In the middle of the stupendous social change sweeping Arab shores, French President Nicolas Sarkozy made a landmark visit to Turkey. He has always refused to visit Turkey, and had declared publicly his opposition to "Muslim" Turkey joining "Christian" Europe, but he had to go on this one occasion as a leader of the G20; he stayed for only six hours. When he arrived he was chewing gum and then he met Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan and sat cross-legged all the while.
What is extraordinary about this event was the calculated and calibrated Turkish response to this patronising western arrogance; it was characteristic of Turkey with its democratic system, Islamic character, pluralistic government and rule of law in a Muslim society, not to mention the pride and wisdom of its leaders who reject any form of subordination or submission. This is the Turkey that has become an inspiration to the Arab people.
Photographs of the Sarkozy visit included one with Erdogan standing at the top of the stairs, a sphinx-like figure of pride and dignity, while Sarkozy extended his hand from below. Erdogan looked very much unlike those leaders who shake and kiss the hands stained with the blood of their brothers in Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon, and kiss, with humility, the hands and cheeks of secretaries of state of countries threatening Arab countries, blockading Gaza and funding the occupation of Palestine.
In order to drive the message home, Erdogan's gift to Sarkozy was a letter written by Ottoman Sultan Sulaiman the Magnificent in 1526, in response to a plea from the Christian king of France. Francis I had been taken prisoner by fellow Christian Spaniards, and he asked for assistance from the Muslim Ottomans. Sulaiman sent his assurances, followed by a military force which freed the French king. Sarkozy, with his opposition to Turkey's accession to the European Union, no doubt needed a reminder of the kind of civilised conduct which befits the history and status of Turkey and its tolerant Islamic values which stand in stark contrast with the shameful Islamophobia of Europe.
We still remember Erdogan's defence of the dignity of his people when Israeli soldiers killed, in cold blood, unarmed Turkish activists on the Mavi Marmara, part of the aid flotilla en route to breaking the blockade on Gaza. So too do we remember his dignified anger in Davos when he withdrew from a panel chaired by David Ignatius when the latter refused to let him speak and gave the floor to Israeli President Shimon Peres instead.
This Turkish-French news story, full of small gestures with significant implications, is of interest to us Arabs at this critical juncture in our history. It is an expression of the maturity of the political institutions and the energy of those running them who are in touch with their people, confident in the knowledge that they have their democratic support. Compare this with the performance of Arab officialdom, wherein you see a pitiful waste of Arab energy, capabilities, institutions, resources and heritage.
When nations make progress, it usually covers all areas of life. The same is true of retrograde steps. For example, the Arab awakening at the beginning of the 20th century was accompanied by a free media and the proliferation of political parties associated with the struggle for freedom from colonialism and despotism. This coincided with a programme to build schools and universities, women's liberation and a revival of art and culture.
Today it is clear that progress and stagnation never meet in the same country. When one prevails, it covers all areas of life. We can see similarities between most Arab countries, especially the weakness of their official political institutions and, in particular, the absence of young people therein. Forums do not exist for them to express their views and aspirations, except on the streets where they demonstrate to make their voice heard.
The revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, now spreading to other Arab countries, have shown that existing government institutions are ruled, in terms of structure and personnel, by the mentality of the Middle Ages; the most advanced among them date back to the middle of the last century. This alienates future generations and deprives state institutions of the energy and vitality of youth and their enthusiasm for building and creativity. It has also created near paralysis in political, administrative and education systems across the Middle East.
Societies should mobilise the creative powers of every generation and make the best use of university graduates to build a better state for everyone, not just a small elite. Arab regimes have failed to remedy weaknesses in government institutions and keep abreast with creativity and progress in the fields of management, economics and politics.
The current upheaval has exposed the weaknesses of basic and university education and the weak, or non-existent, links between universities and the labour market; students finish their higher education and either join the ranks of the unemployed or migrate. Intellectuals have also been alienated, from each other and from the suffering and aspirations of the people; culture is no longer a factor empowering national dignity. The same weaknesses have spread to the media, the legal system and elsewhere to destroy trust between regimes and their people.
The list of failing indicators is long, but is summarised in the weakness of regimes which have not developed since gaining their independence from colonial powers. These countries have been run by different political systems but there is a common denominator in the absence of political institutions which rejuvenate themselves through new blood and innovative ideas.
What Turkey has done over the past two decades has laid the foundations for a national democracy where the whole country – government and people – reaps the benefits and where everyone has a role to play. The Arabs must learn from this if we are to rid our countries of backwardness, stagnation, oppression and unrest.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.