The Memorandum of Understanding for maritime cooperation between Turkey and Libya of the Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Fayez al-Sarraj was definitively voted by the Turkish Parliament on December 5 last.
The President of the High Council of State, Khalid al-Mishri, also officially stated that the Turkish-Libyan MoU is fully consistent with the letter of the Skhirat Agreements of 2015 and 2017, which regulate the relations between Libya and Cyrenaica.
This statement is not useless because, as we shall see, Egypt also challenges the political way in which the Turkish-Libyan MoU was reached and its legitimacy and compliance with the international agreements that define the establishment and functions of Libya’s Government of National Accord led by al-Sarraj.
Besides economic issues – which will be later analyzed in detail- the collaboration between Turkey and Libya envisages also the possibility of a direct commitment of the Turkish Armed Forces “at the simple request” of the Libyan government.
As early as Gaddafi’s time, Turkey was already present with its companies and investment to the tune of over 26 million US dollars, mainly in the real estate sector.
As can be easily imagined, the collapse of Gaddafi’s regime diminished the Turkish interest in Libya, but the bilateral relations between Libya and Turkey continued, also with the contract awarded to a Turkish company to extend Tripoli’s coastal road and with many building reconstructions, always decided by al-Sarraj’s Government of National Accord (GNA).
At military level, Turkey has so far supported Tripoli (and not only the Muslim Brotherhood, which is part of al-Sarraj’s government) with drones, intelligence Service instructors and artillery.
Ateconomic level, however, the two Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ), namely the Turkish EEZ and the Libyan one border each other and hence President Erdogan spoke of joint oil exploration and joint maritime control actions between Tripoli’s Libya and Turkey.
This means – quite overtly – to eliminate Greece, Greek Cyprus, Egypt (which supports General Haftar of Cyrenaica) and, finally, Israel from Central and Eastern Mediterranean.
Not to mention Italy, which would be banned from a large part of the shipping lines and also of the oil and submarine connections between Sicily and the Libyan coast.
For much less, Craxi’s government and the then Finance Minister, Franco Reviglio, ordered the military secret Service, SISMI- led by the extraordinary Admiral Martini – to keep the Tunisian crisis developments under control and to put Ben Ali, as leader of Tunisia, against the candidate of the French intelligence Services that disdainfully refused any support. Nevertheless, Italy won.
Currently, however, Italy no longer has politicians with the same guts as in the past.
Obviously, Turkey is not particularly interested in the specific survival of al-Sarraj’s Government of National Accord (GNA), but it intends to use these agreements as a binding precedent for the whole of Libya, whoever rules in Tripoli or in Benghazi.
To what extent can al-Sarraj resist a military advance by General Khalifa Haftar?
Certainly not so much, especially because the forces of Wagner’s Russian contractors operate – with advanced weapons and methods -together with the Benghazi Army.
Without an international intervention in his favour – which, however, would even further split Libya in two -al-Sarraj is not bound to last long.
Apart from Turkey, however, Tripoli has no friends capable of evaluating what Machiavelli called the “effective reality of things”.
Wagner’s Russian contractors are about 1,000 and they currently operate in Eastern and Western Libya, in the area controlled only by General Haftar’s forces. This will certainly lead to a new escalation of the conflict and to its polarization. The more or less foolish Westerners will side with al-Sarraj and Tripoli, while all the others (Turkey, i.e. NATO second army, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Qatar, which is reconnecting to Saudi Arabia) will side with General Haftar, with a view to reconquering the first oil depot in Africa and the port of almost immediate access to the EU.
The Berlin Conference on Libya is scheduled for 2020. There is daily talk by European Foreign Ministers about a “peaceful solution” and the ideas of the EU countries that still operate in Libya are non-existent, except for the business as usual approach and the simplistic and purely electoral refusal to get caught up and bogged down in the Libyan chaos.
If this were to happen, however, some European countries should quell social and – in some cases – economic tensions capable of making all their governments collapse.
Years of silly pacifism and of soldiers on “peace-keeping” missions,operating as Red Cross nurses,have left their mark. Currently Germany is militarily non-existent and France is doing just a little better. As far as Italy is concerned, better not to talk about it.
