Continuing public demonstrations in Turkey centring around Taksim Square have aroused much comment. Comparison with the Arab Spring despite Turkey being an established democracy. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s political future appears uncertain to some, with speculation that Abdullah Gul may rerun for President. Erdogan has been criticized for becoming increasingly authoritarian. From Pakistan’s perspective the AKP and Erdogan’s vision of a strong Turkey-Pakistan partnership is also relevant.

The Turkish dilemma centres around the interplay between different concepts of modern Turkish identity, the place of religion and the degree of tolerance for dissent.

Turkey’s rich history provides parallels. Strong Turkish leaders have made Turkey what it is, from the Seljuks to the Ottoman Sultans who captured Constantinople and proceeded to rule half of Europe for five centuries. Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish Republic, took over when Turkey had become the Sick Man of Europe, its territorial integrity was under threat and parts of it under occupation. To modernize Turkey he initiated reforms in which secularism came at the cost of the innate religious conservatism of the rural and poorer segments of society. Kemalism became the ideology, Turkishness/nationalism and secularism its main attributes. The Kemalists regard themselves as the keepers of the flame, an enlightened elite destined to rule. The military remained a powerful political force, sometimes taking over, always a force to be reckoned with, till sent back to the barracks by the Erdogan government.

Under the AKP the pendulum of Turkish polity swung in the other direction to the discomfort of the Kemalists and the large, influential liberal society that had been set up. The achievements of Erdogan in turning around the depressed economy inherited in 2002, Turkey’s growing stature and role within the region and internationally was undeniable, providing a buffer for the strains between the secular and conservative forces that simmer beneath the surface.

Erdogan may have moved too fast in some areas of social and personal space.

The redevelopment of Taksim was not an issue on which to take a stand. The protestors on their part comprising different ages, walks of life and political inclinations have found an issue to focus their hitherto inchoate dissatisfaction.

The liberal youth, intellectual/middle class society, and their Kemalist partners have their base in the cosmopolitan, coastal Istanbul, Antalya and Bodrum regions where people are more moderate and aware of their rights as they see them. They consider the Islamic tendencies of the AKP government a threat to their concept of “Turkishness”. The protest movement has its own dynamics which Erdogan would be mistaken to underestimate. Erdogan’s considerable support lies in the northern and eastern parts of Turkey dominated by devout sentiment, traditionally wary of Kemalism and secular ideology.

Many in the West, particularly the media, uneasy of any country especially a NATO member demonstrating an Islamic identity, seems to welcome an opportunity to cut Erdogan down to size.

Despite such misgivings and American statements questioning the government’s handling of the demonstrators, both Erdogan and the West realize their mutual dependence for several reasons. Primarily, neither is interested in any action that could destabilize the only democracy standing between Europe and the Middle East.

It would be unwise to count Erdogan out. However, these protests can further polarize society, and damage his popularity and standing now and forthcoming Presidential elections unless he saves the situation to turn to seminal issues such as Syria. Erdogan should adapt to reach out to demonstrators representing significant elements of Turkish society who consider their modern and liberal lifestyle under threat. The Ottomans maintained a soldier from the Janissary Presidential Guards whose sole task during state occasions was to whisper in the Sultan’s ear, “Remember you are human and fallible.”

From Pakistan’s perspective Turkey under whatever regime has been a strong supporter and one country where the common citizen holds Pakistani friendship dear. The AKP demonstrated to Pakistan and other Muslim countries the way forward for a progressive party with religious underpinnings. Both Abdullah Gul as Foreign Minister and then President with his outgoing, diplomatic demeanour and Erdogan with his focused, even austere persona are amongst our best friends and exemplars for economic and political revival. Even in otherwise unnoticed details this has been the case, as in noting in high level meetings that during prayer times the Turkish leaders modestly withdraw very briefly without urging others to follow.

Turkey a decade ago faced similar challenges to Pakistan today. A depressed economy, a complex history of civil-military relations and a region with difficult neighbours. Under the AKP and Erdogan, however, Turkey has undergone tremendous development, gained international respect and empowered the poorer population.

The AKP government under Erdogan wants Pakistan to adapt, turn our geostrategic location to our advantage, evolve a balance in our civil-military relationship ,make internal/regional stability a priority , and focus on the economy by normalizing relations with our neighbours .This is very much the articulated vision of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

In our recent past the previous two governments have seen Turkey as a strong economy which should, as a friend, assist in mitigating our economic problems. There were requests for soft loans, concentration of Turkish NGOs’ investments in the education sector, post -flood rehabilitation programmes, etc. Turkey however has neither the capacity nor the inclination to replace the USA or Saudi Arabia. It expects Pakistan to solve its own problems, and is willing to help where it can.

Turkey under the AKP and Erdogan perceives Pakistan as an ally and prospective strategic partner beyond the Middle East, with a potentially vibrant economy and being a nuclear power with a strong military. Both countries feel strongly for each other, but in the past decade have had differing expectations inhibiting the development of this important relationship .

Pakistan has to change this relationship from a quasi donor-recipient one to that of strategic partnership. As our new Prime Minister has emphasized the need to exit the begging bowl syndrome and focused on economic revival and economic/ trade promotion diplomacy, with his experienced foreign policy team on board this is an optimal time for progressing towards the fuller potential of this relationship with Turkey.

It is now upto the Turkish people how they progress in their political evolution. Pakistanis hope that a balance can be reached to fulfill the expectations of all sections of Turkish society. One must acknowledge the support of the AKP and Erdogan to our bilateral relationship which was highlighted during the earthquake and floods at every level of Turkish government and society. A leader who has done much for Turkey and is much admired in the Muslim world, particularly in Pakistan, must rise to the occasion as a statesman.

The writer is a former Pakistani diplomat.