Egypt Turkish democratic model loses favour

Recep Tayyip Erdogan was afforded a hero's welcome when he swept into Egypt on his Arab Spring tour, but the Turkish prime minister would exit having stirred debate about whether his country's template for democracy can really be exported around the region.
People walk past a giant poster of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, in Sakarya, Turkey. Saygin Serdaroglu / AFP
People walk past a giant poster of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, in Sakarya, Turkey. Saygin Serdaroglu / AFP

At the height of the protests that shook Egypt days before the country's first free elections in six decades, Cairo's Tahrir Square resembled the centre of a military relief operation. Confined by a human corridor, a heavy stream of injured protesters flowed between Mohamed Mahmoud Street, the scene of the heaviest clashes, and a medical tent pitched in the middle of the square. Some of the wounded returned on their own, some on the shoulders of fellow protesters, and others yet ferried on the backs of speeding scooters. Those with severe wounds - in addition to tear gas, birdshot and rubber bullets, Egyptian riot police had used live ammunition - were whisked away by ambulance.

When the fighting died down, an altogether different mood took hold of the square - that of an unnervingly raucous county fair. On Tahrir's fringes, merchants hawked Egyptian flags, popcorn, sweet potatoes and face paint. Seated behind a wooden stand, one vendor, a gruff-looking middle-aged man, appeared to be doing brisk business selling postcard-sized photographs of world leaders, freedom fighters, jihadists and Egyptian national heroes. At one end of the table there was a photo of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the founder and spiritual leader of Hamas killed by an Israeli missile strike in 2004. At the other end was Dr Martin Luther King. So who was selling the best?, I asked. Without looking up, the man pointed to three of the pictures and said: "Nasser, Sadat, Bin Laden".

As the week progressed, and as I kept returning to Tahrir to cover the subsiding violence, the vendor was nowhere to be found. Finally, two or three days before I left Cairo, I eyed his stand in another part of the square. A teenage boy, possibly the vendor's son, was now in charge. I had another look at the pictures, just to be sure. "And where's Erdogan?" I asked, inquiring about the Turkish leader's photograph, noticeable, as I saw it, by its absence. The boy drew a blank. "What's Erdogan?" he said.

During a mid-September visit to Egypt, part of what the media dubbed his "Arab Spring tour", Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's prime minister, had every reason to feel like a rock star. At Cairo International Airport, thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members turned up to give him a hero's welcome. The following day, during a speech peppered with Quranic references, criticism of the Syrian regime, and praise for the young men and women whose January 25 revolution toppled Hosni Mubarak, Erdogan received round after round of rapturous applause.

With his strong, albeit often belated, support for the revolutions sweeping the region, as well as his growing belligerence towards Israel, Erdogan was clearly the man of the moment. Yet if his reception did not surprise, his words certainly would. In an interview on Egypt's most popular talk show, the Turkish leader dropped a bombshell: "In a secular regime people are free to be religious or not," he told Egyptians. "Don't be afraid of secularism."

To his critics at home, who have accused him for years of harbouring a hidden Islamist agenda, Erdogan's endorsement of secular rule came as a surprise. To conservative Muslims in Egypt who tuned in to watch Erdogan speak - and to senior leaders of the Brotherhood, the country's largest Islamist group - they came as a shock.

Almost immediately, the Brotherhood delivered an indignant rebuke. "It's not allowed for any non-Egyptian to interfere in our constitution," said Mahmoud Ghozlan, a Brotherhood spokesman. "If I was to advise the Turks I'd advise them to crop the secular article in their constitution, but I'm not allowed. It's not my right."

To those (in Turkey and the West) enamoured with the idea of Turkey as a model for nascent Arab democracies, the episode was an eye-opener. On one hand, Erdogan's words marked a significant departure from his government's longtime policy of treading softly and accommodating Arab allies at all costs - a policy that, pre-Arab Spring, had given Turkey free rein to embrace despots such as Mubarak, Libya's Muammar Qaddafi and Syria's Bashar Al Assad. On the other, the Islamist backlash precipitated by Erdogan's interview showed that, at least in Egypt, the Turkish model had run into a brick wall.

The Brotherhood's disenchantment with Erdogan also Frevealed the extent to which their understanding of Turkey had been coloured by wishful thinking. Like many Islamist movements, the Brotherhood had looked to Turkey and its new ruling class of pious Muslims - who had stood up to Israel and the US, curbed the power of the military, and ushered in an era of staggering economic growth - as a source of inspiration. Yet the Brotherhood seems to have placed too much stock in the popular narrative of Turkey's "shift away from the West". Yes, Turkey had opposed the 2003 war in Iraq, refused to back sanctions against Iran, championed the cause of Muslim unity, and acquired a taste for lambasting Israel. But throughout it has remained an EU candidate, a Nato member, and a US ally, with forces in Afghanistan, negotiators in Brussels and Nato military bases on its own soil.

