Following the Turkish model or forging our own?

Hassan Abou Taleb , Monday 19 Sep 2011

As the Turkish experience of democratisation and Islamist party rule becomes more and more influential, what lessons does this model have for post-revolutionary Egypt

The Turkish model of applying democratic government has stirred admiration among many Egyptian and Arab analysts. The source of the sentiment is very simple: Turkey proves that the notion of the Islamists in power is not necessarily antithetical to democracy. They can be pragmatic and realistic, and not the staunch idealists as many have labelled them. Nevertheless, this is how some have continued to describe the Turkish Justice and Development Party, the pioneering experience of an Islamist party in government, on the grounds that it has a religious frame of reference rather than the secularist outlook that a political party should have in a proper democracy.

On the basis of such an overly simplistic perception, some analysts have maintained that post-revolutionary Egypt could clone the Turkish model for political transformation, with some minor adjustments. They maintain that the Muslim Brotherhood, as the largest and best organised political bloc in the country, has the opportunity to win a comfortable majority in the forthcoming parliamentary elections and, therefore, that a Muslim Brotherhood government is a near certainty. With such a government, Egypt would be closer to the Turkish model than anything else, especially in view of the modifications in the Brotherhood’s discourse, which now appears to accept the principles of the civil state, equal citizenship and the civil rights of the Copts.

On the other hand, some political activists outside the Muslim Brotherhood admire the Turkish model for a different reason, namely that the army is the protector of the democratic system. They hold that the new Egyptian constitution should state this explicitly, which would make the Egyptian army play a political role, albeit behind the scenes. I suspect that this body of opinion has failed to appreciate just how much the role of the Turkish army has changed in recent years. But the central question here is to what extent does this common analysis actually reflect realities in both Egypt and Turkey and to what extent could the Muslim Brotherhood reproduce the Turkish model if it did come to power in Egypt?

To begin with, this type of superficial analysis is inherently flawed. Apart from the fact that it is impossible for any country to clone the experience of another, whether in governance, the economy or in value system, the Turkish experience has many characteristics that bear no resemblance whatsoever to the situation in Egypt before or after the 25 January Revolution.

The most crucial factor in the Turkish experience over the past eight years has been that the Justice and Development Party has never cast itself as a religious party that has sought to transform the state into a form of theocracy. It has never opposed secularist values, never had as its principal aim the literal application of Sharia law as understood by Salafis, and never proclaimed that it would declare war in order to liberate Palestine. In addition, the Justice and Development Party came to power in 2003 in the context of a system of government that was already democratic. That system may have had some shortcomings, but it ensured that all had the opportunity to compete via the ballot box and it operated in the context of a general aspiration to obtain European Union membership, a process that requires commitments to a range of political, economic and social reforms.

The Justice and Development Party has acted as a responsible and democratic participant in the polls, and since coming to power it has followed through on and instituted many of the required constitutional and legal reforms. It has restructured the role of the army in Turkey and subordinated it to civilian rule, abolished the death sentence and the criminalisation of adultery, legalised religious conversions, and restricted the power of the judiciary to ban political parties on the grounds that they threaten Kemalist secularism.

The party has also undertaken several initiatives to address injustices against the minority Kurds and Alevis. Although there is still some room for progress on this front, one must acknowledge that the condition of the country's large Kurdish minority is considerably better than it had been before the Justice and Development Party came to power. Kurdish parties now participate in elections and they can now openly demand greater cultural and political rights without risking arrest and imprisonment. Under the Justice and Development Party, the military solution to the Kurdish question has been relegated to the back seat.

On the whole, the Justice and Development Party offers a model of secularism reconciled with religion. From this perspective, secularism is a system that guarantees every citizen the right to practise his religion freely without fear of punishment or exclusion from public life and that protects the freedoms of all, inclusive of the freedom to be devoutly religious.

In spite of Turkey’s official secularism, the Justice and Development Party certainly did not evolve in a religious vacuum. As rigid as Kemalist ideology may have been, it could not begin to curb the widespread Sufi movement that is deeply ingrained in Turkish society and cultural heritage. The Sufi movement and, specifically, the Fethullah Gülen movement, has been highly instrumental in safeguarding Islamic piety in Turkish society, but with an emphasis on tolerance for others of different creeds and beliefs. In addition, the evolution of Sufism in Turkey from a purely spiritual movement to a social movement that provides various public services, such as education, healthcare, and commercial and economic facilities to its members and others has contributed to creating an extensive social force with bases in the countryside and urban centres and one that is committed to supporting the Justice and Development Party, many of whose leading members, among them Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gül, were affiliated with the Fethullah Gülen movement.

