[email protected]

March 21, 2011, Monday

Turkey’s lessons for Egypt

The people’s uprisings in Tunisia, followed by Egypt, have opened the road to democratization in the Arab world.

The collapse of authoritarian Arab regimes promises to change the regional and global balances in favor of peace and democracy. The establishment of democracy in Egypt, the most important country in that part of the world, is expected to play a key role in the spread of democracy to the entire Middle East.

Egypt, indeed, has the potential to play a model role because it possesses, along with basic political institutions, business, professional and intellectual elites, and perhaps more importantly young generations who demand freedom that can facilitate a swift transition to democracy. The revolution of the masses gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that on Feb. 11 toppled the police regime of Hosni Mubarak has been greeted with great joy and jubilation among liberals and democrats all over the world, but perhaps nowhere as widely as in Turkey. Closer relations and cooperation between a democratic Egypt and Turkey are certain to have a positive impact not only on the political and economic development of the entire Middle East, but also on peace and stability in that region.

The two countries, both with Sunni Muslim majorities, share, despite significant differences, many commonalities in their culture and history. Egypt through a popular uprising recently toppled a roughly 60-year-old authoritarian regime and is now setting out on the course of establishing a full-fledged democracy. There may be lessons for Egypt to be drawn from Turkey’s achievements and failures in its roughly 60-year-long struggle to consolidate democracy.

Reforms in Turkey towards establishing the rule of law date back to the mid-19th century, and those towards instituting constitutional rule to the early 20th century Ottoman Empire. Transition to multiparty politics took place as early as 1950, and during the last decade Turkey has been adopting reforms towards accession to the European Union. Through this long and drawn-out process of democratization Turkey may be said to have come a considerable way in establishing the rules and institutions of a liberal democracy. It has, however, still not been able to consolidate democratic rule. It has held 15 free and fair parliamentary elections since 1950 and is about to hold another one soon. But it is still hoped that the Parliament to be elected on June 12 will adopt a constitution that will finally secure both representative government and human rights.

Like Egypt, Turkey is currently engaged in a debate on the basic principles of a constitution to be adopted. The broadly based demand is that the new constitution establish the principles of liberal democracy in place of a semi-liberal, tutelary kind of democracy run by the military and a civilian bureaucracy committed to Kemalism (Turkish secular nationalism), the official ideology of the republic since its founding in 1923. It is hoped that the new constitution will establish the following basic principles: The military is subject to the authority of elected governments and assumes full neutrality towards political parties. Secularism does not only mean secular laws but also an end to the state monopoly and control of religion and the lifting of all restrictions on religious freedoms of not only religious minorities but also the Muslim majority. All ethnic and linguistic minorities of the country, including primarily the Kurds, are entitled to freely enjoy and express their identities. All nonviolent political points of view are entitled to free expression and organization. All restrictions on freedoms of expression and the press are eliminated so that there will be a truly independent media. A functioning market economy is a necessary condition for democracy, if not a sufficient one. The liberalization and globalization of the economy since the early 1980s have considerably improved the living standards of the people in Turkey. Poverty, however, as well as unbalanced income distribution continue to be serious problems. The country needs to significantly improve its human development indicators and to expand women’s participation in social, economic and political life in particular. The same is surely true for Egypt. Egypt’s transition may not to be as drawn out as Turkey’s. There are at least two main reasons for that. Turkey’s transition took place during the Cold War years, during which its Western allies prioritized the preservation of its political stability rather than the improvement of its democracy. Egypt’s transition will take place in the post-Cold War environment, when the ideals of freedom and democracy prevail, and when its Western allies have learned through experience that stability in the Middle East can be achieved not by authoritarian but by democratic regimes. The second main reason for expecting Egypt’s transition to last shorter has to do with the fact that democracy in Egypt is being introduced not from above (as in Turkey) or from beyond (as in Iraq), but from below, under the pressure of its young generations that demand freedom and equality. Long live the Tahrir Revolution!

Previous articles of the columnist