The Fallacy of Applying the ‘Turkish Model’ to Egypt, Arab Spring
As the Arab Spring enters its second year, democratic transitions in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Libya are still evolving towards uncertain ends. One of the most ubiquitous hopes for these countries in metamorphosis, expressed especially in the case of Egypt, is that they develop the “Turkish Model” for democracy. However, the construct of the “Turkish Model,” especially as a prototype for fledgling Arab democracies is fallacious and a naïve oversimplification, demonstrating a misunderstanding of Turkish history. The Turkish system has evolved over many years because of circumstances endemic to Turkey, and cannot simply be applied overnight elsewhere.
The allure of the “Turkish Model” is self-evident. Turkey, like the Arab countries in transition, is a majority Muslim nation. For centuries, there was (and in some places, there still is) a belief that democracy was incompatible with Islam—that Muslims were not civilized enough for representative government. The Orientalist myopia of the past still frames how the Middle East is seen. Thus as Egypt seeks to evolve into a democracy, its model is thought to naturally be the Muslim country that has achieved the most advanced democratic system.
To be clear, if Egypt could become as progressive and prosperous as Turkey, it would constitute an unquestioned victory for the Egyptian people and the Arab Spring. Turkey is a regional powerhouse. Its leaders have set the goal of making it one of the world’s ten biggest economies by 2023, the Turkish state’s centennial, and they might just achieve their goal. Turkey holds free and fair elections, has a robust parliamentary system, and peaceful transitions of power. These are all accomplishments which Egypt should aspire to.
However, Egypt’s path to success must be different than Turkey’s because the two countries have vastly different political cultures and histories. Furthermore, the “Turkish Model” is an artificial construct—it doesn’t exist. Turkey’s democratic system is 89 years in the making. It
First of all, Turkey, despite being a majority Sunni Muslim nation, is not an Arab country. It emerged from the vestiges of the Ottoman Empire and was established in 1923. To properly understand Turkish political culture, it’s essential to understand how the state was established.
The Ottoman Empire, the “Sick Man of Europe,” was carved up after its defeat in World War I. During the War, the Arab population of the Ottoman Empire revolted against the Turkish center with the assistance of the British, most famously depicted by the movie Lawrence of Arabia. After the Ottoman defeat, the Arabs broke away from the Empire under Western mandates, eventually forming independent sovereign states.
All that was left was the Anatolian Peninsula, which was chopped up and divided as stipulated by the 1920 Treaty of Sevres between Greece, France and Britain, leaving an independent Kurdistan and Armenia and only a truncated Turkish state. Most of this territory was gained back through the Turkish War of Independence led by Mustafa Kemal and enshrined in the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923.
But the decline of the Ottoman Empire, World War I and the Treaty of Sevres left an indelible mark on the Turks. These events have shaped Turkey and continue to today. They represent the aspect of the elusive “Turkish Model” that cannot be replicated in Egypt or elsewhere, even though Egypt’s colonial past and the Suez crisis in 1956, among several other events, have also left a deep-seated distrust of the West.
Dubbed “Sevres syndrome,” the first several decades of the Turkish Republic were marked by extreme paranoia and xenophobia directed at the Great Powers. For the vast majority of Turkish history, Turks have not trusted their Arab neighbors because of their treachery during World War I, thinking of themselves more on the level of sophisticated Europeans than ‘inferior’ Arabs. The Turkish state has also, for most of its history, been virulently secular. Mustafa Kemal, better known as Ataturk, is reviled by some pious Muslims for abolishing the Caliphate, the Sunni Muslim version of the papacy.
The political culture of the burgeoning Turkish Republic was a reaction against Ottoman multiculturalism, as well as state religion. Having lost the vast majority of its non-Turkish territory and population, the state hunkered down in a bunker of Turkish ethnocentrism. Despite Turkey’s progress over the years, its relationship with its Kurdish minority should not be duplicated as an archetype for Egyptian Sunnis treatment of Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority. As evidenced by the strong Islamist showing in Egyptian elections, the country is moving in the opposite direction, regarding the relationship of mosque and state, compared to Turkey in 1923.