Anyone who has followed Turkish political developments over recent years will be familiar with the term “deep state”. The term refers to the socio-political establishment dedicated to the protection of the exclusionist-type secular system established by Kemal Ataturk, the chief cornerstones of which are the army, the judiciary and the educational system. This “deep state” has remained clearly unchanged in the Justice and Development Party era. There are forces that do not appear visibly enough on the surface to identify them clearly; however, they also support the government of this party and fight its opponents using methods familiar from previous decades.

These methods sometimes step over the threshold of legality, using slander, arbitrary fines and other media and economic screws in order to harass and put pressure on opponents among politicians and the press. There is, indeed, a “deep state” in Turkey with roots deep in the Sufi movement that offers indirect backing to the Justice and Development Party, however vehemently it denies this.

Perhaps the most salient success of the Justice and Development Party government in Turkey has been the economic boom that has catapulted the country’s economy to the 14th strongest in the world. In the space of eight years, per capita GDP climbed from $2,800 to $12,300, the value of the Turkish lira strengthened, gross national product soared to over $370 billion, and the volume of foreign trade topped $200 billion in 2009.

Now to the question as to whether post-25 January Egypt can reproduce the Turkish experience. Any answer to this needs to take into account certain observations. First, Egypt is currently passing through a difficult transition period. As much talk as there has been about the general desire for a civil state, in the sense of a state characterised by the rule of law, democracy and respect for human rights and civic freedoms, our society has yet to reach a consensus over these concepts, let alone over how to bring them into effect. Secondly, the Muslim Brotherhood is not the only movement espousing an Islamist outlook and discourse. It has rivals, some of which have emerged from the Brotherhood fold, and others of which are staunchly Salafist and have no qualms about speaking openly about the need to establish a theocracy that would apply Sharia law in accordance with certain juridical interpretations that many Islamic jurists would disagree with, that are inimical to certain freedoms and human rights, and that condemn all those who appeal for a modern civil state as heretics.

Thirdly, the modernist forces that act as the self-appointed protectors of the revolution are themselves divided and do not appear to represent any single concrete trend or social force in the Egyptian political arena. Fourthly, the vast majority of the Egyptian people, Muslims and Christians alike, are very religious, but they oppose the notion of a government ruling in the name of religion. Fifthly, the Egyptian army is a professional institution that adheres to its constitutionally stipulated role as the protector of legitimacy, without meddling in politics or acting as the guardian of the regime.

True, the army’s situation has changed somewhat since the revolution, now that it is charged with managing the affairs of the country and setting it on the road to a civil democratic government. However, once that mission has been accomplished, it will return to the barracks and the exercise of its natural function as the defender of the nation. In short, any comparison between the role of the Egyptian army and that of the Turkish army, whether before or after the arrival of the Justice and Development Party in power, does not hold water.

These five observations alone are sufficient to tell us that the course of the Egyptian political transformation will differ significantly from the Turkish experience. Even supposing that the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party can form a coalition government following the parliamentary elections, it is unlikely that it will win a large enough majority to free the hands of the Brotherhood to establish a government with a “religious frame of reference”, as some Brotherhood leaders predict. As organisationally weak as the Egyptian liberals and left are, the vast majority of the Egyptian people are imbued with the spirit of the civil state, which would hamper any attempts to drag Egypt toward a theocracy.

In the final analysis, the Turkish experience of political transformation and economic development has many positive points that we can learn from and take as inspiration without trying to imitate the details. Perhaps the grand strategies adopted by the Justice and Development Party to stimulate the Turkish economy offer a useful guide. Consider, in particular, the measures it has taken to uproot corruption in national and local government, to clarify the laws pertaining to economic activity and to expedite the settlement of commercial disputes, to attract foreign investment, and to compel local manufacturers to comply with quality standards and consumer rights. Of course, such measures are not a purely Turkish phenomenon: they are now very much a part of a global trend.

Ultimately, however, Egypt has its own long heritage of a liberal secularism that is at peace with religion. This legacy should enable Egypt to develop a unique, homegrown model for the application of democracy and the rule of law, even if the Muslim Brotherhood comes to share in power via the ballot box.

The writer is a senior advisor in AlAhram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies and an expert in Turkey. This article first appered in Al-Ahram Weekly

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