It’s tough to ignore the big news out of Egypt this morning, which is that the High Constitutional Court ruled that the Political Disenfranchisement Law – which prohibited high ranking Mubarak government officials from running for public office – is unconstitutional and nullified the election of 1/3 of the seats in parliament that were reserved for individual candidates (and that was dominated by Islamist candidates, including the new Muslim Brotherhood speaker of the parliament). The consensus among Egypt watchers is that this decision is a political one mandated by the SCAF, and the effect of it is that Parliament now has to be dissolved, there is no Constituent Assembly to write the constitution, and the new president (and I’d bet money that it will conveniently be former Mubarak PM Ahmed Shafiq) will be unchecked by any other political institution since they have just been eviscerated. This is for all intents and purposes a soft coup orchestrated by the military.
So why am I writing about this? The reason is that Egypt is increasingly looking like it is following the path that Turkey took in the second half of the 20th century, which was marked by military domination of politics and successive military coups that were carried out when the generals did not like the direction that the country’s politics were taking. While I have not written much about Egypt on this blog, I have been openly skeptical in many conversations with friends and on Twitter that the military was going to allow a genuine transition to occur, and today’s events certainly confirm my doubts for the time being. The most worrying part for Egypt is that it is following the praetorian Turkish model without enjoying two of the benefits that Turkey had that allowed it to break the cycle and become a legitimate electoral democracy.
First, Turkey’s first military coup came in 1960, which was fourteen years after Turkey transitioned to a two party system and ten years following the Turkey’s first democratic elections and transfer of power to the opposition. When the military intervened in 1960, 1971, and 1980, it eventually returned power to civilian governments in each instance after a few years, and one of the primary reasons was that Turkey had a history of contested elections and democratic government, which made it easy to fall back into democratic patterns. One of the, if not the absolute, best predictors of democracy is having previously been a democracy, and Turkey fell into this category. Egypt, however, does not, and now that the military has intervened in a real way to protect its own interests and the remnants of the old regime, there should not be an expectation that Egypt is going to easily overcome this. Make no mistake, a government led by Shafiq with no real parliament and martial law (which was reimposed yesterday) is a continuation of the Mubarak regime plain and simple, and that does not change just because Shafiq is going to have to win some votes before being formally installed as president. Egypt has no real democratic tradition upon which to fall back, and so while the intervention of the military in politics may look like what took place in Turkey, nobody should be optimistic about Egypt’s chances of eventually breaking out of this pattern like Turkey did.
Second, the establishment of firm civilian control of government in Turkey that has taken place under the AKP was in response to a number of outside structural pressures. I have previously mentioned the role of the EU accession process so there is no need to go into that in depth again, but it is a factor that Egypt is obviously missing since no outside body is demanding wholesale democratic reforms as a condition for conferring a host of benefits upon the country. The EU process was not the only variable pushing Turkey toward civilian government, however, since there was also the NATO factor. Turkey has been a member of NATO since 1952, and it was thus firmly ensconced in an important club of Western democracies and subject to regular pressure from and close contact with countries like the U.S. One of the theories about why Turkey suddenly decided to get rid of its single party system is that the aftermath of WWII left Turkey in a position where its interests lay in a closer relationship with the West, but achieving this meant embracing liberal democratic governance and ending one-party rule. Turkey’s quest for aid from the United States and its signature on the United Nations Declaration made democracy imperative to implement since Turkey needed to be in compliance with the obligations it had agreed to undertake.
Furthermore, the distancing from the Soviet Union and the increasing contacts with the U.S. lessened the appeal for many Turks of Soviet-style authoritarianism, which was far different from the Turkish political system but seemed like a newly emerging threat. While Turkey had a close relationship with the Soviet Union during the first two decades of the republic, the Soviets demanded a readjustment of the Soviet-Turkish border following WWII and Turkey’s only recourse for protection against Soviet encroachment was to turn to the U.S. and other Western states. In order to take full advantage of U.S. concern over communism as embodied by the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan, it was plainly in Turkey’s best interests to democratize. These pressures continued throughout the second half of the 20th century as Turkey became invested in the American-led order that had been created in the postwar period.
This is another factor that does not exist for Egypt. There are no serious outside influences pressuring it to democratize, and it is not dependent on the U.S. and other Western democracies to the same extent that Turkey was. It is not joining the EU, it does not need protection from the Soviet Union, and its military aid from the U.S. is not ever going to be really endangered because of the way in which it is bound up with the peace treaty with Israel. In short, Egypt in 2012 looks very little like Turkey from 1950 onwards, and the pressures that existed on the Turkish military that ensured quick handovers to civilian governments following military coups do not apply on anything like the same scale to the SCAF. It is understandable that those who are disappointed with today’s events might look to Turkey as a ray of hope for what can eventually happen after the military intervenes in politics, but the comparison is an unsuitable one. Turkey had a democratic head start and a host of reasons to ultimately consign the military to the barracks for good, and Egypt unfortunately has neither of these things.