For anyone who spends their time thinking and writing about the Middle East, today’s big news item is the Egyptian presidential election. While I spend most of my (non-dissertation) time on Turkey and Israel these days, my original academic interest was in the Arab world and I follow it generally, and Egypt specifically, very closely. Lots has been written over the past year about the “Turkish model” and whether it is applicable to Egypt, and indeed a recent Brookings poll indicates a preference among Egyptians to emulate Turkey. There is no need for me to rehash the specific reasons that Egypt may or may not be a good place to replicate the Turkish model, since plenty of smart people who know Egypt far better than I have already done so. I would only quickly note that based on the Brookings poll, Egyptians don’t actually know how Turkey is governed, as 54% of the respondents listed Turkey as the country that best reflected their aspirations for the role of Islam in politics while 66% of Egyptians support basing their laws on sharia. Even allowing for the 83% that say sharia should be adopted to modern times, a majority of Egyptians appear to believe that Turkish law is based in some loose way on sharia, which is not the case.
Instead of getting into the weeds on Egypt, I’d like to discuss why no country, Egypt included, should be looking to replicate the Turkish model. To be clear, when I talk about the Turkish model I don’t mean the military being the arbiter of secular politics or guardian of the state, but an ostensibly Islamic party governing through secular state institutions without imposing any religious dictates. To begin with, the synthesis of Islam and democracy in Turkey has taken a very long time. The fact is that the Turkish model has only emerged in the past ten years after decades of instability, military coups, varying degrees of authoritarianism, and a complete lack of vertical accountability. When Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded Turkey out of the remnants of the Ottoman Empire, he did so with clearly thought out ideas about how his new state should be organized and what goals it should seek to attain. Furthermore, unlike in other states where an ideology may be adopted after the institutions of the state are already in place, Atatürk built Turkey’s political and social institutions at the same time that he was installing Kemalism as the state’s official ideology. This enabled him to create structures and rules that were explicitly designed to strengthen and enable Kemalism, meaning that any challenge to the state would unmistakably be a challenge to Kemalism as well.
Since ideology was so wrapped up and intertwined with the state itself, it meant that Turkey was unable to convert first order battles over ideology into a lower grade conflict even after the first successful transition to democracy after WWII. Any ideological wobble away from Kemalism precipitated a crisis, particularly given the fact that the most important and powerful state institution, the military, saw itself as the ultimate guardian of Kemalism irrespective of which party was in power. That the AKP was finally able to emerge out of the ashes of the Refah Party, win multiple elections, and govern without completely dismantling the state is the culmination of a long process of ideological softening on both sides. The overarching point here is that this process took 75 years to play out, and took 50 years after Turkey’s first democratic election. Democracy does not happen overnight under the best of circumstances, and Egypt is far from being an ideal staging ground. There are many things to contend with: a strong authoritarian legacy, social cleavages, a pending economic crisis, disputes over religion and what the state should look like, just to name a few of the big ones. Aiming for a synthesis of Islamic politics and secular government is a fool’s errand in the short run, and while Egypt may be able to eventually pull it off successfully, it will be years before that happens.
Another primary reason why the Turkish model cannot be replicated is that, as Steven Cook points out in Ruling But Not Governing, Turkey adapted for a specific purpose, which was joining the EU. The EU process made future military interventions more unlikely while also forcing the state to become more democratic, but at the same time it made the non-secular AKP soften any tendencies it might have had to weaken state secularism. When joining the EU is the ultimate goal, there is zero chance of adopting any type of sharia law or religious compulsion, and while I do not fall in the camp of those who think that the AKP actually desires to do this anyway, it would never happen while the EU negotiating process is underway. Egypt, and all other majority Muslim countries, do not have this structural constraint to contend with. If the Muslim Brotherhood is in power in Egypt and decides that it wants to legislate according to religious dictates, there is no comparable outside incentive to slow that down. The Turkish model did not emerge in a vacuum, but out of a highly specific context that does not exist elsewhere.
Finally, the specific electoral rules used in Turkey contribute to a unique situation in which extremist views on the poles of political thought are kept at bay. One need only look at the op-ed on Indonesia in the New York Times yesterday to get a sense of how this works. In Indonesia, the government coalition includes a number of extremely conservative Islamist parties, which in turn leads to restrictions on religious minorities and religiously motivated violence that the state ignores. In Turkey, however, the vote threshold for parliament is 10% of the vote, which means that smaller and more extremist parties get left out. This in turn has made the AKP a big tent that includes religious conservatives, merchants, the middle class, and some of the new urban elite. Such a party cannot afford to alienate religious minorities or condone any Islamist-led violence, and thus the AKP largely keeps its religious piety confined to personal behavior and governs over a secular state. Erdoğan’s lecture to the Muslim Brotherhood on his trip to Egypt about the vital need for secular governance was not an act; say what you will about him, but he practices what he preaches.
If Egypt is able to get to a place down the road where it embodies Alfred Stepan’s twin tolerations of the state being free from the yoke of religion and religion being free from the yoke of the state, it will be an amazing accomplishment. If it is able to replicate the Turkish model, it would be a positive development for its citizens and governing institutions. Nobody should fool themselves, however, on the likelihood of this happening. The Turkish model emerged out of a confluence of events playing out over decades with some unique structural constraints weighing on the entire process, and it is folly to imagine that this might happen elsewhere in what is in historical terms the blink of an eye.