Turkish diplomat, Murat Bilhan, discusses transitions in the Middle East and the Libyan Crisis
– Istanbul, Turkey
‘This date is going to be written in the history books’, begins Mr. Bilhan, as we commence our interview in his impressive office at Istanbul’s Kültür University. He is referring to January 2011, a month that has witnessed seismic waves of popular political action across the Middle East, and adds, ‘the people are following their democratic instincts for the first time in their history’.
I did not hesitate at all when presented with the opportunity to meet someone with the reputation of Murat Bilhan. A career diplomat, he represented Turkey across the world from 1965-2001, working everywhere from Tehran to Moscow, Benghazi to Thessalonica. Today he teaches international relations at the well-respected Kültür University, and it was through a student acquaintance here that I was able to arrange a meeting. Bilhan’s office is lined with cabinets overflowing with prestigious diplomatic awards, in sharp contrast to his unassuming and welcoming manner, as we sit drinking tea and discussing current affairs on a cold spring morning in Istanbul.
You know you are living through something remarkable when an individual in possession of Mr. Bilhan’s experience identifies the Arab uprisings as a truly landmark shift in Middle Eastern politics. The sense that these events are exceptional has been visible in many quarters over the last four months; journalists, politicians and academics everywhere have been blindsided by the speed and significance of the changes taking place. A major recipient of international focus so far has been Libya. Britain is at the forefront of the western response to the crisis, joining France and the United States in spearheading the UN-backed enforcement of a no-fly zone, and the shelling of pro-Gaddafi forces. The action has not been without its critics, however, and from the start the mission has been marked by an ambiguity over its duration and purpose. With a stalemate now gripping Misrata, there is no clear sense of how the conflict will end. For now, however, the most important question centres on what Libya’s future will be if, and when, Colonel Gaddafi falls.
‘I think the chain around him is narrowing’, predicts Bilhan, ‘and I don’t think he can escape. But he’s not like the other Arab dictators – he’s much more stubborn, intransigent’. Whatever the eventual outcome in Libya may be, Bilhan’s perspective is influenced by personal encounters with the Gaddafi regime. He served in the Turkish consulate in Benghazi in the mid-1980s, witnessing the American air raids of April 1986. Bilhan recalls that on the day before the bombing, Turkish construction workers were moved by the Libyan authorities from their homes and herded into military camps across the desert, to serve as a human shield in the face of an anticipated American attack.
‘I had to travel to the camps to save these people myself, with an armoured car taken from our consulate in Benghazi. I drove into the desert and took them back to their homes. The Libyan military did not resist my attempts – they understood that they were wrong and that these were innocent people’.
Experiences like this put him in a strong position to judge how the current crisis will play out, but Bilhan does not automatically share the optimism of David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy. For Bilhan, there are inherent problems in how western powers imagine democracy taking hold in the region. ‘The West believes that the Middle East only deserves a ‘B-type democracy’ ‘, he explains, ‘not the ‘A-type’ that they themselves enjoy. While in the West democratic values are embedded in society – values such as: political accountability, deep tolerance of differences, gender equality, minority and individual rights – these standards do not yet exist in the Arab world’. He believes that the main political achievement of the current uprisings will be the introduction of free elections. ‘But sometimes’, warns Bilhan, ‘the ballot box can become a Pandora’s box’. This does not mean he is unmoved by the aspirations of the protesters in the region; his caution is based more on a strongly held belief that effective democracy is a hard-earned and long-term goal.
Bilhan also explains why the Turkish government has been relatively unenthusiastic about the intervention in North Africa. ‘Libya has a special position in Turkish foreign policy’, he explains. ‘It is the second largest investment area for Turkish capital [after Russia], and there are deep historical ties that go back to the time of the Ottoman Empire’. Turkey did not readily participate in the international condemnation of Gaddafi; $15 billion worth of investment and the presence of around 30,000 Turks in the country, meant that Prime Minister Erdoğan was cautious in the stance his country adopted. While the UK and its allies have wholeheartedly thrown their weight behind the Libyan rebels, Turkey was conscious not to act prematurely in backing one side over the other.
This is not to say that Bilhan – or the Turkish government – believe Colonel Gaddafi should be allowed to remain in power. Turkey and its diplomats are well placed to interpret the situation on the ground after centuries of interaction with Libya. At a time when events continue to move at a lightning pace, it is vital to avoid oversimplifying matters: the Turkish response to the crisis has been criticised as slow and uncommitted, but caution should not be mistaken for apathy.
Throughout our discussion, it became clear that Murat Bilhan possessed the air of a man who has seen much over the years; a lifetime of experience predisposing him to notes of caution in response to recent events. While the stakes remain so high, his outlook will no doubt be frustrating for many. It is essential, however, that more tentative voices like Bilhan’s are not lost in the international furore, especially at a time when many of the Libyan dynamics remain in the balance.
Mr. Bilhan concludes our interview by admitting that he does not know how things will end in the current crisis. Of one thing he is certain: ‘presently, North Africa has turned into a minefield. If you follow the wrong course and step on a mine you will be in trouble’. This is undoubtedly a diplomat’s perspective, and it is a valid one; whether the course taken in Libya, by the UK and its allies, proves to be equally hazardous, remains to be seen.
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