Dispensing with the Turkish model

Dispensing with the Turkish model

Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, observers from the United States have portrayed Turkey as a model country that the newly liberated Arab states should aspire to. Turkey is presented as a prosperous Muslim state with high levels of economic growth and political stability and the only Muslim country that has strived to consolidate liberal democracy for over half a century, albeit with mixed results.

This success is attributed to the ability of the country to be outwardly secular, with a strong sense of national identity and a willingness to embrace economic achievement, while maintaining a steadfast commitment to its Muslim heritage. There are two problems in successfully projecting this model. Foremost is a lack of demand.

Countries such as Egypt and Libya are reluctant to draw on the Turkish blueprint. On a visit to Egypt in September 2011, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was greeted warmly by crowds of Egyptians, but only until he called upon them to adopt a “secular” state model. If the recent elections in Egypt are anything to go by, there is strong public backing there for the Muslim Brotherhood. 

Following the ousting of Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, the transitional government there has hinted of its intention to base a new constitution on Islam. Simply put, the Arab world is impressed with Turkey’s ability to create an economic powerhouse in the region. However, this does not translate into a desire by regional countries to adopt a Kemalist model.

Since the 1940s, the country has achieved penetrating changes in broadening freedoms. Turks are infinitely freer today then they were even 10 years ago to express their religious, ethnic and even sexual identities. Despite this, there are increasing worries that the country’s judiciary is jailing numerous individuals and delaying the process of fair trials. 

Beyond these issues lies a more deep-seated problem: Even if there were Arab interest in the Turkish model, this still might not be sufficient to help transform post-revolutionary Arab regimes. Turkey simply has had a longer track record of being exposed to the conditions under which forms of democracy thrive. 

Turkey made the transition to competitive parliamentary politics in 1946. Prior to this, the country experienced a prolonged period of single-party rule (1923-46) initiated by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, during which time a process of social engineering transformed the country from a theocratic empire into a modern state. 

One must not make the mistake of thinking that Turkey’s ability to institutionalize secular structures was entirely the work of the country’s Kemalist elite. Kemalists were the last in a long line of revolutionaries who were successful in consolidating opportunities initiated a century ago. The seeds of questioning absolutist government, the birth of skepticism, and powerful forces of nationalism were all experienced in the last great attempt to reform the empire.

It was during the Tanzimat reform era (1839-76) where intellectuals and revolutionaries came to realize that the age of empire had to give way to the age of states. The state came to experience secular institutional arrangements, including the creation of an Ottoman constitution, the opening of an Ottoman Parliament and promulgation of secular trade laws. While none of these institutional arrangements established democratic governance, disdain for the religious ruling classes in the empire increased. 

Suffice it to say that Turkey’s imperfect democratic model has had the benefit of nearly two centuries of development, while Arab countries emerging from dictatorial regimes have had no comparable experience. Turkey first opened its national parliament in 1920, in wartime, without external assistance.

That Parliament’s legitimacy has never been questioned; its longevity is a testament to the strength of the country’s political and institutional modernization. In contrast, since the U.S. military pulled out of Iraq, the country’s ability to ensure its unity and parliamentary system looks uncertain at best. It is likely that many countries of the Arab Spring will experience slow and painful change, typified by weak democratic governance and even possible transitions into new forms of elected authoritarianism.

Sinan Ciddi is executive director of the Institute of Turkish Studies at Georgetown University, Washington DC. He authors the politics section of the Economist Intelligence Unit’s monthly country report on Turkey. This abridged article was originally published in bitterlemons-international.org

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