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June 24, 2012, Sunday

A Turkish view of the power struggle in Egypt

The escalating power struggle between generals and Islamists in Egypt is of great concern for Turkey’s democrats. This is not only because the future course of the Tahrir Revolution will affect the entire region but also for its implications for the theory of democratization.

Following the victory of the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Freedom and Justice Party, in the first free parliamentary elections, which were held last January, and the public vote count indicating that the party’s presidential candidate, Mohammed Morsi, had won the first free presidential election held last week, military rulers and their backers in the judiciary seem to have decided to move on to establish a Kemalist-style military-bureaucratic tutelage over the emerging democracy in Egypt.

The Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) reintroduced martial law, closed down parliament, issued constitutional directives restricting the powers of the new president and gave the military greater control over the writing of a new constitution. And most recently the election commission postponed the announcement of the winner of the presidential elections. Tahrir Square is once more filled with tens of thousands of demonstrators, protesting the military’s intervention and calling on the transfer of power to the elected president and parliament.

No one expected a smooth transition to civilian rule in Egypt. It wasn’t at all unexpected that the Islamists would win the elections. What was probably not anticipated was the acuteness of the power struggle that broke out between the military and the Islamists soon after the completion of the electoral process. The apparent motive for the military’s attempt to seize the reins of power are fears also shared by a part of civil society that the Islamists are going to impose a religiously based regime that would discriminate against non-Muslims, women and seculars. The real motive, on the other hand, is likely to be the worries of the generals that the elected government would take away the political and economic privileges the military has enjoyed under the former autocratic regime.

What the civilians who support the generals against the Islamists fail to understand in Egypt and elsewhere is that as the regime opens up and freedom of expression and association broadens, even movements whose commitment to democracy are in doubt increasingly assume a liberal and democratic orientation. It is true that democracy cannot consolidate without the struggle waged for it by committed democrats. It is, however, equally true that democracy breeds democrats. One of the greatest merits of a democratic regime is that it leads even the most anti-democratic movements to adapt to the rules of the game or get increasingly marginalized. The increasing diversification and liberalization that is observed among Islamists in Egypt since the Tahrir Revolution is witness to this process.

The lessons of Turkey need to be once more highlighted in this context. If Turkey has failed to fully consolidate democracy despite its multi-party politics since the 1950s, the main reason for this is the political role assumed by the military and civilian bureaucracy in defense of its privileges and in line with its Kemalist ideology requiring the imposition of a single religion and a single national identity on a religiously and ethnically diverse society.

And if Turkey is today gradually moving towards the consolidation of civilian rule and democracy, this is not at all due to the merits of military tutelage exercised by the military for decades but due to the fact that even the restricted kind of democracy has bred democrats. Generations that were committed to communist, fascist or Islamist ideologies have gradually grasped the value of political freedom partly in reaction to the brutal military regime that ruled the country in the early 1980s and partly due to the growing realization of the failure of radical politics to offer remedies to Turkey’s acute problems.

Surely the most remarkable example of this change of orientations is the transformation of the Islamist movement in Turkey into post-Islamism as represented by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), in power since 2002. Repeated Kurdish revolts in Turkey since the founding of the republic are consequences of the lack of democratic rights for the Kurds, and recognition of their full democratic rights is imperative if the current armed insurgency led by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is ever to be brought to an end.

The lessons of Turkey for Egypt were perhaps best expressed by Cumali Önal, the Cairo representative of Today’s Zaman, in the column titled “Erdoğan 2002, Morsi 2012” (June 17, 2012). The Economist magazine is absolutely right when it says, “Egypt in peril: Beneath the chaos lies a complex power struggle between generals and Islamists. The West should back the latter.” (June 23, 2012)

Previous articles of the columnist