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Supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi protest in front of the Republican Guard headquarters in Nasr City in Cairo, Egypt, Monday, July 8, 2013. Egyptian soldiers and police opened fire on supporters of the ousted president early Monday in violence that left dozens of people killed, including one officer, outside a military building in Cairo where demonstrators had been holding a sit-in, government officials and witnesses said. (/Khalil Hamra/AP)

When asked in the early 1970s about the consequences of the French Revolution, China’s premier Zhou Enlai is said to have replied: “Too early to say.” Yet today, just a little over two years since the outbreak of the Arab revolutions, definitive judgments about the success or failure of democratization in the region are being confidently tossed around. This is true also of the applicability of the so-called “Turkish model” of Islamic democracy to the Arab states in upheaval today, with some already declaring the bankruptcy of that model not just in the Arab world, but even in Turkey itself.

Before rushing to such judgments, it’s worth discussing the parallels between Turkey and its Arab counterparts. Like most of those countries, Turkey is a majority Sunni successor state of the Ottoman Empire that shaped the region’s political and social culture for centuries until World War I. And of all the Arab countries undergoing revolutionary conflict today, Egypt has the most in common with Turkey: A long tradition of centralized state administration, with well-established institutions (especially the military and judiciary) strongly committed to a secular national identity; a relatively more benign political history than many other regional states — particularly the brutal and sectarian Ba`thist regimes of Syria and Iraq — and consequently a polity that is less bitterly polarized.

If Egypt is to embark on a successful democratizing trajectory of its own, it will likely follow more or less the same path.

So if Turkey can accommodate the tension between a majority of the populace favoring Islamic values and policies and a smaller but still significant minority with a more secular nationalist orientation (the Kemalists) — all within a democratic framework that has survived, albeit fitfully, for over 60 years now, why wouldn’t Egypt be able to do the same?

The key thing to keep in mind about this democratic accommodation in Turkey is that it did not come about fully formed at the outset. Like their Egyptian counterparts today, neither the Kemalists nor the Islamists in Turkey started out with any commitment to liberal values. The Kemalists ruled as a one-party dictatorship until the transition to multi-party politics in 1950, mounted four “corrective” military coups in the years after that (1960, 1971, 1980, 1997), and still occasionally display a temptation to pursue non-democratic avenues (as indicated by the apparent coup plots of the early 2000s).

Turkey’s mainstream Islamists, for their part, remained wedded to an illiberal “alternative” to both East-bloc socialism and Western democracy well into the 1980s, and likewise still occasionally exhibit authoritarian inclinations of their own. Nevertheless, the fact that neither camp could ever decisively eliminate the other, coupled with skilled and prudent leadership on both sides, pushed both the Kemalists and the Islamists into a tempestuous tango of engagement and opposition that has induced the progressive moderation of both. Without the power of Islamist populism, the Kemalist elites might have held on to a more authoritarian style of secular nationalism. Without the coercive force at the disposal of the Kemalists (particularly through the armed forces), the Islamists might have felt free to veer in a more radical direction. It is the balance between the two that is the true secret of the Turkish model’s success.

If Egypt is to embark on a successful democratizing trajectory of its own, it will likely follow more or less the same path. There as well, as the first free elections have shown, is a large Islamist constituency that seems set to dominate the electorate for some time to come. There as well, as the events surrounding the coup that ousted President Morsi indicate, is a powerful secularist counterforce with a popular base of perhaps 25-30 percent of the population, but with much greater influence among state elites — especially in the military.

Neither side is particularly committed to liberal democratic principles right now, so we are likely to see many more years of upheaval and unrest, of Islamist authoritarianism and military coups.

Neither side is particularly committed to liberal democratic principles right now, so we are likely to see many more years of upheaval and unrest, of Islamist authoritarianism and military coups. Over time, however — with some luck and a lot of statesmanship — the secularist officers and their allies will come to see that they have no credible alternative to the demands for political participation arising from an increasingly mobilized populace, and the Islamists will come to see that they have no viable path to power except through the ballot box. If such a dynamic does unfold, at any event, it will still take several decades before Egypt gets to where Turkey is now.

In the meantime, foreign actors such as the United States government will have to be patient, and to recognize that the most they can do is to help create the most benign possible environment — economically, as well as in terms of resolving destabilizing regional conflicts such as the one in Palestine — for the Egyptian experiment to play itself out.

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  • Kristina S.

    I’m surprised that the process of writing/approving a Constitutionis not discussed here. Is that not an essential part of forming a democracy? What was Turkey’s process for that?

    • BostonDad

      An enlightened respected leader (Mustafa Kemal Attaturk) and supporters who did what the Ottomans had tried and failed for 200 years from their peak around 1700, to modernize and secularize Turkey paving the way for the long, sometimes uneven, but necessary path to democracy.
      Neither model is perfect and minorities have suffered from majority diktat (as they do in the US and everywhere), but compare the final Ottoman state to the early Turkish Republic and to today 90 years old !

  • J__o__h__n

    Turkey should be viewed as a cautionary tale not a model. As we have seen in Egypt, an elected theocracy is not going to produce a real democracy. Countries are more likely to grow into a democracy from a military dictatorship which will eventually fall than from a religious state which controls every aspect of thought and behavior.

    • samuelpepys

      Such as, for instance, Britain in the 17th century? Or the Puritan New England states where the American revolution was bred?

  • marcia g.

    Excuse me? Turkish model of success? Are you delusional? This is the country where people are imprisoned for wanting to speak the truth about Turkey’s history, where free speech is “free” only when it does not criticize the prevailing government, where people most recently have DIED because they have spoken out about the dictatorial power of the government. NO, I don’t think Egypt should follow Turkey’s lead at all.

    • samuelpepys

      Is Bradley Manning not imprisoned for speaking the truth? Is the US hunting Assange and Snowden in order to give them an opportunity to disseminate their views and information more widely? Did the Ohio National Guard not kill 4 innocent students on their way to class because they were passing through the outskirts of a peace demonstration? I do very much share your strongly implied scorn for the official silence in Turkey about the Armenian massacre. I hope they come to terms with this blot on their past more quickly then we have with the massacre, deracination and land theft that mark our government’s and states’ historical relations with the native peoples of the United States.

      • BostonDad

        Agreed ! Turkey’s record on journalists is the worst, even compared to Russia and China etc. Turkey needs to make more progress for all minorities, Kurds leading the way on that. Upper Turkish Government estimates of deaths are now within a factor of 2 of the lower estimate from Armenians, but Turkey needs to make a full apology. The right time for that for all involved is by the 100th anniversary of the start of the main horrific events in early 1915.

  • rona

    I echoe marcia g.’scomments. Just because elections were held does not mean the country is being ruled democratically. More like a dictatorship.

  • Geoff Dutton

    The author must be aware of how in Turkey the AKP has stifled dissent and pushed back at secularism. I’m afraid the Turkey is becoming more like Egypt, not the other way around. The Turkey he imagines no longer exists.

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