Middle East

After dictatorship, what next?

Banu Guven and Robin Lustig
Image caption Banu Guven tells Robin Lustig that Turkey is not a good example for Arab states to follow

Tunisia's former president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali is in exile in Saudi Arabia; Egypt's Hosni Mubarak is in jail; Libya's Muammar Gaddafi is dead.

So will liberal, Western-style democracies take their place - or will parties rooted in Islamist traditions take power and install strict theocracies, based on Islamic law, instead?

Look at Turkey, say some analysts.

It is prosperous, democratic, and for nearly a decade the party in power has been the Justice and Development Party (AKP) whose leaders come from an Islamist tradition.

So is Turkey an example for post-autocratic Arab states to follow?

No, says one of the country's best-known TV stars Banu Guven, who lost her job after objecting to a ban at her TV station on interviews with leading Kurdish campaigners.

She says there is growing government pressure on the media, even intimidation, leading to more and more self-censorship - not a good democratic model.

No, says the former general Haldun Solmazturk, who argues that the army, which has traditionally claimed to be a guarantor of Turkish secularism, has now been marginalised to such an extent that the AKP no longer has any institutional check on its power.

(But perhaps it is relevant that the army has been responsible for the overthrow of four civilian governments in little more than 50 years.)

But yes, says the secular novelist and cultural commentator Kaya Genc, who argues that the army should play no political role in a modern democracy, and that the AKP represents the views of the majority of Turks far more accurately than did its secular predecessors in government.

Ever since the days of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish state, secularism has been built into the constitution.

The AKP insists that it subscribes to the secularist model, even as it relaxes the law on women wearing Islamic headscarves (hijabs) in public buildings.

A model for the Arab world? Secularism and Islam, side by side, each tolerant of the other's beliefs and traditions?

Home-grown revolutions

This weekend, here in Istanbul, pro-democracy activists from across the Arab world are meeting at a conference to learn from each other and share experiences.

Among them is the leading Egyptian actor, film-maker and activist, Khaled Abel Naga, who told me that he sees no need for Arabs to look to anyone for inspiration or example.

The Arab uprisings are home-grown revolutions, he says, and their success stems from their popular roots, not from outside influences.

It is not difficult to find people in Turkey who will tell you that it is far from being a perfect democracy.

Journalists like Banu Guven complain of growing pressures on the media.

Kurdish and other minorities say early promises of a new start from the government have come to nothing.

And there's another complication: for hundreds of years, the Ottoman empire - centred on Istanbul - dominated much of Asia, Europe and north Africa.

No-one is suggesting that the rulers of modern Turkey harbour similar imperial ambitions - but few doubt that the charismatic and populist Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, enjoys his newly-won status as a global statesman.

So there are some suspicions in the Arab world about Ankara's long-term strategy.

But the official line here is that Turkey wants nothing more than a peaceful and stable Middle East, and it wants to be on good terms with all its neighbours.

If they like what they see in Turkey, so much the better.

And if they want to learn from Turkey's experience, better still.

Robin Lustig is reporting from Istanbul in Friday night's The World Tonight programme on BBC Radio 4 at 2200GMT. If you miss it, it'll be available as a podcast or on the programme's pages on the BBC website for the next seven days.

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