Hence, if the United Nations’ lethargy and the European stupidity persist – and there is no reason to think otherwise -General Haftar is bound to win.
However, who could be the real tough nut to crack against General Haftar, in his triumphant march westwards and towards Tripolitania?
Certainly not the GNA’s official militias or the other local “brigades” in favour of al-Sarraj, but now only Misrata’s militias. They defend al-Sarraj, but they also hold him in their hands.
Misrata’s militias are led by the current deputy of al-Sarraj, Ahmed Maitig, and all the militias and brigades survive with their illicit trade and trafficking. In fact, the illegal migration flows from Libya leave from the beaches of Misrata and Gasr Garabulli, with people traffickers who pay their fee to Misrata’s ones, while the other 300 militias have devoted themselves to various illegal activities: oil smuggling, kidnappings, money laundering and the most traditional robberies.
In Libya, however, oil is still the business of the future, considering that it still has oil reserves to the tune of 48.4 billion barrels, which still make Libya rank first among African oil countries.
Furthermore, the militias of Zintan – the second largest Libyan militant organization in size – are those that killed Gaddafi, thanks to the French weapons launched against them in the Gebel Nafusa Mountain region.
Those militias – later defeated by “Lybia Dawn”in 2014, in a war for economic dominance over the Tripolitanian trade and trafficking -have reconnected to General Haftar.
Moreover, the United States with its African Command still has a support base for intelligence and special operations in Benghazi.
Currently, however, the US African continental command is moving away from all Libyan areas and is now present only on the Eastern and Southern borders of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica.
General Haftar has a force of about 2,500 soldiers, former members of Gaddafi’s regular Forces and of Saiqa, Gaddafi’ special forces.
Besides Misrata’s troops, the forces siding with al-Sarraj include the Rada Special Force, 1,500 soldiers having mainly police tasks and, finally, the Nawasi Brigade, i.e. 700 “radical”Islamists – just to use the silly Western terminology.
Also militias from Chad (1,000 soldiers) and from Darfur (500) side with General Haftar.
Maitig, the Head of Misrata’s militia, has recently visited France, with a view to repairing relations between France, an open supporter of General Haftar, and Tripoli’s GNA.
Obviously, at the time, Italy was asleep.
Italy is the country that has no longer had a foreign policy for several years.
At the NATO Summit held in London late November Italy was excluded from the meeting on Libya.
Obviously, Prime Minister Conte maintains that this is not important, but he is clearly lying.
After Brexit, Italy remains an inevitable point of reference for the EU transatlantic dialogue.
However, nowadays, explaining such a simple concept to Italian politicians is already a problem.
Nevertheless, the economic rather than political Memorandum of Understanding,signed between Turkey and Libya on November 28, 2019, is a Turkish longa manus in Libya that will be very hard to limit.
Certainly, Italy’s current awkward geopolitics will adapt masochistically to support also its opponents, as has happened so far in Libya and in other parts of the world.
It is also very likely that Turkey may create a blackmail market for illegal immigration also in Libya, as it has already done at the Syrian-Turkish border,as well as to block the “Balkan route” of irregular migrants to the Austrian and German borders.
As many of the most authoritative analysts maintain, General Haftar’s “conquest of Tripoli” could trigger a new great Libyan conflict and certainly not quell the current one.
Let us analyze the current situation of the Italian agreements with one or the other Libyan government.
On March 12, 2019 an agreement was signed between Federpesca and the Libyan Investment Authority of Benghazi, with a view to enabling a fixed number of Italian fishing vessels, all based in Mazara del Vallo, to fish in all Libyan waters.
The agreement became operational on July 15, 2019, but it was considered illegal by the government of al-Sarraj, who thinks thatthe agreement between Federpesca and the Tobruk government agency is contrary to the Skhirat agreements and the subsequent UN rules on the Libyan issue. It thinks so in line with Article 8 of the Skhirat Treaty and Agreements.
