When anti-government protests spread from Tunisia to Egypt, Libya, and Syria five years ago, optimists declared that the Middle East was on the precipice of a dramatic democratic transformation. Among the most optimistic were the leaders of Turkey, who saw the upheaval as an opportunity to realize their neo-Ottoman dream of positioning Turkey, a Muslim democracy with close ties to both the West and Arab nations, as a regional leader. Five years later, Arab Spring optimism has collapsed, and with it, Turkish ambitions. Libya and Syria are caught in civil wars, Egypt grows increasingly authoritarian, and Tunisia—arguably the only success story among them—is a magnet for the Islamic State (ISIS). Turkey, meanwhile, has experienced its own rapid reversal of fortune. Rather than projecting influence, Ankara is more isolated than ever.
Years before the Arab Spring erupted, back in 2002, Turkey’s Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) sought to establish better ties with the Middle East. Ankara adopted what it called a “zero problems with neighbors” policy, which involved new diplomatic and economic initiatives with all of its neighbors, including countries where Turkey had faced troubles in the past, such as Iran and Syria, and even established deeper ties with countries in Africa, such as Somalia. But President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the founder of the AKP, and Ahmet Davutoglu, his foreign minister (now prime minister), had more in mind than settling old scores and boosting trade. Rather, they aspired to revive the regional supremacy of the once all-powerful Ottoman Empire, striving to become the leaders of a pan-Islamic movement in the Middle East—just as the Ottoman caliphs did until the twentieth century.