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Egypt’s future: Some lessons from Turkey

I’m flirting dangerously with democratic relativism.

Egypt has — understandably — faded into the background as Libya seeks a path to the end of a truly hideous dictatorship without passing through a major bloodbath. Here’s hoping.

But Egypt, the biggest Mideast nation and the nation to which the Arab world has often looked for leadership, is still the key to an enduring change for the better in the region. Mubarak is gone. His former close associates in the leadership of the Egyptian military hold absolute governmental power.

Absolute rule by the military is roughly the opposite of democracy. Of course, this period of direct military rule is supposed to be temporary, to lead to reform, democratization, elections, a new constitution, a better tomorrow.

All of that has been vaguely promised by the military. By some strange magic, the Egyptian rebels have chosen to believe — or perhaps to suspend disbelief — that the military will lead Egypt down the path, through a rare and wonderful transition, to the  birth of a new democracy in a region that has seen very little of it.

It’s hard not to be skeptical. What basis is there to assume that a military junta won’t conclude that it must hang onto power, for the good of the country of course, based on the ongoing emergency represented by the threat of anarchy, communism, Islamic radicalism, foreign devils or all of the above?

Well, I am skeptical and planning to remain skeptical until we see irreversible commitment to real elections, real democracy, real freedom. And that can’t really be established right away.

But, for the purpose of this piece at least, I, too am suspending disbelief. But, under the prodding of U of M Mideast scholar Martin Sampson, who has often opened my mind to the complexities of that region, I’m having a rethink about the possibility of a better way that things can go. My rethink is based on the presence, right in the neighborhood, of a surprising model.

I’m talking Turkey, a country where progress toward democracy has been shaped in complicated ways with the presence in the background of a powerful, but trusted military.

Before I get to Turkey, here’s the latest out of Egypt, which may have been lost in the background of the Libya (and Bahrain, and Iran, and…) story.

The latest out of Egypt
A committee named by the Egyptian military has put together a list of amendments to the existing constitution. The change will be put to a referendum, possibly as soon as March 19. There is talk of parliamentary elections in June and a presidential election in the late summer, although plans are in flux.

The amendments are a mix of encouraging and troubling elements. The president is limited to two four-year terms. (Mubarak served for 30 years without allowing a serious challenger. During most of his tenure, he was the only candidate on the “ballot.”)

There are procedures that would potentially make it easier (but still not very easy) for a party to compete for parliamentary seats and for an individual to run for president. There is a six-month limit to a presidentially-declared a state of emergency, after which any extension would have to be approved by popular vote. (Under Mubarak, the state of emergency, which justified a suspension of various rights, was virtually permanent.) Under the military committee’s new draft constitution, there is progress toward judicial supervision of elections that could make elections harder to rig.

The amendments still seem to be a bit in flux. A ban on religiously-based parties, which was in the old constitution, is maintained, which could have implications for whether the Muslim Brotherhood will be able to compete or what kind of limitations the Brotherhood would have to accept in order to compete.

Color me somewhat encouraged by the list, but still plenty skeptical about whether the proposed amendments go far enough and  how much it really matters what the next constitution says. Constitutions are mere parchment barriers unless they are backed by a deep commitment to abide by both their letter and spirit. It’s too easy for one element — especially when it has a monopoly on heavy weaponry and physical force — to find excuses to hang onto absolute power.

But then there’s the story of Turkey military/democracy complex. And I do mean complex. Professor Sampson encouraged me to read about it and think about it, not because it necessarily tells us anything about the future of democracy in Egypt, but because it offers a possible model that challenged my knee-jerk American assumptions about how a nation might pick its way down the path to democracy.

Rethinking the Turkish model
Turkey ranks — behind only Egypt and Iran — as the third biggest nation in the Mideast. (Egypt 80 million; Iran, 75; Turkey 74.)

Turkey is (like Egypt) an overwhelmingly (perhaps 97 percent) Muslim nation (and therefore, as in Egypt, causes some American to worry that it is susceptible to Islamicism in its politics). It is, like Egypt, a U.S. ally of long standing, although during the U.S. invasion of Iraq it did not do everything the Americans asked of it. Like Egypt, Turkey is heir to a very significant national history of imperial greatness.

When Gamal Abdel Nasser, father of modern Egypt, led a 1952 coup to overthrow the Egyptian monarchy and create a “republic,” he modeled it on the 1922 revolution led by Kemal Ataturk in Turkey. Both revolutions were led by the army, which was (and is) the most admired and respected element of the nation. Both led to the establishment of constitutions that — at least on paper  — guaranteed secular states with most of the major trappings of democracy and guarantees of various freedoms and the rule of law.

Egypt has never had a functioning democracy. Elections have been for show only. The presidents have all been military men who led from within an inner circle of military men. The first two Egyptian presidents, while standing occasionally for show elections, died in office. The third, Mubarak, made it for 30 years without facing a real opponent in a real election. The constitution was a joke, as evidenced by the day Mubarak left and simply told his vice president to announce that all power was transferred to the military leadership (the constitution designated the speaker of parliament as the successor).

But Turkey, which was essentially a dictatorship under Ataturk, has been more or less a functioning democracy for most of the past 65 years. That’s a vague generalization covering many complications, so let me put some meat on its bones.

Since the 1950s, Turkey has had regular rounds of competitive multiparty elections, with power passing from party to party based on those elections, with no individual amassing dictatorial power during that period.

By the standards of United States or European democracies, Turkey does not have such an impressive record on the democracy scale. It has a poor record on the use of torture; it has repressed its main ethnic minority (the Kurds); it has lagged far behind the West in women’s rights; and the aftermaths of some of the elections have degenerated into mob violence.