The Brotherhood's stated affection for Turkey had also contained an element of calculation. "After the January 25 revolution, the Brotherhood tried to adopt Turkish doctrine, Turkish experience, in order to use it as an instrument in the political debate," Mustafa El Labbad, head of the Al-Sharq Centre for Strategic Studies in Cairo, told me a week before the Egyptian elections. "They had many reasons for using such a reference in the debate," he said, notably "in order to win credit" with Egyptian liberals and western governments. "They wanted to give the impression that they were moderate, that they would be open to the world, that Egyptian foreign policy would not [experience] any dramatic change."

After Erdogan's trip, and with all signs pointing to a decisive election victory for the Brotherhood, the need to refer to the Turkish model has become obsolete, said El Labbad.

"It is clear now that they will most probably be the leading bloc in parliament, so they [no longer] think that they need to adopt anything from Turkey. They don't need to give concessions. They want to have a constitution where Islam is clearly fixed as a state religion and this is clearly not the case in Turkey."

On the eve of the elections, Mahmoud Ghozlan said it best himself. "No, we don't want the Turkish model," the Brotherhood's spokesman told Der Spiegel, a German magazine. "In Turkey, women may go to university without a headscarf. They have adultery and homosexuality. We will not allow that in Egypt. Egypt is a Muslim country."

Telling as Ghozlan's statements might be, there is strong evidence that the Turkish model still resonates with at least some of the Brotherhood's factions. At a campaign rally held in late November by the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, one of the party's candidates, Rafaat Hamid, made more than one passing reference to Turkey. Asked by a member of the crowd about the Brotherhood's plans to outlaw alcohol, Hamid cited numerous examples from Turkey, referring to hotels that banned alcohol on their premises and programmes designed to "re-educate" those involved in selling or serving alcohol to get more "honourable" jobs. His intent, it appeared, was to assure the crowd, which included a number of Copts, a Christian minority, that the Brothers would not ban alcohol outright but restrict sales to certain hotels and venues.

When I spoke to Hamid at the end of the rally, he had much more to say about the influence that Turkey had had on his political views. Like many members of Egypt's Brotherhood, particularly those in the business community, Hamid, it turned out, had firsthand experience of life in Turkey. As a liaison between Turkish and Egyptian companies, he said, he had visited the country more than 30 times and was awed by its growth, wealth and dynamism. "I want Egypt to be like Turkey 100 per cent," he said. When this occasioned silence, punctuated by a look of disbelief, he immediately qualified. "In Turkey, they are a bit too open about some things, which wouldn't pass in our culture," he said. "For example, the AKP has women members who don't wear the headscarf. We could have this inside the Brotherhood, but I'm afraid Egyptian society would not accept it."

The conversation hinted at several things. First, and most palpably, it spoke to what many experts have already identified as a fault line inside the Brotherhood - a rift between dogmatists, who take a dim view of countries like Turkey and demand nothing less than Sharia rule, and pragmatists like Hamid, who appear to embrace the Turkish experience (almost) wholeheartedly. Second, it revealed still more misconceptions about how Turkey works. (Regardless of whether they wear it outside or not, none of the AKP's female deputies are legally permitted to wear the headscarf in parliament.) It also spoke to a larger point - that even within the Brotherhood there was little agreement on what the Turkish model really meant.

In Egypt, as elsewhere, the Turkish model means different things to different people. And if the Brotherhood has proved eager to play the Turkey card to win credibility, then so have those who seek to keep it in check - Egypt's military commanders.

If the events of the past few months serve as any indication, Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf), the military junta that came to power on the back of Mubarak's fall, has found its own Turkish model to follow. While the Brotherhood may have looked to Turkey for lessons on how an Islamist party can broaden its base and attain political power, the Scaf appears to have taken a page out of the playbook of the Turkish military - not its military of today but the army of old, the one which unseated four democratically elected governments between 1960 and 1997. As Steven A Cook wrote in Foreign Affairs, Egyptian officers appear to have found inspiration in Turkey's defunct and largely discredited model of civil-military relations, one where the army "plays a moderating role, preventing - at times, through military-led coups - the excesses of civilian politicians and dangerous ideologies [ ...] from threatening the political order".

The latest proof came in November, when Scaf circulated a set of "supra-constitutional principles" that would accord the Egyptian army the right to interfere in civilian politics and to draft its own budget. It was this announcement that sparked the latest round of protests and clashes in Tahrir Square.

In Turkey, it took half a century for democratically elected politicians to begin chipping away at the military's hold on power. As the November clashes showed, Egyptians will have no patience for a lengthy democratic transition. In the future, the Turkish experience may again prove useful - perhaps as more than just a cloak of legitimacy. However, for the military to retain power, or for the Islamists to gain it, will take much more than a selective reading of Turkey's recent past. The army, the Brotherhood and the people of Egypt will have to settle on a model of their own.


Piotr Zalewski is a freelance journalist living in Istanbul.

Published: December 8, 2011 04:00 AM


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