ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
When this wave of protests broke out in the Arab world, lots of talking heads invoked the same comparison.
Unidentified Man #1: We have the Turkish model where the army has always played a role in several democratic transitions...
Unidentified Woman: They're saying that they believe Egypt can find this middle of the road and embrace the Turkish model. Do you think that's true?
Unidentified Man #2: That's why some of the discussion about a Turkish model for Egypt seems...
SIEGEL: And when I sat down recently with a room full of Middle Eastern twentysomethings, these Tunisian women - Marla Manay(ph), Eli Benkalil(ph) and Sumay Burundi(ph) - said pretty much the same thing.
Ms. MARLA MANAY: The model of secularism in Turkey is more likely to be applicable to Tunisia than us, for instance, or any other country.
Ms. ELI BENKALIL: For us, the Turkish model is maybe the perfect model if we want to apply the Islamic laws (unintelligible).
Ms. SUMAY BURUNDI: After the revolution, people think more of Turkey as a model.
SIEGEL: Turkey is an overwhelmingly Muslim country of 73 million people and an increasingly active power in the Middle East. It occupies a unique position in the region: political, historical, even geographic.
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SIEGEL: Every day, thousands of Turks pass through the turnstiles and take an intercontinental ferry ride across the Bosporus, the strait that bisects the sprawling metropolis of Istanbul. On the western side is Europe and on the eastern side, Asia. It is one of those landmarks of Turkey that underscore its role bridging East and West.
In this season of uprisings in Arab countries, Turkey is cited so often as a model for how democracy might evolve in those states. We decided to take a look at how Turkish democracy is evolving at home.
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Mr. EGEMEN BAGIS (Turkish Minister for E.U. Affairs): (Foreign language spoken)
SIEGEL: In the Silivri, an outer suburb of Istanbul, a government minister named Egemen Bagis is on the stump, campaigning for parliamentary elections in June.
Mr. BAGIS: (Foreign language spoken)
SIEGEL: It's a ballroom packed with supporters of his party, the governing Justice and Development Party, the AKP.
But behind the podium, there's a poster with two portraits on it. On the right, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the leader of the AKP, which in the Turkish context is considered an Islamist Party; and on the left, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish republic and a man who is militantly secular.
Mr. BAGIS: (Foreign language spoken)
SIEGEL: Egemen Bagis tells the crowd that since the AKP came to power nine years ago, one third of the country's schools have been built and one fourth of the hospitals. Airline ticket sales, he says, are up over a hundredfold; something that used to be a luxury is now something for the people.
A major reason that people speak of Turkey as a model is the AKP itself - to be legal and successful in constitutionally-secular Turkey, Islamists had to renounce ideas like imposing Islamic law.
Bagis, who worked in New York City as a translator for many years, describes the AKP's religious component as a brand of social conservatism.
Mr. BAGIS: AK party is a conservative democrat party. The way we look at religion - not only Islam but also other religions - is religion is an individual phenomenon. It is the role of the government to make sure that individuals have access to practicing their choice of religion.
SIEGEL: This Istanbul suburb is home to a Turkish courthouse and prison where the most important criminal case in recent Turkish history is unfolding very slowly and very secretly. It is the Ergenekon case. It alleges that a ring of military officers and their accomplices were plotting a coup against the AKP government - the government that Bagis serves in. In fact, the Turkish army always used to step in when it felt that Turkey's pro-Western, anti-communist or secular principles were in danger.
Bagis tells the crowd in Silivri that has all changed, and the Ergenekon case is a sign that democracy is working.
In Turkey, he says, this kind of political case is not unique.
Mr. BAGIS: My party was prosecuted with an intention to be banned. We did not like the decision - the financial penalty that the court enforced on us, but we obeyed it. And now, we have to give the prosecutors a chance to prepare their case - their indictment - and then explain to the people what actually these people are being indicted for.
SIEGEL: This case, Ergenekon, is a hugely contentious subject in Istanbul.
At a teahouse beneath the landmark Galata Tower, I spoke with Hugh Pope. He's an English journalist who's lived there for years and now works for the International Crisis Group.
Mr. HUGH POPE (Journalist): I was at a dinner party where the subject came up with intelligent members of the Turkish Istanbul elite, if you like, and very soon, everyone was shouting at each other and unable to talk in a civilized way about a subject which probably none of them have direct knowledge of. It reminded me exactly of a London dinner party discussing fox hunting.
SIEGEL: If Egemen Bagis thinks it's a fair and democratic fight against these political foxes, his friend, columnist Asli Aydintasbas, thinks it's the antithesis of democracy. Two journalists were detained last month, accused of being Ergenekon accomplices.
