Egypt and the Turkish model(s)


Paradoxes thrive in international politics and history. Consider the example of Egypt and Turkey.  The most unlikely of couples, one would think. An authoritarian backwater, once the self-confident leader of the Arab world but now a laggard ruled by an aging pharaoh, side by side with a vibrant democracy with East Asian growth rates, that is busy confidently projecting its influence around its neighbourhood.

But the times they are a-changin’.  Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan openly calledfor Hosni Mubarak to go. A mini diplomatic war with Cairo ensued, but Ankara has surely thrown its lot in with the forces of change. The contrast with Western hedging and fence-sitting could not be as stark.  It seems that Turkey’s message is something along the lines of “Look, we have a model for you how to blend Islam, democracy and private enterprise in a mix that does work”. A sort of a third way, avoiding the excesses of secular authoritarianism and Islamic radicalism, and, ultimately, debunking the fake dichotomy between order and perilous regime change (the spectre typically conjured up by Middle Eastern rulers when talking to the West).

Turn back the clock a bit and you will see that the Turko-Egyptian pair is anything but random.  Even more puzzlingly, Egypt used to be the trend-setter.  As any history buff would tell you, in the opening decades of the 19th century, Muhammad Ali’s drive to modernise Egypt’s armed forces, bureaucracy and economy along Western lines inspired the Tanzimatreforms in the Ottoman Empire, nominally still the suzerain power.  The irony being, of course, that the Egyptian khedivewas a quintessential Ottoman soldier-administrator himself who spoke little Arabic and was fond of his Albanian roots (roots he shared with a number of Western-influenced officers in the Committee of Union and Progress(the famed Young Turks) – but not Mustafa Kemal Ataturk himself, contrary to popular speculation).

It was those military men who established the Turkish Republic in 1923. And their experience was echoed by the Free Officers, headed by Gamal Abdul Nasser, who in the 1950s laid the foundations of the current Egyptian regime. Authoritarian modernisation and the imitation of the West to resist imperialist encroachment is what both Kemalism 1.0 and Nasserism were about.

Reading the Turkish press over the past week I see Mustafa Akyol, a celebrated columnist, suggestingthat  Egypt’s post-Mubarak rulers might well opt for Kemalism 2.0 - the system that governed Turkey from the installation of multi-party politics in 1945 all the way to the 2000s. A sort of managed or tutelage democracy, at best, with elected politicians doing day-to-day politics but the generals pulling the strings from behind the scenes. That would be a departure, for sure.  Let’s not forget that after all the recurrent coups in Turkey (1960, 1971, 1980) the army returned to the barracks passing power back to the civilians. As Omer Taspinar of Brookings Institute points out, their principal concern has been the ideological fundament of political order rather than the mundane nitty-gritty of government. Not so in the case of Egypt where army men such as Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak stayed in the driver’s seat.  At the end of the day, Omar Suleiman might be unlikely convert to Kemalism 2.0 and stay true to business as usual. If he can get away with it, that is.

Of course, the true hope for Egypt is the current state of affairs in Turkey – the more open system that came to replace (not without EU assistance) Turkey’s tutelage democracy of the 1990s. This would involve the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement with many faces, evolving into an AKP-like political force, or ‘conservative democrats’ as Erdogan et al. prefer to style themselves. They would attract pious voters, embracing a form of political Islam which does not destroy whatever democratic institutions succeed in taking root, but rather opens the way towards greater pluralism.  As Sahin Alpay puts it, it would be Turkey not Iran showing the way forward.

Regardless of Erdogan’s ambitions, the spread of this Turkish model (or post-Kemalism, if you will) might be a rather tall order. To be sure, Islamists participated in the Turkish political system all the way from the 1950s to the present, serving in a coalition government along with their present-day arch-rivals from the People’s Republican Party (CHP) in 1974 (yes, you are right – the year when the Cyprus intervention took place). Contrast this with Egypt where the Brotherhood has been forced into the underground, brutally suppressed and pushed into a radical direction by the authorities for decades.  Models do not travel easily from one context to another.

Yet, if Egypt was to learn from the Turkish model, it would be a win-win scenario.  It would make  Egypt a better country to live in, help lead the Middle East out of stagnation, and, not least, it vindicate Western insistence that there are values that are universal and therefore worth defending in an age of global turmoil and uncertainty.


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