It is critical for the Brotherhood and the Egyptian military to manage the fragile process of democratic transition smoothly and peacefully. Egypt has suffered many socio-economic problems, both before and since the revolution, and it is the responsibility of both powers (i.e., the military and the Brotherhood) to steer the country toward a better future. How can the Turkish experience of democratic transition and leadership politics shed light on this transition process?
First of all, it is clear that the Egyptian establishment has studied its lessons better than the Brotherhood and other revolutionary groups. To be clear, I consider the establishment and its candidate, Ahmed Shafik, very successful in rebuilding out of the ruins of the old regime. Shafik, the last prime minister of Hosni Mubarak, fell from power following huge protests in early 2011, but has been able to mobilize about half of Egyptian society in the space of a year-and-a-half. Of course, Egypt’s is a presidential system, and the president has major powers, but Morsi has lost the backing of Parliament, which was dissolved by a partnership of the Supreme Court and the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF).
There are similarities and differences between the Egyptian case and the Turkish experience. For one, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan founded his Justice and Development Party (AK Party) following the failure of Necmettin Erbakan’s Islamist Welfare Party (RP) to hold on to power. Refusing to present the same ideas as his predecessors, Erdoğan reframed his discourse from Islam to democracy in order to alleviate the concerns of elite groups and to attract more popular support. It worked. However, the Brotherhood did not face the same kind of crisis; they consider themselves successful and correct in their actions since the revolution, and therefore have felt no need to change their rhetoric or methods since that time, whether to please young supporters who felt excluded from the decision-making process of the party or the general public, consisting of liberals, secularists, non-Muslims and so forth.
Erdoğan rose to power after the failure of mainstream parties following a major economic crisis in 2001. Similarly, the Brotherhood rose to power as a result of a popular uprising due to serious economic and social problems that had weakened the regime in Egypt. The AK Party’s shift from a somewhat more radical Islamic discourse to a moderate democratic discourse placated some of their enemies and gained them more friends. Moreover, the AK Party maintained a reformist agenda, but challenged the establishment only when those more conservative elements of society wanted to reverse the democratization process. Erdoğan always gave priority to people’s democratic rights, rather than trying to please the powerful elite.
half the votes
The fact that Shafik won about half the votes in the presidential elections could be interpreted as the Brotherhood’s failure to win over the general public that toppled Mubarak. This was the result of overconfidence and short-term tactical thinking in place of a general democratic strategy. Their first strategic mistake was allowing the military to establish itself as the protector of the revolution. This shifted the revolutionary momentum to reform logic. They also sided with the establishment to revise the current constitution rather than drafting a new one, to the fury of revolutionary forces. Along with the Salafis, the Brotherhood thought that maintaining the Islamic nature of the regime was more important than making it more democratic. This tactical choice later proved to be counterproductive.
The Brotherhood and the Salafis later dominated parliament, but even in this position they failed to change the military-appointed government. The Brotherhood’s struggle for power alienated many democratic forces around them, including secular revolutionaries and the group’s youth, who supported the reformist Abul Fotouh. Conversely, the AK Party’s master strategy has been reliance on popular support to challenge undemocratic pressure from the establishment. Erdoğan established an understanding with the military from the start, but he never struck secret deals with the elite at the expense of the general public. The Brotherhood, which previously depended on its organizational and grassroots strength, seemed to have learned the importance of popular support only during the presidential elections. The reversal of revolutionary dynamics began to hurt the Brotherhood as the election committee rejected the nomination of their candidate, Khairat al-Shater. Based on the old constitution, which was also approved by the Brotherhood, the Supreme Court dissolved a third of parliament and the SCAF finished the job. Ironically, fearing total Brotherhood control over all estates, a significant portion of the Egyptian public supported this undemocratic intervention. Moreover, the SCAF curtailed the powers of the future president by acting as the executive and the legislature. This is where support was needed from democratic forces the Brotherhood had already worked to alienate.
During AK Party rule Turkey has experienced similar undemocratic interventions. When the Constitutional Court annulled parliamentary voting for Abdullah Gül’s presidency (known as the 367 trick), Erdoğan quickly referred the issue to the people by calling for early elections in 2007. It has always been a central strategy of Erdoğan’s to seek popular support through elections or referenda in his struggle against the establishment (military or judicial). He made the intervention a question of democracy by avoiding a direct showdown with conservative powers.
Utilising people power
The general strategy of Erdoğan and his AK Party is to limit the power of the elites using people power. However, the Brotherhood attempted to defeat its opponents with organizational power, underestimating the role of the participation of ordinary citizens and their contribution to the democratic process. Like the AK Party, the Brotherhood must gather all the democratic forces around them by making the new government a coalition of democratic forces. To this end, they must address the worried and doubtful from all walks of life in Egypt, convince them of their democratic agenda and solicit their support against strong military opposition. Otherwise they might lose power, soon or in the next parliamentary elections.
These are the reasons why the AK Party has continued to win consecutive elections, and they are worth studying closely. There are other aspects of the Turkish experience that Egypt can apply, such as the AK Party’s emergency action plan to overcome deep economic crisis and fight poverty, and other successful long-term policies. However, the critical questions are: Is the Brotherhood aware of these lessons of the Turkish democratic struggle, and will they manage to gain, and hold, power? In power they can consider using the Turkish experience to solve Egypt’s chronic problems. They should have no doubt that many want to see them fail and are watching closely. In the end, the failure of the Brotherhood would mean the failure of democracy in Egypt.
*Ahmet Uysal is the director of the Middle Eastern Studies Center at Eskişehir Osmangazi University.