Turkey, Egypt and the end of high expectations

Turkey, Egypt and the end of high expectations

Turkey’s “model” of democracy for Muslim countries, was like U.S. President Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize. Both phenomena were based on a curious mixture of high expectations and wishful thinking. It was thought that Obama’s election would be enough to ensure peace in the Middle East, so he was given a prize in advance; likewise, Turkey was assumed to be a model democracy for Muslim countries in advance. Unfortunately, the assumptions and expectations failed dramatically.

The ex-Islamists of Turkey reinvented themselves as “conservative democrats” under the name of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002, won three successive elections afterwards and managed to transform the status quo by eliminating the military and judicial hegemony of secularists in a decade. In fact, it was a hopeful move for the future of more democracy in Turkey, since the pretext of “guarding secularism” has been one of the most important cornerstones of authoritarian politics. The “conservative democrats,” however, turned out to be “conservative autocrats” after managing to achieve the total monopolization of political power. Although the failure of the so-called “Turkish model” began having an impact on politics and social life a long time ago, it turned to be an issue and became even visible internationally only after the Gezi protests in June. The Gezi protests have been the ultimate expression of culminating resentment concerning the rise of authoritarian politics and the loss of freedoms in Turkey. Besides, it was the ultimate expression of the “governability crisis” by the AKP.

I think that despite all the differences, this was also the case with the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule in Egypt. I am someone who is totally against military intervention into civilian politics and the case of Egypt is no exception. Nevertheless, I also think that Muslim countries cannot avoid facing the democratic dilemma after all, especially concerning what happened in Turkey and Egypt. There is no excuse for denying the “representative/social legitimacy” of democratically elected Islamists (be they self-defined democrats, post-Islamists or moderate Islamists). Nonetheless, democracy is not all about the ballot box. This turned to be the case in Turkey, and I think Turkey has been the wrong model in this respect. If the MB of Egypt took it as a model of success (and it seems they did), it seems they were rather misled.

This is not to say that the military coup in Egypt is justified. I only want to suggest that Islamists’ understanding of democracy seems to be limited to the “ballot box” and their concern for political legitimacy is limited to majoritarianism. The result has been the lack of recognition of differences and dissent, an ability to value freedoms and the de facto exclusion of non-party supporters. In our part of the world, these pillars of democracy, or lack thereof, are just thought to be Western whims and trivialities which have nothing to do with “governability.” Islamists proved no better than their predecessors in this respect, and that is why they turned out to be no better, if not worse. I think this is the reason behind the “governability crisis” that both countries have faced in different ways. I also think that it is key to understanding the reasons behind the failure of Turkey’s experience, which was assumed to be a model for the combination of Islam and democracy, and the dramatic fall of MB rule in Egypt, which was assumed to be the star case of democracy under moderate Islamists. It should also be thought to be key to a debate on the future of prospects for democracy in the region.

An Arabic version of this article was published in Asharq Al-Awsat on July 28.