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For Egypt, Do All Roads Lead To Turkey?

  • Robert Tait

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a onetime radical Islamist, has won praise for his party's transformation of Turkey. But is this an accurate portrayal of his party's role?

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a onetime radical Islamist, has won praise for his party's transformation of Turkey. But is this an accurate portrayal of his party's role?

Rarely has Turkey been such a source of inspiration. Once known during the dog days of the Ottoman Empire as the "sick man of Europe," it now proudly lays claim to that envied international status -- the role model to which all others must aspire.

With Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak vanquished by the forces of popular rebellion and much of the Arab world in varying states of political ferment, suddenly all roads lead to Ankara -- or perhaps more suitably to Istanbul, the former Ottoman capital and, with its dazzling array of mosques, spiritual home of Turkey's governing Justice and Development Party (AKP).

For it is the AKP, a conservative party rooted in political Islam, and its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan -- a onetime radical Islamist and ex-mayor of Istanbul -- who have won praise for supposedly modernizing and democratizing this country of 73 million and forging ahead with an European Union membership bid.

Central to this has been a quest to weaken the role of the Turkish military, whose traditional role as arbiter in the country's politics has seen it unseat four elected governments in the past 50 years.

In September 2010, Erdogan's government was hailed by the EU and other Western sources for a series of constitutional amendments -- passed in a referendum -- that allowed for trying previously untouchable army officers in civilian courts and lifted the legal immunity of senior top brass implicated in a bloody coup in 1980.

Turkey's demilitarization process holds particular resonance for Egypt, where the high command of the still-popular and mighty armed forces holds power after the resignation of Mubarak on February 11. Egypt's armed forces now must decide how far democracy and the transfer to civilian rule should proceed in the face of a varied political spectrum that includes the pro-Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.

The Turkish Way

Cengiz Aktar, professor of EU studies at Istanbul's Bahcesehir University, sees symbolic importance -- and potential inspiration for Egypt -- in the fact that former Islamists are demilitarizing Turkey.

The AKP is often accused of having a secret Islamist agenda, inside Turkey as well as abroad.
"Demilitarization has taken place in various forms in the Mediterranean. We have had the Spanish, Portuguese, and Greek cases," Aktar says. "In Turkey that has been achieved, and it's still in the course of being achieved, by political Islam, because there was no other force to do it and, as the military rhetoric and ideology had always designated political Islam as an enemy of the country, so political Islam has become, maybe involuntarily, the political force who [sic] had to demilitarize and normalize Turkish democracy."

At the same time, the AKP -- which will be seeking a third consecutive term in this year's forthcoming general elections -- deserves praise for widening democracy, Aktar says, thus allaying fears that the election of an Islamist-based party necessarily means the advent of Shari'a law.

"Political Islam in Turkey allowed marginalized groups, ostracized groups of believers, to be actors in the public life of this country. Those groups were literally excluded from the political life and from the economic life," Aktar says. "Political Islam was extremely instrumental to bring [sic] those people in, therefore widening the base of the social and societal constituency."

Intolerant Of Dissent

Yet for many, this view is, at best, incomplete and omits a multitude of transgressions by Erdogan's government.

Far from liberalizing and democratizing Turkey, the AKP's opponents charge it with plotting to subtly undermine the country's secular political order, bequeathed by the modern republic's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

The AKP vehemently denies that accusation and sometimes underlines the point by serving foreign journalists alcohol when holding media briefings.

But more troubling is a track record that has seen a crackdown on media freedoms -- including the jailing of scores of journalists -- and the jailing of hundreds of serving and retired military officers over two related alleged coup plots whose veracity has yet to be proven.

Turkey's foreign policy has become increasingly anti-Western, as has popular opinion.
Gareth Jenkins, an Istanbul-based specialist on Turkish security matters, says that far from Turkey being a model for Egypt, the two countries resemble each other in their use of police repression.

"What we've seen recently in Turkey is a clampdown on the opposition media, which included massive tax fines on the main independent media group [Dogan] totaling over $2.5 billion. We've seen the government force some of its critics to lose their jobs in some of the other newspapers," Jenkins says.

"We've seen a lot of cases where people have arrested people and accused them of doing things which very often they manifestly haven't done. So we've seen the police or government sympathizers within the police force being used to suppress opposition to the governing party in Turkey."

Democratic, But Only For Now?

Certainly, Erdogan -- Turkey's prime minister and a man once jailed for reciting an Islamist poem -- seems an unlikely democrat and friend of the West. As Istanbul mayor in the 1990s, he compared democracy to a street car. "You ride it until you arrive at your destination, then you step off," he said.

Even as recently as 2010 -- having supposedly moderated his views -- he appeared ambivalent on democracy's value in an interview with "The Wall Street Journal," describing it as a "tool."

"The goal is the happiness of the people," Erdogan said. "Democracy, all the other systems, and all religions -- they are all tools for the happiness and peace of the people. I am not saying only democracy, and I am talking about all the systems, all the government types, religions -- all of them. All of them are tools."

At the same time, Erdogan has boosted his -- and Turkey's -- standing among Arab and Muslim states by adopting anti-Western stances such as attacking Israel and vocally defending Iran's nuclear program. Days after calling on Mubarak to listen to the protests against him, Erdogan visited Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose anti-Western regime has been criticized as even more repressive than Egypt's.

"When one looks at what has been happening in Egypt, where you have an oppressive regime, you have an elite which has enriched itself at the expense of the mass of the people, we've seen exactly the same thing happen in Turkey, where the people close to the ruling elite now pick up all of the government contracts, Jenkins says.

"And of course, the government itself has really achieved its regional predominance, or preeminence, by attacking the West. It's one of the ironies really that people are holding up Turkey as a model when [if] you look at all the individual criteria, all of these benchmarks, then Turkey has actually been going backwards over the last few years."

Sidelining The Military

No less ironic is the fact that the now-discredited armed forces -- along with the judiciary, which has also been odds with the AKP -- have traditionally been a Westernizing influence in Turkey, as Ataturk intended.

One charge frequently leveled by the AKP's critics is that a program of domestic political reform -- publically justified as necessary to meet EU membership criteria -- has been little more than a front to enable it to undermine the military and its secular allies in the judiciary.

The results, Jenkins says, have been a demilitarization process that has not led to greater democracy but that, if anything, paint Turkey as a model for Egypt to avoid rather than copy.

"What we've seen in Turkey over the last few years is a demilitarization of the political sphere, but we haven't seen an improvement in democratization and I think it's very dangerous, when we look to a society like Egypt, which has been dominated by the military, to assume that if they go you are necessarily going to get a democratization," Jenkins says.

"This is not what has been happening in Turkey, where in many ways [what] we've been witnessing in the last few years is a shift from a military-dominated authoritarian regime to a civilian-dominated one."

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