Libya, however, believes that the Gulf of Sirte, as a “traditional bay”, is under its full sovereignty – a claim so far opposed by the United States, Italy and all the other EU Member States. The strategic significance of this dispute is clear and needs no particular elaboration.
In 2005, Libya proclaimed a 62-mile fishing protection zone from the closing line of the Gulf of Sirte, which is below the midline with Italy and, hence, does not lend itself to any claims or disputes.
In 2009 – hence still under Gaddafi’s regime -Libya further proclaimed an EEZ enabling the Libyan State to fully use all the EEZ natural resources, including fish.
The size of this Libyan EEZ, however, was not defined, thus leaving the formal law to customs and possible bilateral agreements with neighbouring States.
Conversely, Turkey had not yet a real EEZ, except for the one delimited autonomously with the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.
In principle, however, the Libyan EEZ has a size of 200 miles like all the others and, hence, there is the need for a specific agreement with Italy – for fisheries and for all the other matters.
In 2018, Libya also defined its Search and Rescue area (SAR).
Malta has a very large SAR area, which overlaps – in two large areas – with the Italian one and borders directly on the Libyan SAR area, right on the closing line of the Gulf of Sirte.
It should be recalled that Libya has never ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and hence refers only to customary law on the matter.
Nevertheless,the recent agreement between al-Sarraj and Turkey is a game-changer.
Following the establishment of the new Turkish-Libyan EEZ zone, Egypt has resorted to Article 8 of the Skhirat Agreement, which lays down that “the Libyan government or the Cabinet, not the Prime Minister, has the power and authority to sign international agreements”.
The Turkish-Libyan bilateral Memorandum also establishes 18.6 nautical miles of a continental shelf and a border line of the Exclusive Economic Zone between Libya and Turkey.
Before this agreement between Turkey and Libya, Greek Cyprus had reached agreementswith the Lebanon and Egypt, for the delimitation of maritime areas that are currently of primary interest for oil and gas extraction.
Greece, however, points out that – with this EEZ redesign -Libya recovers as many as 39,000 square kilometers of the EEZ, which were previously held by Greece.
Greece, in fact, wanted to exploit the problematic conditions in Libya to have an EEZ four times the size of the Lebanon.
After this MoU between Libya and Turkey, however, the Greek islands could no longer enjoy a continental shelf and an Exclusive Economic Zone within the Athens area.
Hence, from a maritime viewpoint, Greece is separated from Crete, Rhodes, Kastellorizo and all the other Greek islands of the Eastern Mediterranean.
Egypt is not particularly damaged by the Libyan-Turkish MoU. Indeed, it can be used by Egypt as a precedent for the forthcoming redesign of the Egyptian EEZ towards the Greek Sea and the South-Eastern Greek islands.
Nevertheless Al-Sisi, who is not a naive leader, stated he would give up his EEZ rights over the Greek Sea and Greek Cyprus obviously in exchange for international support from Greece and, indirectly, from Italy.
At the beginning of December 2019, President Erdogan stated he would never stop his marine exploration for discovering oil and gas in front of Cyprus and, above all, in front of the Cypriot EEZ in Turkish Cyprus, the Turkish ethnicState which declared its independence in 1983 and had been established after the 1974 Turkish invasion.
Turkey has not declared the criteria followed to delimit the Turkish-Libyan waters defined by the bilateral MoU.
As is well-known, al-Sarraj’s Libya delimited its EEZ and SAR in a vast area which, when Gaddafi declared it in 1986, caused him the first US bombing.
So far Turkey has taken mere response measures to counter the activism of Cyprus, which had already defined its EEZ with Egypt (in 2003), with the Lebanon (in 2007) and with Israel in 2010.
The price of the new Libyan-Turkish EEZ is paid not only by Greece, but also by Cyprus, since the new bilateral EEZ, which faces Cyrenaica’s coast and the territorial waters of Rhodes and Karpathos, stretches from the promontory west of Antalya to the stretch of Libyan coast going from the Cyrenaic border with Egypt up to Derna.
As already seen, also the island of Kastellorizo is inside the new EEZ.
