Having been lauded by many as the region’s best established democracy, Turkey’s long and difficult march to a more inclusive and democratic system has led many to coin the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) as the political model de jour for the region’s religiously conservative movements.
Some Turkish model activists point to the AKP’s commitment to democratic rule, despite its Islamic roots, as the party’s most marketable strength. Others point to its steadfast campaign to curtail the influence of Turkey’s politically active and influential military and its aggressive effort to re-tool Turkey’s regional presence to maximize its economic interests. With a booming economy and the military’s influence on the decline, advocates see Turkey as one of the few Middle Eastern countries that has figured out how to balance its Muslim identity with “Westernisms” like democracy and capitalism.
Other say that Turkey has shown the uncanny ability to have strong ties with the West while still remaining legitimate in the eyes of many in the Arab world. Based on these vague platitudes, many have championed Turkey as a democratic leader for the region’s transitioning states and as an admirable model capable of moderating the perceived threat of the Islamist political movement.
Given Turkey’s history and its current political makeup, it’s easy to see why many look at Egypt as an ideal market for the export of the Turkish model. On the surface there are a number of broad similarities that many in Turkey and abroad have latched on to as proof of their belief in the viability of the Turkish model in Egypt.
The logic goes something like this: 1) Like Turkey, Egypt has a history of a strong and politically influential military, 2) like Turkey in the past, Egypt had worked hard to marginalize the Islamist influence on politics and in society, 3) the Muslim Brotherhood is a religiously conservative political party, and, like the AKP, seems poised to win a large plurality in Parliament, 4) like Turkey, the secularists worry about the Brotherhood’s “hidden agenda” for the implementation of Shariah, 5) the Brotherhood’s impending election necessitates that the party moderate itself in the style of the AKP. All together, Egypt is seen as the perfect muse to try out the Turkish model.
Despite these broad similarities, this surface level analysis fails to account for the attitudes of the Egyptian public, who by and large favor developing their own political model rather than importing one from abroad. When asked an open-ended question about which model they would consider for their political future, only 8 percent of the nationally representative sample of just over 1,000 Egyptians in provinces and cities throughout the country, including very small villages, said Turkey, according to a survey conducted by the survey research consulting firm Gallup in mid-September. To put that in perspective, 7 percent said the United States and less than 1 percent said Iran.
The empirical evidence is backed by the attitudes of Egyptian participants at a recent conference organized by the Hollings Center for International Dialogue in İstanbul. The conference brought together Egyptian, Tunisian, Turkish and American academics to discuss the economies of the Arab Spring and whether or not the AKP can be a model for the region’s burgeoning democracies. The consensus around the discussion table was that “the search for models is at best elusive, at worse distracting. The much-touted Turkish model has its limits,” according to the Hollings Centers’ conference report.
Given the dynamics of Egyptian society, the results and opinions really aren’t surprising. For one, the casual connection of the AKP with the Muslim Brotherhood is a misnomer and fails to take into account the political intricacies of each political movement. Like the AKP, which seeks to weave a political platform from its supporters from backgrounds as diverse as Islamist, nationalist and liberal, the Muslim Brotherhood is a large organization trying to address disparate demands from the different wings of its own political movement.
As it stands, the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership appears more willing to adopt certain “AKPisms” like a secular state and a market economy, while its political base is far more ideological and less open to these kinds of reforms. Moving forward, it’s far from certain that the AKP model will be “Islamic” enough for certain strains of the Egyptian Islamist movement.
On the other side, Egyptian liberals share many of the same fears as some of their Turkish counterparts. There is the irrational fear that the import of Turkey’s “Islamist” model will pave the way for the erosion of the state’s civil legal code in favor of Shariah. Far from being a minor political influence, the conglomerate of “secular” groups will certainly be a major factor in determining Egypt’s political future moving forward.
To his credit, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has made it clear that his party is not interested in exporting its model but stands ready to help if asked. Despite the prime minister’s clear message, the Turkish model narrative has taken hold and the viability of its export is still debated.
Given the most recent data, perhaps it would be more prudent for export advocates to heed the opinion of the Egyptians struggling to find their own way.
*Aaron Stein is a research associate at the Center for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM), an independent think tank in İstanbul. You can follow the author on Twitter @aaronstein1