Published on Arab Voices

The post-Arab Spring Islamists and Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party

This page in:
ImageIn many respects the question of whether Turkey represents a model for kindred political movements in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) has already been answered - with a clear, if not always resounding, yes. From the closeness of their names – at least in Egypt, Morocco, and Turkey – a variation on Justice, Development, and Freedom to strongly articulated support for political democracy and pluralism, the Islamist parties in Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia are sympathetic to and appear to be espousing positions broadly similar to Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) – ostensibly supporting multi-party democracy and liberal economic policies. The Salafists are another story but they too support multi-party democracy, though their pronouncements on liberal economic policies are more carefully phrased. While public pronouncements from Egypt’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), Tunisia’s Ennahda, and Morocco’s Justice and Development Party (better known by its French acronym of PJD), are uniformly positive to market-driven policies, they come with a strong and justifiable sense of outrage at the past’s corruption and crony capitalism. This too is a positive, assuming a market driven direction in economic policies. The expectation is that emerging Islamist parties in Libya and Syria will also largely follow these broad models. 

Yet, there are those who look at the social basis of Turkey’s AKP, its historical evolution in the Turkish secular context, and are more cautious in their expectations. Vali Nasr, Sebnem Gumuscu and many others argue that the emergence of a new class of devout businessmen in the wake of the liberalization of the Turkish economy in 1980s underpins the AKP's emergence as a stout defender of market economics and globalization. Sebnem Gumuscu neatly summarizes this phenomenon "...economic liberalization created an organized class of powerful and devout businessmen from the provincial bourgeoisie who advocated greater political pragmatism and stability in addition to closer relations with the EU as a major trade partner" The current leaders of the AKP, supported by this dynamic new class broke away from the Welfare party and established the AKP over a decade ago. The latter is still around as the 'Felicity" party, garnering 2-3% of the vote.

Another moderating influence in AKP's case has been that many of their leaders, including Tayyip Erdogan, had been in power, albeit at the local level, prior to rising to national prominence. Erdogan as Mayor of Istanbul needed no lessons in learning the difference between slogans like "Islam is the Solution" to moving quickly on delivering the infrastructure and service needs of a growing city of 14 million. Also part of the equation is the fact that the AKP is in direct descent from a series of Islamist political parties going back to 1969’s Nizam (order) party - in short it is a political party with a long history of losing elections and shedding baggage, sometimes forcefully, that contradicts the secular order and scares voters.    

A further factor, most recently recounted in Sinan Ulgen's "From Inspiration to Aspiration: Turkey in the new Middle East" is that, aside from the strength of Turkey's secularist traditions, a whole series of reforms underlie the current strong legitimacy of the democratic system and the country's rapidly growing economy. These reforms, some ongoing and many undertaken in the context of the EU and in the wake of the massive 2001 economic crisis, targeted political parties, the security sector, the financial sector, housing, the business environment and also included a hefty dose of regulatory capacity building. These are mostly at an earlier stage in most MENA countries.

This is not to say that the Arab Spring Islamists will not or cannot move in the direction of the AKP. Most observers do believe that over time, the realities of economies - that need to open up to create jobs and inclusive growth - will force those that “own” these economies to accommodate the realities of an appropriately enabling economic climate. This  includes measures which encourage rather than discourage tourists, investors, educators, etc. to come to their countries. That process, however, will not be one of simply wanting to or passively acquiescing to these policies, but one where these new political parties will have to support the reforms and tough measures needed to move in that direction, and do so at a time of economic contraction. Turkey as well countries ranging from Malaysia to Indonesia and others provide useful lessons, however, the path to strong democracies with vibrant economies will be charted by the Arab countries themselves. A series of further blogs will chart this evolutionary process as these parties grapple with economic and political realities and needed reforms.


Omer Karasapan

Regional Knowledge & Learning Coordinator

Join the Conversation

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly
Remaining characters: 1000