Sunday, March 13, 2011

Comparing models of "Muslim Democracy": the Turkish and Egyptian experiences

Nowadays, two of the most populous Muslim nations in and around the Middle east are, or appear to be in the process of becoming, democracies in the general sense of the word: Turkey and Egypt respectively.

The Turkish experience is the one that many Egyptians have been claiming to act as their inspiration, but this is itself deserves more than a cursory look at the similarities and differences: both between it and Western democracies in general, as well as the social differences between it and Egypt.

Turkey may be the most obviously Muslim "democracy" in the world (except for Pakistan and Lebanon, who have their own problems), but even that label deserves some qualifications.

Turkey was founded by Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk) as a secular state, from the remains of the Ottoman Empire. It was NOT, initially a democracy. Ataturk understood that full "democracy" would be difficult for Turks to deal with straightaway, so the party he founded, the CHP, ruled the country unopposed until 1950, from the foundation of the republic in 1923. Ataturk died in 1938. Multiparty elections in 1950 resulted in the CHP being defeated by another party, and was out of power for ten years.

But this is not the only issue. For "Turkey" to remain a stable state, issues such as obvious ethnic and religious divides had to be pasted over by the state: The country's biggest city, Istanbul, for example, had a huge population of Greeks, and there were also Greeks scattered all across the nation, in the west in particular. This issue was dealt with through mutual population exchanges with Greece (who had a large number of Turks in the east of their country). But there still remained large numbers of Greeks in Istanbul upto the 1950s; a controversial "pogrom" against the Greeks took place in that decade, that encouraged almost all the Greeks to leave. Only a few thousand still remain at present.

Then there are the Kurds. These are people with a distinct language living mostly in the south-east of Turkey. Up to this day, the issue of representation is a controversial one. Due to the necessarily centralised and rigid parameters of the civil code, the Turkish state has huge difficulties in dealing with their linguistic and other issues. Kurdish "political parties" are usually banned; the party that gains the most sympathy from the Kurds is the ruling AKP, in power since 2002.

There are also the Armenians, as the Greeks, another Christian minority in Turkey, though generally they have had relatively few problems with the Turkish state over the years, as they have been accepting of their status within Turkey. For this reason, they don't need further mention.

So the foundation of the Turkish state was from its inception bound in insecurity, due to the ethnic and religious complexity of the country. The cult of "Kemalism" (in other words, following the secular "ideology" of Ataturk) has been the guiding principle of the Turkish state.

Until 2002, no openly religious party had been successful at the ballot box (apart from the brief and controversial rule of the religious "Refah" party in the mid-nineties, who were overthrown in a coup).
The fact that the "Islamist" AKP, who took power in that year, have remained in power and generally popular, is a testament to the lessons the AKP's politicians have learned: how to maintain, manufacture and manipulate popular opinion, as well as against the "secular" state itself. The last point, the campaign against the "secular establishment" is seen through the continuing "Ergenekon" conspiracy; a right-wing plot by nationalist politicians and military staff to engineer an internal crisis, allowing the military to take power from the "Islamist" government.

In general, the main point about the condition of "Turkish democracy" is this: the tenets of secularism and the status of Ataturk as a semi-revered founder of the republic, are inviolate and are not open to (negative) discussion.
Like Italy, Turkey has a plethora of parties, though only a small number of those that exist have ever tasted power in the lifetime of "Turkish democracy". Also like Italy, until the AKP came to power in 2002, most governments were coalitions of some sort, and their time in power was sometimes brief, especially in the seventies and nineties.
But the healthy number of parties (the lesser ones usually being a confusing combination of acronyms) does not change the fact that the status of "Turkish democracy" relies on the centralised state and in immovable civil code. This necessarily stymes opinion and dissent.

The irony now is that the governing AKP, who have been so critical of this rigid civil code over the years (as they had been at the wrong end of it in the past), are now using the same civil code to limit press freedom. The government is using it against those "secularists" who claim the AKP has its own Islamic agenda, and accuse the government of arrogance or worse.

The other components of the Turkish state, the judiciary, are caught in the middle of all this, between the government, military and secular sphere. Sometimes they have launched prosecutions against the government, sometimes against the military. The result has generally appeared to be a mess to most observers, with no sign of things being resolved in the near future.

So where does Egypt fit into all this?

Like Turkey, Egypt is culturally heterogenious: with a large Coptic Christian minority (10%), as well as the smaller Greek and Armenian churches. Also like Turkey, its modern secular state was founded by a military man, Abdul Nasser, in the 1950s. And, also like Turkey, the state has used the shield of "secularism" as a way to manage and impose its own version of "democracy" onto its population.
Until now. With the overthrown of Hosni Mubarak, there were fears of an Iranian-style Islamic revolution (as Iran itself had hoped, when it initially encouraged the protests). This fear, though, was based on a misunderstanding of the nature of Egpytian society, as well as wishes of the protesters themselves.

The protesters' model, as many of them said, was that of Turkey. But at the same time, 2011 in Egypt was not the same as 1923 in Turkey; for Egypt had already had their "Ataturk" moment with Nasser in the 1950s.
No, these young protesters wanted a model more like Turkey circa 2002. But at the same time, Turkey's AKP government happened as a gradual evolution using the current "Turkish democracy" system; it seems that what Egyptians are demanding is something less constrained by civil codes and unbending constitutions as Turkey - something more pure and unrefined.

We can see that by the fact that free expression and protest are happening organically as we speak. There have been signs of religious unrest between Coptic Christans and Muslims (though people have said that former Mubarak loyalists have been behind this in any case); but it also appears that Egyptians are, at least for the moment, willing to accept these occurances as the necessary "price" of true freedom.
That may sound a little like Donald Rumsfeld's notorious explanation of Iraq's anarchic "version" of democracy: "stuff happens". But the longer-term signs for Egyptian democracy are good. The religious divide in Egypt points towards a tendency for tolerance and acceptance of other points of view. The early years of Turkey's republic show us that there the religious and ethnic issues were papered over, with messy results in the long-term. Egypt seems to already be learning from those experiences; anyway, Egypt may be religiously diverse, but it ethnically fairly homogenous. Turkey, meanwhile, has yet to fully grasp the nettle of the Kurdish question.

So, to sum up, don't worry about Egypt: they know what they're doing. It may look a bit confusing now, but given time, Egypt has the clear potential to be a great example of Muslim Arab democracy. And it is also the biggest Arab country.
It would be ironic indeed if, after the lengthy fiasco and bloody chaos one American president caused to establish democracy in Iraq, his successor could give a speech in the Egypt, and less than two years later, preside over a spontaneous democratic revolution in that same country.
So much for the supposed benefits of "regime change".

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