Against this background, the Italian government has decided to follow the geopolitics based on the famous saying of SaintPhilip Neri, “state buoni se potete”, thus favouring the right of Cyprus, but hoping in a more “constructive” Turkish attitude – albeit we do not understand on what basis.
The opposite is true. The Turkish attitude is the really constructive one, while Italy’s foreign policy – if any – is pure flatus vocis.
The Italian Navy, however, sent the frigate “Federico Martinengo” in an operation for patrolling the Eastern Mediterranean region.
Certainly, the Turkish presence in the Libyan territorial waters presupposes a possible transformation of the Libyam internal conflict, considering that the new EEZ implies the sending “of all the Turkish troops that will be requested by Tripoli”, at the request of al-Sarraj’s government.
There is also the possibility – barely perceived in international documents – of a presence of Israeli intelligence Service troops and operators during the actions of General Haftar’s GNA against Tripoli.
Furthermore, General Haftar did not even apologize to Italy for the drone – a Reaper of the 32ndflight formation of the Italian Air Force – shot down by its troops on November 20, 2019 near Tarhouna, while he immediately apologized to the United States for the shooting down of the MQ9 Reaper a few kilometers from Tripoli.
This is what happens when you are irrelevant and you count for nothing.
Hence we are witnessing Turkey’s entry into the Libyan military field. Turkey supports al-Serraj and the Islamism of Muslim Brotherhood that keeps him in power – the Islamism that the foolish Westerners call “moderate”.
We will also witness the extreme escalation of the clash between Tripoli and General Haftar, also thanks to the possible Turkish maritime operations in Cyrenaica, as well as the immediate and absolute expulsion of Italy and its interests from Libya and the repositioning of the United States, and probably of Israel, in an agreement – that we imagine to be wider than the Libyan system alone – with Turkey, Russia, Egypt and, probably, Saudi Arabia, the States supportingGeneral Haftar’s forces and Abdullah al-Thani’s corresponding government.
What about Italy? Nothing, of course.
Gender in the GCC — The Reform Agenda Continues
In my previous Op-Ed about the road map for reforms in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), I talked about the importance of the human capital. Today, and as the world celebrates International Women’s Day this March 8th, it is a good moment to take stock of the impressive progress that some countries in the GCC are making in expanding opportunities for women in order to utilize all their human capital to achieve the developmental goals that they set for themselves. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have emerged over the last couple of years as the region’s leaders in this effort. Along with Bahrain, they have introduced groundbreaking reforms that are allowing women to more fully participate in economic activities, as they also support equal treatment for women in their personal lives.
The benefits of such trendsetting reforms for the societies and economies of these three countries cannot be overstated. Furthermore, a spillover effect is being seen in the rest of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. The reforms focused on gender not only allow reforming countries’ economies to tap into the productivity of 50% of their populations, they also contribute to poverty reduction, sustainable growth and, most importantly, gender equity for women in both the public and private spheres. To ensure the maximum impact of these benefits, those GCC countries that have introduced reforms must keep a laser focus on effective implementation, while those in the region that have yet to expand opportunities for women can look to their neighbors for inspiration.
In 2019, Saudi Arabia’s ranking in the World Bank Group’s Women, Business and the Law report jumped by the largest number of points of any country in the world, as compared to its 2018 ranking. This was in large part due to Saudi Arabia’s historic enactment in July 2019 of a raft of measures to expand women’s roles in Saudi society and give them unprecedented economic freedoms. The reforms included increasing freedom of travel and movement by giving women the right to obtain passports on their own; enabling women to be heads of households in the same way as men and allowing them to choose a place of residency; a prohibition on the dismissal of pregnant women from the workplace; a mandate of non-discrimination based on gender in access to credit; the prohibition of gender-based discrimination in employment; the equalization of retirement ages between women and men; and a removal of the obedience provision for women. A year later, amendments to the Labor Law followed, which lifted restrictions on women’s ability to work at night and opened all industries to women, including mining.
