And that, perhaps, is somewhat symptomatic of a larger problem. When Turkey mentions the subject of democracy promotion at all, it usually does so in the context of cooperation with its partners in the West. While this is understandable in light of Turkey's underdeveloped capacity, such talk is also likely to undermine that entire undertaking. Some segments of Arab society already perceive Turkey as a tool of the United States and Europe -- in conjunction with a widespread notion among Arabs that Turks tend to be "Western-minded" whether they are liberals, Islamists, or conservatives. If cooperation with the West is a given, then Turkish policymakers need to devise clear strategies for neutralizing such accusations.
Not everything has to be done by the government, of course. In addition to putting forth a clear national agenda, civil society organizations can also play a key role in expanding Turkey's influence. Yet even these options currently remain starkly limited. Turkish non-government organizations lack the relevant know-how and skills to exercise influence in the region. Notwithstanding their well-meaning rhetoric about respect, dignity, sympathy, and understanding, all too often Turkish NGOs seem to have difficulties developing concrete plans or agendas and making them more public and affecting the policy-makers.
Still, there is great potential for NGOs and the rapidly growing civil society sector in Turkey to cooperate with the Arab countries. NGOs can organize events on political, economic, and social topics, share their experiences, and shape public opinion. They can identify the needs of societies and even can help to find out the best policies for the newly emerging governments to address the problems. These kinds of efforts may also help to change mutual misperceptions as well as sharing relevant Turkish experience of democracy and civil liberties that can help both sides to foster their own democratic transformations.
Turkey still has a long way to go in developing its own democratic institutions. We still face enormous challenges in protecting civil liberties and reforming our judicial system, to name but two crucial elements on the path toward genuine democracy. There is still considerable debate within Turkey about the extent of press freedom, the imprisonment of dissidents, and so forth. This is unavoidable, given that the road toward democracy is never perfect. But such issues invariably create doubts about the consistency of the Turkish model in the international community.
Turkey also faces problems when it comes to projecting its political influence. Turkey still lacks an in-depth understanding of the internal dynamics of the MENA countries (even if its knowledge of the region is still better than that of its partners in Europe or the United States). A major factor is the ongoing Kurdish conflict, which creates an additional constraint in Turkey's dealings with Syria, Iraq, and Iran. This not only makes it harder for Ankara to implement its agenda, but also ends up creating many misperceptions about its policies in the Arab world.
In short, Turkey faces many serious obstacles when it comes to advertising the advantages of its system. Its pro-Western image, its limited capacity to project influence, and the divide between rhetoric and reality are all part of the problem. So, too, are its social and political differences from the Arab countries in respect to the understanding of society, ideology, secularism and Islam, and so on. While I think it's basically true to assume that Turkey's Muslim identity will help it to argue the virtues of democracy to the Arab countries, these fundamental differences in culture are sure to complicate matters.