Can Egypt Be Turkey?

by Jenny White

ScreenHunter_07 Feb. 28 09.55 (Photo: Ankara, 2006. Secular nationalists protest against the AKP government. Slogan on sign: If Arabs had an Ataturk, they wouldn't have fallen behind.)

Turkey has been bandied about this past week as a model to be emulated by the new nations being born like small supernovas across the Middle East. Turkey was founded by a powerful military that doesn’t flinch from coups, but has also had a functioning and fair, if flawed, electoral democracy since 1950. The country currently appears to have found a place for Islamic piety within its political system without jamming any of its democratic wheels, although the process has been noisy and contentious. Its present elected government, under the Justice and Development Party (known by its Turkish acronym AKP), consists primarily of politicians who see themselves as pious individuals running a secular system. Some Turks believe that their intentions are secular, some don’t, but the democratic wheels keep turning. The AKP government has managed to make Turkey’s economy the fifteenth biggest in the world in GDP, only lightly sideswiped by the global turndown. There’s another election coming up this June and AKP leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan has promised that if his party doesn’t win, he’ll leave politics. All indicators show that he has nothing to worry about, but the critical element of his promise is the assumption that his party could lose, and then he would leave. That’s the trick of democracy that “eternal leaders” in the Middle East haven’t come to terms with. You lose, you leave. What has to be in place for this simple equation to become as second-nature as it is in Turkey? I happen to be teaching a course on Turkey this semester, so I posed the question to my students: Would the “Turkey Model” work in the Middle East? Here are some of the variables they came up with.

Who chooses the system? Is it top-down or bottom-up?

Turkey’s democracy was an entirely top-down imposition by Ottoman officers and bureaucrats who had wrestled back the territory that now makes up Turkey from European powers that had conquered the Ottoman Empire in WWI. Their leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was celebrated as a war hero, the savior of Turkey, and became its first president. He initiated extreme reforms, among them replacing Ottoman with the Latin alphabet (imagine someone telling you that in six months time, we’ll only be using Arabic script) and requiring men and women to emulate western fashion; veiling was discouraged and outright banned for civil servants, teachers, students, doctors.

What will be the central elements of a new national identity? Islam? Ethnicity? Nationalism? Who gets left out?

Early in the Republic, the Turkish state took control of mosques and religious instruction in schools; imams became civil servants and their sermons were vetted. Ataturk outlawed Islamic brotherhoods, even the ones that had supported his revolution, because he considered religion – especially the organized kind – to be potentially divisive, just like ethnic identities. Kurds were free to be full members of society and even members of parliament, but only if they did so as Turks. Unity became a fetish, and people with other ethnic and religious affiliations and identities were demonized or worse. Between 1923 and 1950, only one party – Ataturk’s Republican People’s Party – was in charge.

You would think that this top-down reorganization of the most basic elements of society would incur some resistance. Indeed, there were rebellions led, for instance, by the Nakshibendi Islamic brotherhood, which objected to the Turkish Grand National Assembly's summary vote to eliminate the Khalifate, a formal positon of leadership of the world’s Muslims. Kurds weren’t happy either (although the syncretistic minority Alevi Kurds tended to support the new regime), nor were non-Muslims, who suffered one pogrom and indignity after another. And most of the country still had no clue about what was going on. Three-quarters of the population were peasants in the countryside, where it might take days to ride a donkey from one village to another.

So the reforms primarily affected the few urban centers where the already westernized bureaucrats and officers lived. Last week, Egypt's Tahrir Square was populated by Muslim and Christian Egyptians, young secular techies and Muslim Brothers, men and women – their history of friction laid aside for the revolution. Egyptians will be weaving a new national unity from their own tattered skeins of identities.

Where are the women?

Turkish women were encouraged to attend university, enter the professions, to vote and populate the public sphere –women’s civilized modernity becoming the prime exhibit in the Kemalist revolution’s display window. Despite a highly visible contingent of educated women in the professions, though, today Turkey ranks near the bottom on international measurements of women’s status, due primarily to women’s extremely low and still declining labor participation rate (now 22%, down from 34% in 1988) and the low numbers of women in public life. When the Grand National Assembly was constituted, Ataturk appointed a few women MPs. Women’s representation in parliament has only recently increased – to 9 percent. Just this week, Turkey’s Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors elected 211 judges to the Supreme Court of Appeals and the Council of State. Only six were women.

A common pattern seems to be that during a revolution women are activists, heroines in the line of fire, and up-front emblems of the struggle for equality and liberty. But once the revolution is won and becomes consolidated as political work, that is the arena of men, and women are asked to please step into this comfy, honorable glassed-in space where you can be seen, but not heard. Where are the women from Egypt’s Tahrir Square in the negotiations with the army for a new constitution, a new national system?

Is there a charismatic leader? What is his intention?

