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.
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. 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.