Turkish delight? The feasibility of the ‘Turkish model’ for Egypt

Turkish delight? The feasibility of the ‘Turkish model’ for Egypt

Many have opined on the relevance of the “Turkish model” of democratization for a changing Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Yet few have explored the feasibility of such a model from the perspective of the willingness of those in the region to embrace Ankara as a guide. The uprisings in some MENA countries offered a golden moment for Turkey’s strategy to re-engage the region on political, economic and democracy-promoting policies.

As the largest country in the Arab world and with its political and military leader ousted, Egypt is now the central stage and the perfect case-study for examining the feasibility of exporting the Turkish model to the region. If Turkey wishes to export its model regionally, it must do so through the gates of Cairo.

Gallup’s polling in Egypt demonstrated skepticism to external “models” since the overthrow of former President Hosni Mubarak. Eleven percent of Egyptians cited Turkey as a political model for Egypt’s future government. On the other hand, twice as many – 22 percent – Egyptians see Saudi Arabia as a model for Egypt’s political transition. More than half of Egyptians said “none” or refused to answer the question altogether. A wholesale import of any system is not an appetizing proposition to most Egyptians eager to craft an Egyptian model. 

In fact, ultra-nationalist sentiment in Egypt has increased since Mubarak’s overthrow and is demonstrated in the current rhetoric of Cairo regarding foreign-funded NGOs. In fact, a high level of distrust is eminent in Egyptian public opinion. The data indicated that Egyptians are concerned with the influence of a powerful global actor overwhelming their sovereignty and independence. While respected as a regional leader and important economic trade partner today, Egyptians still view Turkey from a historic lens: nearly four centuries under colonial Ottoman rule (1517-1914). 

Much of the anti-colonial ultra-nationalist rhetoric is also directed against an effort by Turkey to give Egyptians “lessons” in democracy. Turkey, in the minds of most Egyptians, falls into the category of the United States rather than the small Arab Gulf. In this light, a “Turkish model” promotion strategy could be branded as a post-Ottoman/Turkish resurgence.

In addition to democratization from military rule, the other side of the coin in the Turkish model is the phenomenon of Islamist political victory. As Islamists in some Arab Spring countries have had noticeable success in election to parliaments and national councils, arguments for the relevance of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) experience have increased. The AKP is considered a more “enlightened” and pluralistic party that could potentially dissuade Islamists from taking hard-line ideological positions. In fact, the fears of Islamists’ rise to power became reality as Islamist parties now hold nearly seven out of every 10 seats in the newly elected Egyptian Parliament. 

The AKP’s popularity only fully bloomed after many recognized that their fiscal and economic policies were enabling the country to seriously improve its standard of living and job opportunities. In this sense, the rise of Islamists in Turkey is chronologically inverse to their trajectory in Egypt. For the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi movements, responsibility was thrust upon them as the only viable option to Mubarak remnants or “secular liberals” who failed to organize politically or were cast as too closely affiliated with “the West.” Thus, success on turning the country’s economic crisis around and restoring confidence in major government institutions are the major tests for Egypt’s Islamists. 
Should they fail, support for these movements may be seriously jeopardized. Unlike their Turkish counterparts, the ability to lead and “deliver” is not yet evident with Egypt’s Islamists.

Thus, an over-emphasis on exporting the enlightened Islamist component of the Turkish model may not be as relevant in Egypt’s upcoming election cycles as it was in the previous – a reason for caution in “marrying” the lessons to be learned from Turkey’s successes with the “Islamist” brand stamp. 
Openly touting the “Turkish model” approach on the whole would become an unintended barrier to Egypt’s ability to benefit from the remarkable accomplishments of their neighbor to the north. Needless to say, a more democratic and economically successful Egypt is not only good for the region but, more specifically, crucial for the ultimate success or failure of what has been termed the “Arab Spring.”

Mohamed S. Younis is a Washington-based senior analyst and senior practice consultant at the Gallup Organization. The original version of this abbreviated article was published in the Winter 2012 issue of Turkish Policy Quarterly (TPQ).