As for the UAE, in September 2020, it became the first country in MENA to introduce paid parental leave for employees in the private sector. This historic reform was part of a broad package enacted by the UAE to support women’s labor force participation, which, at 57.5%, is one of the highest in the MENA region. The 2020 reform package builds on work the UAE has engaged in since 2019 to prioritize gender equality and women’s economic empowerment. In 2019, the UAE introduced a first set of reforms, including guaranteeing equality between women and men in applying for passports; allowing women to be heads of households like men; passing legislation to combat domestic violence and impose criminal penalties for sexual harassment in the workplace; prohibiting gender-based discrimination in employment and the dismissal of pregnant women; and removing job restrictions for women in specific sectors such as mining. These reforms were recognized in the World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law 2021 report, in which the UAE was the highest-ranked country in the MENA region.
The additional reforms introduced in 2020 address persistent legal inequalities, including those related to women’s mobility, their rights within the marriage and with respect to parenthood, and their ability to manage assets. Specifically, the reforms include the amendment of the Personal Status Law to remove the provision on women’s obligation to obey husbands and to lift restrictions of women’s ability to travel outside the country, new provisions to allow women to choose where to live and to travel outside the home in the same way as men, and an amendment to the Labor law that mandates equal pay for work of equal value across different industries and sectors.
Lessons Learned and Ingredients for Success
Three common elements underpin the success of these reform efforts: strong government commitment, effective collaboration across ministries, and the deployment of information campaigns supporting the reforms.
Strong government commitment is crucial because it ensures not only that reform-minded legislation is passed in the first place, but that it is underpinned by tools to ensure implementation. In the UAE for example, the government updated the Explanatory Note of the Personal Status Law to support the effective implementation of family-related reforms in the courts and to ensure accurate interpretation of new provisions by judges. To support implementation in Saudi Arabia, the government updated all employment regulations to reflect the new legislative reforms.
Effective collaboration and cooperation among government ministries is also key. In both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the recent reforms were championed by a broad swath of government entities. And in Saudi Arabia specifically, a June 2019 royal decree established the Women’s Empowerment Committee, which includes representatives from a wide range of ministries and has as its mandate the coordination of efforts to achieve women’s empowerment through legal reforms.
Such cooperation among ministries is important because it can help support governments’ effective decision-making going forward. Specifically, all ministries whose mandates touch on issues related to women can collect reliable, uniform data to be used to support policy choices aimed at helping both women and the economy. In the UAE, for example, ministries are collecting gender disaggregated data on topics ranging from women’s opportunities for entrepreneurship to their dropout rate from the labor market to the incidence of domestic violence.
Effective implementation efforts have also included strong communication and information dissemination campaigns. The governments of the UAE and Saudi Arabia have placed great emphasis on raising awareness of the new provisions to ensure compliance with the legal framework and to show the economic and social benefits of these reforms. The reforms were widely covered by local and international media. The government also used social media, government websites, and government-sponsored seminars and workshops with various stakeholders to spread the word.
Throughout history, women have played a critical role in economic recovery following global crises. As the world continues to adapt to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the legal reforms in the Gulf are enabling women to contribute more effectively to recovery this time, as well. The role of regional leaders like Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain will be critical going forward, not just for inspiring reforms, but for sharing reform experiences, success factors and lessons learned from the reform effort. These three countries can play a transformational role in the MENA region and beyond in encouraging and supporting the implementation of gender-neutral laws.
Turkey signals sweeping regional ambitions
A nationalist Turkish television station with close ties to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has dug up a 12-year-old map that projects Turkey’s sphere of influence in 2050 as stretching from South-eastern Europe on the northern coast of the Mediterranean and Libya on its southern shore across North Africa, the Gulf and the Levant into the Caucasus and Central Asia.
Buoyed by last year’s Azerbaijani defeat of Armenia, TGRT, a subsidiary of Ihlas Holding, a media and construction conglomerate that has won major government tenders, used the map to advance a policy that has long constituted the agenda of some of Mr. Erdogan’s closest advisors.
The broadcasting of the map, first published in a book authored by George Freidman, the founder of Stratfor, an influential American corporate intelligence group, followed calls by pan-Turkic daily Turkiye, Ihlas’ daily newspaper that has the fourth-largest circulation in Turkey, to leverage the Azerbaijani victory to create a military alliance of Turkic states.
