Over the past eight years, the team of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his foreign minister, academic-turned-diplomat Ahmet Davutoglu, has worked relentlessly to build Turkey into a regional powerhouse. This year, with the crises of the Arab Spring, their vision came to pass as Turkey achieved a level of influence in the Middle East it hasn't had since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Turkey is arguably one of the few unambiguous winners in the region's upheaval so far, after shrewdly opting to side with the crowds in the streets rather than the autocratic regimes with which it had long dealt. Its government was among the first in the world to call on Egypt's Hosni Mubarak to step down: "I say that you must listen, and we must listen, to the people's outcry, to their extremely humanitarian demands," Erdogan said in a speech that resonated far more in Tahrir Square than did the more cautious approach of Western governments.
But given how proudly Davutoglu once touted his country's "zero problems" foreign policy, Turkey has had quite a few to contend with in 2011. Turkey initially opposed NATO intervention in Libya and took some heat in Benghazi for its slow embrace of the rebels. Erdogan's pointed criticism of Bashar al-Assad's crackdown on protesters seems to have had little effect on the Syrian leader, and refugees have continued streaming across the border. Turkey's challenges in the coming year will include deteriorating relations with Israel and the possible revival of democratic Egypt as a rival regional power.
Still, Davutoglu can boast a significant personal victory -- winning a parliament seat for the first time -- thus proving that the erudite author of such tomes as Alternative Paradigms: The Impact of Islamic and Western Weltanschauungs on Political Theory could shake hands and kiss babies with the best of them. The elections this year not only cemented Davutoglu and Erdogan's personal base but also reinforced Turkey's image as a model of an Islamic democracy. As for Erdogan, he has focused on the challenge of drafting a new constitution in 2012 to replace the current one, which was drafted under martial law -- part of an effort to transform Turkey's outdated political system as profoundly as he has realigned its foreign policy.
Above, Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears on the left, listening to Ahmet Davutoglu, right.