It is impossible to have a political conversation these days – and politics is all Egyptians ever talk about – without the word Turkey cropping up within minutes. Turkey is the topic of interest: meetings are being held to discuss it, and writers, journalists, bloggers and even tweeters write incessantly about the lessons the Turkish model holds for Egypt at this crucial juncture while the country readies for a democratic transformation following the great uprising of 25 January.
Many of these speakers and writers, including the present one, have had the opportunity to visit Turkey over the last couple of months at the invitation of one or other Turkish institution, many of which are currently conducting a highly successful public diplomacy campaign.
Naturally, such visits increased on the eve of the Turkish elections, as many interested groups, including a group of "Young Revolutionaries," were invited to follow the Turkish democratic experiment at close range. This specific youth group was invitedby the Turkish Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research, and they toured Konya, Ankara and Istanbul, being received separately by Turkish President Abdullah Gül, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu.
Not surprisingly, most delegates came back impressed, especially as this week's elections in Turkey ended in the third consecutive victory for the ruling Justice and Development Party, adding grist to the mill of comparisons. At the centre of the debate is the comparison between Turkey's Islamists and their Egyptian counterparts. But while the Turkish model may be of relevance to the Islamists of Egypt as regards gaining power, one should not overlook the fact that many differences exist in the respective social formations of Egypt and Turkey, as well as many differences between formative influences on the Islamist movements in each country.
Admittedly, there are some common features between the two countries. Both embarked on a modernisation project inspired by the French model at roughly the same time: Egypt under Muhammad Ali and Turkey under the Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II. Both suffered the same disillusionment regarding this project, which sought to make of the two respective nations "part of Europe," in the famous words of Muhammad Ali's son the Khedive Ismail. However, Turkey, guarding the division between Europe and Asia, with the Bosphorus providing the only sea passage out of the Black Sea into the Mediterranean, had a legitimate claim to belonging to Europe, while Egypt had only the dreams of a ruler who was duly deposed by the European powers in 1879.
Besides, we should not forget that Turkey at the height of Ottoman power was an empire with vast territories, while Egypt's attempts to free itself from the Ottoman yoke ended with falling under British occupation in 1882. By the beginning of the 20th century, when Turkey was dubbed the “sick man of Europe,” it had lost much of its territory and had become increasingly dependent on the financial control of the European powers, but it still had a powerful army with an imperial history, which, despite the crippling defeat dealt to it in World War 1, was still able to lead the country into the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1923.
Another important difference between Egypt and Turkey is that while the Islamist organisations in Turkey are a fairly recent phenomenon which started to gain political influence in the 1980s with Erbakan's Welfare Party (the predecessor of today's Justice and Development Party), the Muslim Brotherhood, the main Islamist organisation in Egypt, has been around for more than eight decades with many of its ideological precepts unchanged.
This is not to argue that the Muslim Brotherhood, seemingly the best-organised political force in Egypt now, is incapable of restructuring itself along similar lines to those followed by the Turkish Islamists. The point I am making relates to the history of both movements, not to the future development of the Brotherhood, which could benefit from the experience of both the Welfare and Justice and Development parties.
When I visited Istanbul ten years ago, I could feel the tension between those who wanted Turkey to remain totally westernised and the emerging Islamist forces. Last month, I was glad to see the city evidently more self-confident under the leadership of the Islamists, who seem to have allayed a great part of the secularists' fears regarding the path they are taking. I felt that the city was more elegant and vibrant than ever before, with a happy co-existence between secular and religious people; that old feeling of being in a place torn between two worlds had totally disappeared.
As I was preparing for the trip to Istanbul, I picked up a Globetrotter travel guide to the city purchased ten years earlier. In the short introduction on “government and economy in Turkey” I read the following: "Turkey's big problem is that there are too many political parties and too little power for any one party. In June 1999, a coalition government was formed… During this time, the only constant has been the Islamic fundamentalist Welfare Party, which now holds around 21 per cent of the seats in parliament. But with its anti-European and strong religious views, the Welfare Party has been unable to form a coalition. The army, in any case, firmly secular in outlook, will fight hard against a fundamentalist government."
So much for travel guides. I was very happy to find that the Islamists of Turkey, with their "zero conflict" strategy, had defied expectations of this kind, which have not been limited to travel guides. I would also like to see the Islamists in Egypt defy the expectations of their adversaries and emulate the Turkish model in this respect.