Egypt and the Turkish Model

February 7, 2011

As developments in Egypt are progressing in a breathtaking way, there is also a parallel discussion taking place in Washington about what kind of a new Egyptian regime will emerge. For decades, American foreign policy felt the need to support the authoritarian status quo because of the fear of the alternative. The logic for doing so was compelling.

The choice was between autocratic stability and radical Islam. Hosni Mubarak and other autocrats had become masters at presenting themselves as the only alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood. There was no third alternative. Or, even if there was one, they did their best to destroy it. After all Western financial and military support depended on this Western perception of radical political Islam being the only alternative to pro-Western autocracies. But what if in fact Egypt was able to produce a third alternative? What if Egypt is able to generate political movements that are secular, democratic, liberal and pro-Western? This was the nightmare of Mubarak yesterday, and it remains so today for all the other Arab autocracies in the region.

As the West is discussing the possibility of such alternatives, Turkey, with its secular and democratic political system, is once again emerging as a potential model. There is an American debate among policy experts about whether a post-Mubarak Egyptian regime will evolve along the line of the Turkish model. But what exactly is the Turkish model?

I think the way Washington refers to the Turkish model reflects two major characteristics. In fact, there seems to be two different Turkish models. The one that was most widely discussed last week concerned the role of the military. Most experts on Egypt agree that the Egyptian army will be calling the shots and determine which direction events on the grounds will go. If the Egyptian army sides with Mubarak, it will be impossible to talk about a rapid transition. But if the army sides with the anti-Mubarak masses, then Mubarak will have to resign. In this political climate where the Egyptian army calls the shots it was only a matter of time before analyst draw the analogy with Turkey, another country where the military has been the most important political actor for decades.

The second Turkish model Western analysts are referring to has little to do with the Turkish military. In this second Turkish model, the analogy is about the nature of political Islam in Egypt and the future of the Muslim Brotherhood. Will Egyptian political Islam be radical? Or can the Muslim Brotherhood change the way Turkish political Islam did? Would Egyptian political Islam turn into something similar to the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The West can certainly live with this second alternative where Egyptian political Islam adopts the Turkish model. To be sure, it is too early to exactly predict which direction Egypt will go in. But when we compare Egypt and Turkey it is important to see the structural differences between the two countries. As far as the first dimension of the Turkish model, about the role of the Turkish military, is concerned, it is important to remember that the Turkish military, unlike the Egyptian one, has never produced an officer who stayed in power for decades. Turkish military interventions have been usually short and Turkish generals have been quick to return to their barracks. There has been no Turkish Augusto Pinochet, Francisco Franco, Antonia de Oliveira Salazar, Gamal Abdel Nasser, or Mubarak. The Turkish military played an important role in terms of drawing the red lines of Kemalism, Turkey’s official ideology, named after the founder of the republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. This is why we need to ask if the Egyptian army can play a similar role in the absence of an ideology like Kemalism in Egypt? What kind of regime and ideology will the Egyptian army protect?  This is where analogies between Egypt and Turkey become comparisons between apples and oranges.

As far as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and the AK Party is concerned we also need to be aware of structural differences. Turkey is a country where political Islam participated in democratic elections for the last 50 years. The AK Party is the third reincarnation and most moderate version of Turkish political Islam. But even its predecessors played the game by the rules and learned to adapt themselves to a secular and democratic system. Such a democratic system has yet to be created in Egypt.