Ataturk was an autocratic but beloved dictator, by all accounts a charismatic man, who planned to institute elections when he thought the country was ready – when they had imbibed national unity and become educated in the principles of the Kemalist plan. The upshot is that the founding myth of a military strongman who brings democracy (think, the Egyptian military at this moment) only works if the strongman has democratic intentions to begin with and is popular or charismatic enough to make the necessary changes in education, lifestyle, economy, and so on, that produce a productive, cohesive nation. Turkey isn’t there yet, even after sixty years of free elections. The Kurdish problem continues to bite; the army for a long time felt no compunction to take over the government or push out politicians if they deviated from the Kemalist path of unity.

What is the army’s role?

The military early on appointed itself as guardian of Ataturk’s principles and of the unity and integrity of the state, stepping in at will to correct the “dangerous” populist tendencies of the elected governments. Last week my class discussed Turkey’s first multi-party election in 1950 and its aftermath a decade later — a coup by a military that thought the popularly elected government liked power a bit too much and was pandering to Islam. The 1971 coup was followed by new elections and yet another coup in 1980 — a coup every decade. We fast-forwarded from time to time to see where all this was headed – the more radical Islamist parties of the 1990s, replaced by their moderate offspring, the AKP, that these days keeps winning elections and recently has managed to put the army into a box. Here is another important characteristic of the Turkish model over most of the past sixty years: The army carries out a coup, rewrites the constitution, then steps back and allows elections. The Turkish army sees itself as the guardian of democracy.

Will Egypt’s army step back and allow the people to elect whomever they choose? Will the elected party be willing to step down if it is thrown out in the next round? In the region, the answers to these questions generally have been no. Whereas Turkey’s army (or its Constitutional Court) has removed governments from power that it believes are too “Islamic” or ineffectual or authoritarian, they’ve stepped back to let their citizens try again. And again. (Inevitably in post-coup elections, the army’s favored candidate does not win.) Compare this to other countries in the region where the army dislikes the ideological or religious stand of the elected party, takes over and stays in power, not trusting the process. Or elections are rigged so the same party stays in power for decades, allowing the army, like other government supporters, to grow fat and rich.

Who in the region has any experience with giving up power willingly? Can that be learned as a principle, a rule, like telling time on your watch? Or does it have to be ingrained from a young age along with an appreciation of the satisfactions of democracy and the benefits of accommodating the will of the people? Does democracy have to be learned, and can an army learn it? Much depends on the personality and intention of the strongman.

Was there a colonial history? Does the nation want to be like Europe, or throw off Europe?

Another important difference between Turkey and any country in the Middle East is that Turkey was never colonized, as was Egypt by the British, Libya by the Italians, Tunisia by the French, and so on. The Ottoman Turks were the colonial power in the region for hundreds of years before the Europeans barged in. So if they selected Western lifestyle elements, clothing styles, literature and architecture, as they had been doing since the 19th century, that was a choice made from a position of strength. Egyptian nationalists initially emulated the West, but in the 1970s, spurred by the Islamist movement, Egyptians began to reject the lifestyle of the colonizer. To be Egyptian meant to find your own non-European identifying national characteristics. Muslim dress, for instance, became national dress.

What role does political Islam play?

Arab nationalism made some inroads across the region as a unifying political identity, especially for the middle class, but young men migrating from the countryside found the Muslim Brotherhood more welcoming; it provided a network to find jobs, brides, and connections in the heartless cities. This is also true in Turkey, where the Kemalist nationalist ideal was pounded into the heads of generations of children, many of whom still gravitated to Islamic movements like the relatively recent and now widespread Fethullah Gülen movement that provides exactly that allure – education, job training, national and global business connections, and the warmth of community. Arab nationalism in the 1970s brought peasants into the cities to be educated, but there they also saw first-hand the system’s corruption and many injustices, driving them to seek economic justice through socialism and then through Islam. Is this an opportunity for unity, justice, and upward mobility, or is it a threat to democracy? That depends on whether and how the system addresses aspirations for social mobility, justice, and the desire to live a pious lifestyle.

In Turkey, despite military interference, one elected politician after another has added brick by brick the elements that shore up democracy when it becomes more than just voting, but rather allows the fractious merging of opposing views and lifestyles. The first freely elected government in 1950 built roads and factories that allowed millions of peasants to flood the cities for work. That government was deposed by the army in 1960 for being too autocratic and religious, and the prime minister was hanged. But with geographic mobility, social mobility became possible. And with social mobility, new sectors of the population came to power and got to define society. Empty stomachs keep people – and their sometimes disturbingly conservative and/or radical ideas, lifestyles, and demands — down.

How is the economy doing? Can young men get married?