The journalists say they were just doing their job. And as Asli Aydintasbas says, it's not really clear just what the prosecutor says they were doing.
Ms. ASLI AYDINTASBAS (Journalist): This is my problem with this investigation. The indictments don't make sense.
SIEGEL: Asli, there are two readings of this, and one is - represents a new level of threat to freedom of expression in Turkey. The other is the shoe is on the other foot; that when secularists were in power, they used to investigate Kurds and Islamists; and now Islamists are in power, they investigate secularists and others.
Ms. AYDINTASBAS: Sure. And that's really very depressing. I mean, my take on this whole thing is so the problem with the current government is not that they turned out to be too Islamist. They turned out to be too Turkish.
SIEGEL: They're behaving in a way that governments might have in the past behaved.
Ms. AYDINTASBAS: Exactly. We're in 2011. The entire Middle East is screaming out freedom, so we can't be slipping behind in our democratic standards. We are an E.U. candidate.
SIEGEL: In fact, Turkey has been a European Union candidate for decades - an unsuccessful one.
Here's an irony of being rejected so long by Europe. To meet E.U. standards, Turkey has changed. The minority Kurds have more rights. There hasn't been a coup in this century.
Omer Taspinar is a Turkish specialist in Washington.
Mr. OMER TASPINAR (Director, Turkey Project, Brookings Institution): It is the E.U. that has forced Turkey to come to terms with a concept of minority rights. And I think the E.U. has done also wonders in terms of civil military relations in Turkey. One reason why we can no longer think about a coup in Turkey is because I don't think the military is interested in being blamed for ending Turkey's chances of becoming a member of the European Union.
SIEGEL: Here's another ironic twist to the tale of Turkey's unrequited love of the E.U. These days, the very southern European countries that entered the European Union when Turkey didn't - Greece, Spain, Portugal - are reeling from burst property bubbles and outrageous deficits. Turkey's economy is booming.
Here's the Istinia Park Mall in Istanbul. Among the many shoppers are Haya and her family from Kuwait.
Ms. HAYA: We like Istanbul too much, and we take lots of things from Istanbul.
SIEGEL: What do you buy here that you can't find in Kuwait?
Ms. HAYA: Everything, everything. I like the clothes, the dress, the wedding clothes, for night clothes, for here more often, more often.
SIEGEL: Turkey, led by a party that feels more at home in the Islamic world, has turned to the region as a source of trade, investment, and tourism. The buoyant economy makes the coming election even tougher for the AKP's opponents.
Ms. BINNAZ TOPRAZ (Parliament Candidate, Turkey): (Speaking foreign language).
SIEGEL: The main Turkish opposition group is the Republican People's Party, the CHP. Binnaz Toprak, a sociologist who will make her debut this year as a CHP candidate for Parliament, talks strategy with a CHP leader.
The CHP is the party of Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic. For decades, it was Turkey's only party, and it used to be staunchly many would say intolerantly - secular.
Ms. TOPRAZ: Secularism was interpreted quite militantly, very much in the French tradition of control over religion rather than the separation of religion and the state and Islam. And this later on, of course, after the transition to democracy, did cause problems.
SIEGEL: Binnaz Toprak says there is now a political truce between secularists and Islamists. She says her party's new outlook is less about secularism, and more about closing the gap between rich and poor.
Ms. TOPRAK: We have a strong economy, and yet there are 10 million people below the poverty level. This is unacceptable.
SIEGEL: So, Turkey now has two big parties: self-described social democrats versus self-described social conservatives. Is Turkish democracy a model for the Arab world? Hugh Pope says, no.
Mr. POPE: I think it's more of an inspiration than a model. The reason that it can't be a full model is that Turkey is unique. Turkey is Turkey is Turkey.
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SIEGEL: Just one example of what's unique about Turkey is this Ottoman-style marching band performing at the kickoff of a community soccer tournament. The men wear red or green caftans, huge hats and shoes with curling, pointed toes. People speak of a new Ottomanism.
Turkey has a long history as a powerful state. And Hugh Pope says most Middle Eastern countries do not.
Yasemin Congar, a newspaper editor, says Turkey's neighbors would do well to emulate her country.
Ms. YASEMIN CONGAR (Newspaper Editor): They would see a country that's dealing with its own taboos and that's questioning itself, which it never did. So in that sense, I wouldn't say it's a model, but it's an example.
SIEGEL: And whether they think it's an applicable one or not, many Turks seem very pleased, even proud, to hear their country cited so often as an example for others.