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.

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