Most relevant for purposes of this post — the Army has intervened four times during those decades to do such shocking (to American ears) things as setting aside the results of the election, banning party leaders from politics for life, and — twice — rewriting the constitution.

Me, I don’t watch Turkish politics very closely. I couldn’t have given you the details in the paragraphs above without the help of Proffessor Sampson and some reading to which he referred me. But I had noticed over the years this tendency of the Turkish military to intervene, to seemingly overrule the results of elections. So I had Turkey down in the category of sham democracies.

Perhaps that’s sheer American snobbery. We’ve had the same constitution for more than two centuries — an amazing feat. We’ve had only one major internal rebellion (and, although that was a very bloody one, it’s been over for a century and a half). And we’ve never had even a close brush with a military coup. The idea that the military must be subordinate to the elected civilian authority seems to us high on the list of requirements for a nation to make any serious pretense to democracy.

But I’m prying my mind open on that one; I’m flirting dangerously with democratic relativism; I’m taking some ugly realities from the experience of the rest of the world into consideration. I’m looking at what Egypt faces and what Turkey has done, and I’m having a rethink.

Especially relevant to the Turkish cases for purposes of the current analogy to Egypt and to the question of whether these military coups render Turkey’s democracy a sham consider the following:

• Every time the Turkish military has intervened in the Turkish democratic process, there has been a credible crisis, up to and including street warfare between extreme left- and right-wing partisans;

• Every time the military has taken over, it has relinquished power to civilians fairly soon after;

• The military has subjected the constitutional changes that it engineered to popular vote and the changes have been ratified;

• It’s quite clear which of the major political parties are politically more aligned with the military, yet the military has not installed that party in power and has not intervened on several occasions, including the present, when the party least-friendly the military has taken control of the government;

• Polls consistently show that the Army remains respected, admired and looked upon as the ultimate protector of the nation and whatever it is that Turks deem most important about their revolution;

• During these decades of elections coups, Turkey has made very significant progress toward a fuller democracy. It has made huge progress on free speech and press; the situation of its long-discriminated-against Kurdish minority has improved markedly; and it is now seeking full membership in the European Union. Admission of Turkey is a big controversy within the EU, which is putting still more pressure on Turkey to measure up to EU standards in many of these areas.

• And, lastly, the Islamist piece.

Turkey is an overwhelmingly Muslim country. But the constitution bans religiously-based parties, and the military has used its leverage to discourage slippage down the path of an Islamist government. This is tricky from the standpoint of pure democratic theory. Most of the coups have, in some sense, occurred because the military leadership felt the ruling party was crossing the line between a secular and a religious government.

Our own Tim Pawlenty, when he criticized President Obama’s handling of the situation in Egypt, said Obama had failed to clearly articulate “what our principles are.” What are they? To Pawlenty:  “One, we don’t want a radical Islamic result. Two, we favor democracy.” But, so far as I have seen, he didn’t explain how the United States is supposed to ensure that Islamists don’t take over Egypt by democratic means.

If the electorate votes for an Islamist government, would a truly democratic system deny the majority that option (in deference, perhaps, to the religious minorities or in the belief that religiously based government and democratically-based government are inherently incompatible)?

The U.S. Constitution explicitly prohibits the establishment of a national religion, protects the rights of religious minorities and erects a fairly high barrier against entanglement of church with state.

In the Mideast we have examples like Saudi Arabia, where there is a special police force dedicated to “the promotion of virtue and the prevention of vice,” and that imposes a very strict Wahabbi  Muslim code. Of course, Saudi Arabia makes little pretense of democracy, nor of religious freedom.

And we have theocracies, like Iran, where a U.S.-backed monarch (the Shah) was overthrown by a popular revolution and the revolution was hijacked by Islamists, who installed a system with some trappings of democracy (although with recent history of questionable elections) but in which unelected clerics hold ultimate power above that of the elected government.

Egypt, during the period of sham democracy, was a secular state in which one major Islamist group — the Muslim Brotherhood — has sometimes but seldom been allowed to participate in parliamentary elections but not to win.

Some Americans are nervous that a real democracy in Egypt might turn it into a theocracy, like Iran, implacably hostile, on religious and other grounds, to the United States and to Israel.

But is there a formula by which Egypt can have a democracy but a guarantee against the hijacking by Islamists? And how would such a guarantee be enforced?

In Turkey, the arrangement seems to be something like this: The constitution specifies a secular republic and — in all of its versions since the Ataturk-led revolution — bans religiously-based parties.

There is what we might call an Islamic-leaning party, currently known as the AKP or the Justice and Development Party (although the party has been reformulated over recent years under various names). The AKP platform does not explicitly advocate Islamic law (in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood likewise says it does not seek an Iranian-style Islamocracy), nor do polls suggest that the majority of Turks want an Islamic state (same in Egypt).

The AKP appeals to Islamicists, and its critics suspect that it has ideas about Islamicism that it doesn’t divulge (same as critics of the Muslim Brotherhood). AKP is otherwise considered a center-right party that advocates free-market economics and draws support from plenty of secular voters.

The AKP has won all recent elections and strengthened its already existing plurality in the most recent election in 2007. There is a natural sense, based on the history described above, that the AKP feels restrained from giving full expression to all of its Islamist impulses in part because there may be some line that, if crossed, would cause the military to step in again.

How democratic does that seem to you? Can you picture the possibility that some similar arrangement could help Egypt down the path to democracy? Can you think of a likelier way for a country like, Egypt to get from its recent past to a better place?