Can Turkey afford to experiment with incorporating Islam into the political system because people’s stomachs are full, weddings are subsidized, cheap products are widely available, and people believe they can get ahead, even if they probably can’t? Despite Turkey’s booming economy, the unemployment rate has stagnated around 10 percent for more than a decade. And there are still pockets of great poverty, especially in Turkey’s eastern, mostly Kurdish provinces. That’s where the Kurdish rebellion took hold and where the Marxist-Leninist Kurdish PKK and the Turkish army are still locked in a death grip. In the mid-1980s, after half a century of a state-controlled economy, Turkey opened its doors to the global economy and bloomed. Fruit and vegetable exports from Turkey’s fertile lands boomed, as did exports of manufactured items like refrigerators and televisions, and construction know-how. The expertise had been there, but had had nowhere to go. Mid-sized enterprises that had been stifled have recently let loose entrepreneurial jet trails.

Many of these were owned not by the secular Kemalist elites, but by pious businessmen from the provinces. Their success – the press called them the Anatolian Tigers – fed the development of an Islamic bourgeoisie with big houses and couture veiling, pious gated communities and vacation resorts, a whole Islamic lifestyle based on commodities and overlapping closely – and challenging — the tastes of the secular elite. It’s one thing if the woman cleaning your kitchen floor is wearing a headscarf, but it’s quite another when a veiled woman arrives in an SUV to shop at your favorite trendy boutique. The Islamic bourgeoisie — and the hope for upward mobility that they inspired – encouraged people to vote for parties like the AKP that seemed to embody that hope. A good proportion of AKP voters are not pious, but respond to that same hope. Some voters simply wanted their pious lifestyles to be respected, something they felt the secular and Kemalist parties did not do.

Like Turkey before the boom, Egyptian state industries provided redundant dead-end jobs for many people – a tea man for every floor. Egypt’s economy went global in the 1990s, but few of the profits trickled down. Wages have remained so low for decades that a tiny rise in the price of state-subsidized bread might mean that a man cannot marry. His family eats, say, ten loaves of bread a day in lieu of more expensive food, and saves a few pennies toward the apartment and dowry without which their son can’t marry. If the price of bread goes up a penny, there is nothing to save. The overthrow of Mubarak is much more than a bread riot, but surely one factor driving young men is that a small elite has hogged all the matrimony. If there is no satisfying economic transformation like Turkey’s that spreads the wealth and encourages entrepreneurship, or if the army sticks with sweatshop enterprises that they and their cronies control, then what would Egyptian voters look for down the road? Could there be a credible pious prosperity party like AKP? If not, what would parties have to offer their voters?

Is there mobilizing potential?

The talk is all about Twitter and Facebook as mobilizing engines of revolution. Overthrowing a dictator is a simple enough message, but will social networking work with more nuanced positions and issues? Who in Egypt’s hinterland would read Tweets from politicians about their stand on issues? Perhaps there could be virtual parties; Rachid Gannouchi, the Tunisian religious leader of the Nahda Party is said to have 73,000 Facebook friends.

When the Turkish Republic was founded, there was simply no communication. The Kemalist revolution incubated in the cities for two decades, allowing the system to be set up, the lifestyle expectations to sink in, an educational system to be fine-tuned that would produce Kemalist citizens. That system was then systematically expanded throughout the nation as it became accessible through roads. The nation was brought online slowly, so to speak, and there was time to write the program and tweak it before submitting it to the information shock of a multiparty electoral system. What country in the Middle East has that kind of time – or patience? The availability of instant communication lures us into imagining mass agreement and believing that everyone can be brought on board simultaneously for the long haul.

Do you see what I see?

I showed my class the results of a recent (pre-revolution) survey carried out by a Turkish think-tank. The Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV) report surveyed people in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq and Iran about Turkey’s role in the Middle East. More than 65 percent of respondents said they felt Turkey could be a model for the region; 18 percent disagreed. Those who agreed did so for the following reasons: Turkey was Muslim; its economy; its democratic government; and its support for Palestinians and Muslims, in that order. Those who didn’t think Turkey was a good model for the region cited its secular political system, it's not Muslim enough, the country’s relations with Western nations, and because there is “no need for a model”, in that order. Most Arabs see the AKP as a religious party that found acceptance not just in a secularist Turkey but in Europe as well.

In other words, people in the Middle East seem to see the Turkish Model primarily as Muslim (whether they are pro or con). Yet when Westerners speak about the Turkish Model, they assume it will be secular. And the Turks? They are first and foremost Turkish nationalists and tend to view their own system, their society and even their Islam as intrinsically Turkish and superior. They’re willing to guide, share the benefit of their hard-accumulated wisdom, but don’t expect Egypt to become Turkey. As a student in my class exclaimed in exasperation, “The Middle East looks at Turkey and sees the Muslim; the Europeans focus on the democratic part, and Turks are focused on Turkishness.” Tweet that!