Protestors in the Arab world in the past year have been clear about the dictators they oppose. The protestors have been less clear about what kind of governments they want to replace those dictators. For better or worse, though, many have pointed to the example of the country we'll visit next. Turkey is a country with an overwhelmingly Muslim population, but also a secular state. It's been run for the past decade by a party with roots in political Islam. Some Arabs see Turkey as a model for them, even if Turks themselves wince, knowing, as they do, that their government is still a work in progress. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Istanbul.


PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Last fall, as Tunisians went to the polls to elect their own leaders, merchant Mohammed Bengerbal paused in front of his shop in the capital to ponder a question: Now that Tunisia's dictator is gone, what kind of government does he really want?

MOHAMMED BENGERBAL: (Through translator) We want Tunisia to become a modern country, not extremist - a place like Turkey. People work hard there and also practice Islam. They are modest and modern at the same time.

KENYON: As secular, despotic regimes tumbled in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the iron fist that had been throttling opposition parties relaxed. Suddenly, North Africans are looking to political Islam - not to fight off a dictatorial regime, but to guide them toward a better future. And when they look around to see where that has actually been achieved, they find Turkey, with its ruling Justice and Development Party and its deeply religious Sunni Muslim Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

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KENYON: During a visit to Egypt last year, Erdogan was mobbed by adoring crowds, packed with supporters of Egypt's rising political power, the Muslim Brotherhood. The adulation was interrupted, however, when the Turkish leader went on television to tell Egyptians they shouldn't be afraid of secular government, a notion that didn't sit well in a culture where, for many people, secular translates as atheist or anti-faith. Turkey analyst Soner Cagaptay with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy says it must have been a surprise for Erdogan, who's accustomed to being seen as the conservative in the room at home.

SONER CAGAPTAY: He was given a hero's welcome. And the next day, he goes out to them and he says, oh, by the way, you've got to be secular, too. And I think this shows to you that the Turkish model, in some ways, is perhaps not so directly transferable.

KENYON: But on one crucial level, Turkey has a far more powerful and fundamental appeal, says Cagaptay: It's a Muslim country that works, with a large and growing middle class.

CAGAPTAY: If there was one way for me to define what makes Turkey unique compared to all of its Muslim neighbors to the south and east, it is what I call the Turkish miracle. And that is not a political miracle. That's an economic miracle.

KENYON: Except for a brief downturn during the recession of 2008, Turkey, under Erdogan, has grown at a robust clip for most of the past decade. And crucially, large numbers of ordinary Turks in the broad Anatolian heartland have moved up into the middle class. Erdogan's top foreign policy adviser, Ersat Hurmuzlu, says people around the Middle East are demanding not just the right to choose their own leaders, but the right to a better future.

ERSAT HURMUZLU: People are seeing the success on the economic side in Turkey. And they are questioning themselves: If Turkey has conducted this, why we cannot do that? So, this is a normal question, and we urge the people to ask this question to themselves.

KENYON: Turkish writer and analyst Mustafa Akyol says the Arab Spring had many causes, but it's useful to focus on a question that has dogged the region for centuries: Why has the Muslim world lagged so far behind the West? Akyol says the answer often heard in recent decades, pushed by hard-line Islamists, was that Muslims weren't being pious enough. They had to grow even more conservative.

MUSTAFA AKYOL: Well, the AKP in Turkey, the Justice and Development Party, gave a different answer to this question. They said, well, we lagged behind because we did not work enough. And they remained pious, but they also did what everybody does in the world when you want to build a better economy. So I think this is something now realized by the more reasonable actors in the Islamic Middle East, as well.


KENYON: If you want to see Turkey's economic miracle in action - and get a taste of how it could be threatened by regional changes - the southeastern city of Gaziantep, near the Syrian border, is a good place to start. The production lines are clanking away at this factory owned by the Naksan Holding Group. These aren't high-end luxury goods. Company officials say Naksan is one of the top three producers of plastic packaging in Europe, and in the top 10 worldwide. Business is booming: From a few hundred workers at its start, Naksan now employs some 4,000 people. As the taxi drivers here like to boast, with only slight exaggeration: In Gaziantep, everybody works.


KENYON: In recent years, the city enjoyed thriving relations with northern Syria, especially in the city of Aleppo. Those relations took years to build, but crashed very rapidly last year as Erdogan became one of the most vocal critics of Syria's bloody crackdown on dissent. Taner Nakiboglu, a Naksan board member, is bullish on Turkey's prospects, but he doesn't like to see good business go bad because of politics.

TANER NAKIBOGLU: Aleppo is very close, only 80 miles. So, they were coming here. We were going there. This is now stopped. Normally, technically, you can go, they can come without visa. But because of security reasons, nobody wants to go.


KENYON: In another corner of the city sits a stark reminder of how Arab Spring politics have changed Turkey's foreign policy. The Syrian Consulate - the only foreign consulate outside Istanbul or Ankara - is dark and empty. The sign next to the padlocked door reads: Closed until further notice.

Among activists seeking to overthrow Arab dictators, this is a tangible sign that Turkey has finally come down on the side of the people, despite its longstanding economic ties to despotic regimes. At a recent forum here on the Arab Spring, Turks were the first to admit that their model is still a work in progress. As one speaker put it: If you copy us, please don't copy our record on minority rights - a reference to longstanding suffering by Kurds, Alawites and others. Another noted the scores of journalists in Turkish jails and chimed in: And don't follow our lead on freedom of the press, either. Professor Ibrahim Ghanem, an Egyptian who teaches in Dubai, says many Arabs are now taking a closer, more skeptical look at the Turkish model.

IBRAHIM GHANEM: What is the meaning of Turkish model? Do you mean in dealing with minorities like Alawites and Kurds? Do you mean the Turkish model in the vital role of the army in the political life? So, it is a vague argument when you talk about Turkish model.

KENYON: But for all its flaws, Turkey today presents the clearest example of a modern and moderate Muslim country. And as it sets about trying to rewrite its constitution, analyst Sabiha Gundogar at Sabanci University says Arab Spring countries can see Turkey, for all its economic success, still struggling to improve its democracy.

SABIHA GUNDOGAR: Why Turkey is so relevant to the region is that democracy is still in the making also in Turkey, as well. So, I mean, that's also another aspect that makes Turkey very relevant to other countries that are also remaking themselves.

KENYON: As new governments are created across North Africa in the coming months, analysts wonder if Turkey will remain a rather lonely example of the moderate wing of political Islam, or if its economic and political achievements will give moderates in the region something to latch onto and adapt to their own situations. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

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