the sheer audacity of these times, give this a try: rummage in your mind’s attic for the year 1956 and a picture of Gamal Abd al Nasser, dust both off, and then tack them on that busy clipboard of history next to 2011 and Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
(Aside: this is not a partial response to Robert Malley and Hussein Agha’s The Arab Counterrevolution in NRB; although we do touch on some similar themes, this post was written before I read the two gentlemen. In any case, my view on the piece will come in two days.)
Actually, I am going out on a limb here on regional winners and losers in this Arab Spring, however reminiscent of the past the future threatens to become.
Now tick them sixty years and their collapsing vistas off: the bygone days of military coups that could prance around as do revolutions; the general-cum-father-cum-savior; the roar of an Arab Umma on the rise; ideologies in their Sunday suits with the rhetoric to match; Islamism, present, certainly, but lurking much like that quiet, awkward kid in the corner of the class…Palestine! Real and graspable.
Turkey, Iran and Israel, three cubs nursing on the sidelines…The Soviet Union and the United States, two giants with plenty of zest and way early in the fight.
It’s hardly necessary to keep revisiting the harsh elements that reduced an interesting prospect into a figment of a people’s overactive imagination. Besides, there is no better tonic for the heart’s pain than fast-forward.
So, a new century, a new Arab moment, a new painting in the making. It’s fascinating to watch the 21st century opting to pick up where it left off in the early years of the last and rejigging the old chosen path. There was a hint of an Arab Awakening then rising in the shadows of warring empires—the Ottoman one dying to stay alive, the European one literally sharpening the knife.
And here we are, almost one hundred years after the fact, with a few of us seemingly resurgent again, battered and arguably all the more sober because of it--and with such uncanny if unplanned timing--helping Turkey to recapture some of that glorious past. But, frankly, even before the Tunisians first rose, Turkey in the three way regional race against Iran and Israel, was looking more and more like a stud: a country oozing with testosterone, while Israel acts like an overwrought menopausal has-been and Iran runs around grabbing its crotch.
Or think of it this way: Sunni in a sea of Sunnis; a “respectable” (as in we don’t do murder and beards) Islamist model in a world desperate for one; an economic powerhouse; a government with electorally validated popular appeal versus a seriously dysfunctional Jewish democracy and a seriously dysfunctional Shiite theocracy; a solid member of NATO; a strong ally of an overburdened US willing to cede some of the chores of empire; strategic location; all the right rhetoric on Palestine, muscle flexing with Israel like no Iranian or Arab can.
Or think of it this way: Erdogan is about to make a visit to Egypt and (last I heard) speak in Tahrir Square. Can you imagine any Arab or Iranian leader daring even to propose that outing without bringing down the house? Can you think of any power, say, China and Russia, trying to reach a deal with Syria’s Bashar in the absence of Erdogan? And, conceivably, if it ever musters the strength, a so-called Palestinian solution without Turkey as part of the plan?
There are, as with everything in life, the downsides: a far too confident Turkish leadership overreaching, an EU yet to put out the welcome mat; Iran and Israel outdone, joining hands here and there to overturn the cart; the Kurdish problem reasserting itself through Syria, Iraq and Iran… But all things are relative, and in this regional competition for influence, the era is certainly Turkey’s for the taking.