By Justin Vela
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was the first leader in Europe and the Middle East to call for former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak to listen to the demands of his people and step down. However, since then, Turkey’s response to the increasing number of demonstrations across the Middle East and Africa has been more limited.
“We cannot sacrifice security for freedom or freedom for security. Libya needs to avoid violence and the loss of lives and to establish public order to prevent these types of clashes and escalation of tension,” Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said, according to local media.
On a visit last week to Tehran, as opposition protesters clashed with security forces, Turkish President Abdullah Gul urged Middle Eastern governments to listen to the demands of their people — without directly mentioning Iran.
Turkey’s less vocal support for people demanding freedom and democracy from autocratic rules in Libya and Iran shows that while the unrest is rooted in similar reasons, each country’s situation is unique and Turkey must prioritise its interests.
Last year, Turkey’s trade with Libya was estimated at $2.4 billion. Turkish firms have about $15.3 billion in projects in Libya — with 25,000 employees — mostly in the construction sector. Turkey is still trying to repatriate its citizens after a plane meant to take some groups out of the country was refused permission to land.
“If you have Turks held hostage, your first priority is to get them back,” said Soli Ozel, a professor of international relations at Bilgi University. “If your principles are going to get in the way, then you suspend your principles and concentrate on getting your citizens out of the conflict zone.”
Turkey’s policy on Iran is harder to explain. Turkey’s level of trade with Iran is currently estimated at $10 billion. The country is Turkey’s second largest energy supplier, following Russia. “Concerns not to jeopardise economic relations are there,” Ozel said.
However, Gul’s statement in Tehran last week was adequate, he added.
“If you are in Iran and you are next to the president and the religious leader and you say what Gul said, I don’t really think you have to specify what country you are talking about. It’s not very appropriate to do when you are a guest.”
Even preceding the unrest, Turkey’s relations with Libya and Iran were much different than they were with Egypt.
Turkey’s trade with Egypt was expected to increase from $3.2 billion in 2009 to $5 billion in 2011. Turkish investments in Egypt are estimated at about $3 billion.
According to Ozel, Egypt was also unhappy that Turkey was raising its profile in the region and has been active in what the Egyptians might have considered Arab affairs. “Co-operation had been at a distance,” said Ozel.