Partly due to the legacy of the War for Independence and Ataturk himself, and also unique processes within the Turkish body politic, the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) had significant autonomy and power over foreign policy, arguably up until the last year or two. Even though it was trusted as one of Turkey’s most democratic institutions, the TAF overthrew three civilian governments in 1960, 1971 and 1980. The clandestine influence of the TAF and the unelected elite in Turkish politics earned the name the “deep state.” Needless to say, this should hardly be a model for Egypt, whose Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) is trying precisely to secure analogous independence from civilian oversight.
In 1997, the army and the secular elite forced out Turkey’s first Islamist Prime Minister, Necmettin Erbakan. In power for a year, he was repeatedly embarrassed, forced to sign legislation banning headscarves in schools and pledging military cooperation with Israel.
Turkey’s geography has also shaped its identity and prevents parallel comparisons. Turkey sees itself as Western and Eastern, European and Asian, and Middle Eastern and Central Asian. Egypt, with the Suez Canal, is the gateway to the Mediterranean and a bridge between the Levant and Africa. But this geopolitical reality is unique from Turkey’s. In fact, perhaps the most influential process in the last two decades of Turkish politics has been its quest for European Union ascension—something that is irrelevant for Egypt and other Arab Spring countries.
The urge to call for Egypt to adopt the Turkish model rests on the fact that Turkey is a majority Muslim country with a functioning democracy and impressive economic growth. Both Egypt and Turkey are built on the ruins of once great empires. The similarities end there. Egypt’s first elections have given Islamists an overwhelming mandate to rule. Turkey has been ruled by “Islamists” for only 11 of its 89 years.
Turkey’s electoral system is also unfit for Egypt. Turkey’s system has always favored and cultivated strong executives, which may not be best for Egypt after decades of Nasser and Mubarak. Turkey also has an especially high threshold—a party must win 10% of the vote to be represented in parliament. This may work for Turkey but would be poisonous for a young democracy like Egypt. Egypt has numerous small political parties and, more importantly, will develop more in the coming years as its democracy evolves and different political groups become more organized.
It has taken almost a century for Turkey to reach the high stature it has today. But the state still has issues. A lasting reconciliation with the Kurds has proved elusive. Turkey is one of the more dangerous places to be a journalist (on par with Egypt). The so-called Ergenekon case, which was launched after an alleged coup plot by the army against the ruling AK Party, has been a labyrinthine tragedy for the rule of law.
Driven by healthy domestic demand, low interest rates, economic liberalization and innovative industry, the mildly Islamist AKP has turned Turkey into an economic power. The AKP has piggybacked on the growth of Turkish city centers that started in the 1980s, expanding the economy far beyond Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir. The development of the “Anatolian Tigers,” Denizli, Gaziantep, Kayseri, Bursa, Kocaeli, and Kahramanmara, should be a model for reforming the Arab world’s sclerotic and corrupt economic systems that have stagnated under autocratic rule.
Turkey’s democratic credentials are very impressive but the “Turkish Model” is a fallacy—a phantom which cannot be so easily applied to Egypt or other Arab Spring countries. The Turkish system is a product of the country’s unique history, political culture and 89 years of development. Turkey’s legacy of militant secularism, martial autonomy, and ethnic marginalization cannot and should not be a model across the board. Many in the Arab world admire Turkey and view its Prime Minister, Recip Tayyep Erdogan, positively. Turkey will be a vital partner and ally for Egypt, Tunisia and Libya as they develop.
But politically, what’s needed for Egypt is not a Turkish model, but an Egyptian one—a strong legislature, low threshold, weak executive, full civilian control and a strict commitment to minority and human rights. Egypt can learn lessons from Turkey, but needs to blaze its own trail.