Arab journalists who participated in the first Turk-Arab Media Forum, held this week in İstanbul, conveyed their hopes for the future of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) states, saying political, legal and economic systems in MENA face a far better future after the victory of Arab Spring movements, Today's Zaman reported.
The Arab Spring is a wave of revolutionary demonstrations and protests that have occurred in the Arab world beginning on Dec. 18, 2010. To date, there have been revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt; a civil war in Libya resulting in the fall of its government; civil uprisings in Bahrain, Syria and Yemen, the latter resulting in the resignation of the Yemeni prime minister.
After these regime changes, some initial steps of democratic transition have taken place in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, including free elections and efforts to create a new constitution.
Arab journalists talked about new opportunities for cooperation with Turkey, considering the current democratic environment in MENA. They are highlighting these hopes in their speeches, and particularly in media cooperation. Due to the strong influence of social media in recent Arab movements, the unique meaning of social media for the Arab people was one of the most heavily debated topics during the forum. Many emphasized that that the number of press institutions in MENA should be increased and the personnel in these institutions should be educated with the necessary qualifications.
Most of the speakers bemoaned the lack of news agency offices from neighboring MENA countries in Turkey, which would allow them to follow Turkish current events. The speakers say this is what makes the region dependent on Western news agencies. "We should witness what happens in the world from our own news sources. The fact that we use Western visual and printed media sources means that we confine ourselves to Western ways of thinking," claimed intellectual and political analyst Fahmy Howeidy on Wednesday. Howeidy is also a columnist for the Egyptian Esh Shuruk daily.
Rapprochement between Turkey and other MENA states was also among the most-discussed issues during the forum. One correspondent from Al Jazeera Turkey, Omar Kashram, argued: "Turkey and other MENA states are neighbors but we are also sister countries. The reason for this is our strong religious connection. The Turkish press and the Arab press should get rid of old prejudices that date back to the 1910s, such as 'Arabs betrayed Turkey in World War I,' or 'Turks are colonizers' -- which references the centuries-long Ottoman rule in the Arab world."
Professor Abdullah al-Rifai from Saudi Arabia's Al-Imam University agreed, saying the Turks and Arabs would break down these prejudices if they could get to know each other's history and political background -- engaging in staff exchanges, one potential method of sharing experiences between Arab and Turkish media.
Journalists from various Arab countries commented on the post-Arab Spring period in MENA and Turkey's foreign policy vis-à-vis the changes in the region for Sunday's Zaman. Among them were Qatar-based Al Jazeera network Editor-in-Chief Ahmad Al Sheikh, Al Ayam daily owner and Editor-in-Chief Mahgoup Mohamed Salih from Sudan, Tunisian Hannibal TV channel producer Refika Fejjari, London's Arabic Al-Hiwar TV channel Chairman and Editor-in-Chief Azzam Al-Tamimi; and Kashram.
All of the journalists regarded the future of MENA countries, including Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and others, with optimism. Salih, who thinks the Arab countries will not return to their pre-revolution periods, said the Arabs will inevitably achieve the economic development and improved human rights for which they aim -- even though it will take some time, since they certainly know what they want. In response to the question of whether Arab movements can change from sporadic movements into well-organized movements, al Sheikh painted a bright future for MENA, stating that "the movements are lacking in leadership, but the people want change that this change will produce charismatic leaders."
Fejjari from Tunisia -- the country that ignited the Arab Spring in December 2010 -- shared the experience of the Tunisian people, who are heading towards a democratic regime after protesting for freedom. "Tunisia lived under 23 years of dictatorship; that is why our people do not have any background in democracy. However, we are looking for our own way of democracy and we try to learn from our mistakes," she said, agreeing with Salih that there is a long road ahead towards a well-established democracy, but that it is well worth walking.
Kashram offered a different interpretation of the lack of leadership in some MENA countries. He argued that the movements would have easily become an instrument of big powers and used for narrow purposes if they were led by certain political, religious groups or parties. In this way, he described the lack of leadership as something positive.
All of the journalists stated the Arab Spring has opened up a new era in relations between Turkey and neighboring MENA states.
In response to a question asking if Turkey's "zero problems with neighbors" policy has expired due to significantly strained relations with MENA's oppressive regimes, Salih said the zero problems policy is an ideal, but that one needs to take sides "in the real world." Noting that Turkey was surprised by the movements for change in the Arab world considering its well-established relations with Egypt, Libya and Syria, he stated that Turkey is now passing from the period of dialogue with regimes to a period of dialogue with people. Salih sees this as progress for Turkey.
The "zero problems with neighbors" policy was first declared by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu when he was the chief advisor to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
This policy suggests a more flexible foreign policy by maximizing geographic and historical ties with MENA and other neighboring regions, including the Balkans and Eurasia, without compromising traditional alliances between Turkey and the US or European countries.
Kashram agreed with Salih in saying that Turkey established only government-to-government relations within MENA; it does not use public diplomacy channels -- which function to influence public opinion in other countries via visual and print media -- but recent movements in the Arab world have required Turkey to create these ties with Arab society in the end.
Al Sheikh offered an optimistic view by saying that Turkey's "zero problems" policy will resume between Turkey and Syria, and that both countries would flourish as a result of Syria's democratic transition. Turkey, once a close ally of the Syrian president, has gradually toughened its criticism of the Syrian regime as a result of a brutal crackdown on anti-regime protesters. Last week, Turkey announced a series of sanctions against the Syrian regime to create more pressure to end the crackdown.
Al Sheikh also commented on whether or not Turkey can be a role model for Arab regimes that are currently experiencing a transition, as Turkey has seen improvements in its democracy, civilian-military relations and its well-regulated economy. He stated that he does not believe in the role model discourse because every country should find its own path towards democracy; the political and economic dynamics of MENA are different from those of Turkey. "MENA may learn many things from Turkey without Turkey becoming a role model," he said. He added that Turkey is always respectful towards freedom of choice, not seeking to impose its model elsewhere in the MENA region.
Azzam Tamimi agreed with Al Sheikh regarding Turkey's good intentions towards MENA. He referred to Prime Minister Erdoğan's speech on secularism in Egypt, claiming that Erdoğan shared the Turkish experience of democracy blended with secularism rather than naming secularism as an essential element of democracy. "A devout Muslim can successfully govern a secular state," said the prime minister during his visit to Egypt in September. He noted that Erdoğan's statements were misunderstood and that some people in Egypt used his words to attack Islamist groups, claiming that Islamist groups have their enemies inside countries that do not want them in government.
Tamimi, a Palestinian, also conveyed some messages over the current situation in Palestine. He condemned the old dictators of MENA as real supporters of the Israeli occupation of Palestine and said that he is very hopeful for the future of Palestine on the grounds that the new democratic Arab governments will not repeat the mistakes of their predecessors who are allying themselves with Israel.