In a country that ranks only second to China as the world’s foremost jailer of journalists, Ihlas Holding media would not be pushing a pan-Turkic, Islam-laced Turkish regional policy without tacit government approval at the very least.
The media group’s push reflects Turkish efforts to capitalize on the fact that Turkey’s latest geopolitical triumph with Azerbaijan’s Turkish-backed victory is already producing tangible results. The military victory has positioned Azerbaijan, and by extension Turkey, as an alternative transportation route westwards that would allow Central Asian nations to bypass corridors dominated by either Russia or Iran.
Turkmenistan, recognizing the changing geopolitical map, rushed in January to end a long-standing dispute with Azerbaijan and agree on the joint exploitation of Caspian Sea oil deposits. The agreement came on the heels of a deal in December for the purchase from ENI Turkmenistan of up to 40,000 tonnes of petroleum a month by the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR).
The agreement could boost the completion of a Trans-Caspian natural gas pipeline (TPC) that would feed into the recently operational Southern Gas Corridor (SGC), bypass Russia and Iran, and supply Greece and Bulgaria via the former Soviet republic.
Last month, Azerbaijan agreed with Turkmenistan and Afghanistan to develop the Lapis Lazuli transport corridor that would link the war-ravaged country to Turkey. At about the same time, Kazakhstan began exporting copper cathodes to Turkey via Azerbaijan in a first step intended to capitalize on the Caucasian nation’s position as a transit hub.
Azerbaijan and Turkey’s newly found advantage has rung alarm bells among Russian and Iranian analysts with close ties to their respective governments even though the TGRT broadcast may have been primarily intended to whip up nationalist fervour at home and test regional responses.
Russian and Iranian politicians and analysts appeared to take the broadcast in that vein. Nonetheless, they were quick to note that Friedman’s projection includes Russia’s soft underbelly in the northern Caucasus as well as Crimea while Iranians took stock of the fact that the Turkish sphere of influence would border on Iran to the north, south and west.
Turkey and Ukraine have in recent months agreed to cooperate in the development of technologies with military applications related to engines, avionics, drones, anti-ship and cruise missiles, radar and surveillance systems, robotics, space, and satellites. Turkey has refused to recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea, home to Crimean Tartars, and criticized Russian support for Ukrainian rebels.
Most Russian commentators sought to downplay the significance of the map, leaving Andrei Krasov, deputy chairman of the defence committee of the Russian parliament’s lower house to warn that “if they (the Turks) want to test the strength of the Russian spirit and our weapons, let them try.”
With Iran excluded from TGRT and Stratfor’s projection of Turkey’s emerging sphere of influence, Iranian officials and analysts have largely not responded to the revival of the map.
Yet, Iran’s actions on the ground suggest that the Islamic republic has long anticipated Turkish moves even though it was caught off guard by last year’s Azerbaijani-Armenian war.
For one, Iran has in the past year sought to bolster its military presence in the Caspian Sea and forge close naval ties with the basin’s other littoral states – Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan.
Viewed from Tehran, TGRT’s broadcasting of the Stratfor map was the latest in a series of provocative Turkish moves.
They include Mr. Erdogan’s recital of a nationalist poem while attending a military parade in Azerbaijan that calls for reuniting two Iranian ethnic Azeri provinces with the former Soviet republic and publication by state-run Turkish Radio and Television’s Arabic service of a map on Instagram, depicting Iran’s oil-rich province of Khuzestan with its large population of ethnic Arabs as separate from Iran.
The Instagram posting came days after the disclosure that Habib Chaab, a leader of the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz, or ASMLA, had been kidnapped in Istanbul by an Iraqi Kurdish drug baron in cooperation with Iranian intelligence and transported to Iran.
While senior Iranian officials talked down the Turkish provocations, Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency left little doubt about what Iran’s true sentiments were.
“Those who have greedy eyes on the territories this side of the Aras River had better study history and see that Azerbaijan, specifically the people of Tabriz, have always pioneered in defending Iran. If Iran had not helped you on the night of the coup, you would have had a fate like that of former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi,’ protesters chanted in front of the Turkish consulate in Tabriz, the capital of Iran’s East Azerbaijan province.
The protesters were responding to Mr. Erdogan’s poem recital and referring to the failed military coup against him in 2016 as well as the toppling of Mr. Morsi in 2013 in a takeover by the Egyptian armed forces.
Notes on Turkish Politics (5): The Need for a Vibrant Civil Society
This is the last piece of my “Turkish politics” article series. In this piece, I will try to address the role of civil society in Turkish political life and democracy in a brief way.
The role of civil society is very important in shaping the democratic institutions and processes in a polity. Turkish political culture has long been characterized by having a weak civil society and strong state mechanism. As noted in my earlier piece titled “Notes On Turkish Politics (I): Strong State Tradition”Turkey has a “strong state tradition” as first stressed by distinguished Turkish academic Metin Heper. The non-state units and grass-roots movements have been weak in Turkish political life due to a number of reasons which also lead to democratic erosion.
Civil society is related with autonomous social units and organizations like voluntary associations, private companies, private associations etc. These social units or organizations that make up civil society are based on the principle of recognition of basic human and civil rights. It is known that civil society is seen as one of the basic social bases of liberal democracy.
The historical background of Turkey from the very beginning of the Republic experienced an evident antagonism between the state and the society. The military, the high bureaucracy and some academics along with some particular media actors used to show a certain amount of distrust towards the society until the multi-party politics.
In the post-1980 period, a revival of civil society was witnessed. Turkey went through important changes in the 1980s as the free market economy policies were accepted. One of the most important consequences of this change was the development of the systems of communication and information and this development empowered civil society actors as well. Turgut Özal has been one of the influential political elites paving the way for the strengthening of Turkish civil society. Özal challenged Kemalist state tradition to some degree. As an extension of Özal’s liberal policies, a free market economy was formed and legal obstacles to political freedom were also removed by abolishing Articles 141, 142, and 163 of the 1982 Constitution, which prohibited the free expression of thought (Çaha, 2001).
The 1990s witnessed a military intervention and this “post-modern” coup narrowed the arena for civil society associations and certain identities like that of Islamic identity were vilified by the state elites.
In the early years of the AK Party rule (up until 2010 referendum) Turkey saw positive developments in terms of democratization and this played a positive role for civil society as well. However, in the last years, Turkish civil society has begun to weaken once again. A recent example of this is Turkey’s NGO bill that was introduced in late 2020. In a news article published by Duvar English, the warnings of Human Right Watch were addressed. According to HRW, the bill introduces “annual inspections of nongovernmental groups, which will severely affect their activities since the inspections frequently last months and reduce the group’s capacity to operate. It introduces severe fines if the Interior Ministry deems a group’s online fundraising unlawful.”
In one of my articles titled “Turkish Political Culture and Civil Society: An Unsettling Coupling?” published in 2011, I wrote the following about the relationship between civil society and political culture for Turkish context:
“The Turkish case indicates that the advancement of civil society is closely related to the function of and the role of state. The governance of state in accordance with the rule of law and its neutrality is necessary for the advancement of a competitive social environment where social groups can freely compete. Also, it is important to note that there is almost a direct relationship between civil society and democracy.”
Turkey needs a vibrant civil society to have a working democracy and of course civil society is only one piece of the prerequisites for democracy!
- Burak Begüm, 2011, “Turkish Political Culture and Civil Society: An Unsettling Coupling?” 19264 (dergipark.org.tr) (Access Date: 20.02.2021)
- Çaha Ömer, 2001, “The Inevitable Coexistence of Civil Society and Liberalism: The Case of Turkey”, Journal of Economic and Social Research 3, 2.
- Duvar English, (Dec. 24, 2020), “Turkey’s NGO bill threatens civil society, says HRW” Turkey’s NGO bill threatens civil society, says HRW (duvarenglish.com) (Access Date: 20.02.2021)
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