As Mohamed Morsi continues his campaign to push through a referendum on the Egyptian draft constitution at all costs, it is increasingly clear that Egypt is emulating a Turkish model, but not the one it might have intended to emulate. I wrote last week about the danger of Egypt falling into the same pattern as Turkey when it comes to military interventions in civilian politics, and while that may indeed come to pass, it is still too early to tell. The new Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government is, however, following Turkey down another path. The Turkish model that Egypt has already begun to mimic is one of an alternate, yet just as unsavory, variety, which is the government’s adaptation of the very same authoritarian strategies of its predecessors despite formerly being victimized by those very same strategies and tactics. It requires a sort of historical amnesia to do to your opponents what was previously done to you, and while in Turkey this took a little more time to play out, in Egypt it is happening at lightning speed.
Turkey’s more authoritarian bent during the last five years or so of AKP rule has manifested itself primarily in restrictions on speech and targeting journalists, politicians, and others for expressing opinions outside the bounds of what the government deems to be acceptable. Turkey has more journalists in prison than any other country in the world, and more recently there has been controversy over Prime Minister Erdoğan suggesting that prosecutors should take action against a soap opera depicting the life and times of Suleiman the Magnificent and over a fine levied against a private broadcasting station for airing an episode of The Simpsons deemed to be blasphemous. Erdoğan’s beef with the soap opera, Muhteşem Yüzyıl (The Magnificent Century in English), is that he does not like the stylized description of Suleiman’s life as an endless parade of battles and harem trysts, and he threatened to have production shut down by saying, “Those who toy with these values should be taught a lesson within the premises of the law.” One of the AKP MPs followed up by introducing a bill that would ban the show along with establishing guidelines for filmmakers to conform with Turkish moral values. What is surprising about the heavy emphasis on targeting objectionable speech is that this is precisely the tactic used by previous governments and the Turkish military to go after current AKP members in the past. As pointed out by the blog Atatürk’s Republic, “Having been born, raised and educated in a society which accepted and even welcomed a certain level of state media control, the leadership of the AKP has now begun to echo their secular predecessors, almost in spite of themselves. After all, Erdogan himself spent nearly a year in jail for a speech crime.” The hypocrisy of Erdoğan, who was imprisoned for four months (although sentenced to ten) for reading a poem at a rally that the state deemed as a violation of the law against inciting religious hatred, now going after others for speech that offends his values carries a large degree of irony, and is part of a pattern of the AKP resorting to the same tactics as its predecessors used on it to punish action that it does not like.
In Egypt, Morsi has taken this lesson and run with it. For years, Muslim Brotherhood members were subject to torture on the part of the Mubarak regime intended to elicit false confessions and uncover hidden evidence of foreign conspiracies. During the uprising against Mubarak in January 2011, opponents of the regime were detained, beaten by plainclothes thugs bussed into Cairo from other parts of the country, had their wallets and phones confiscated while being tortured into confessing that they were being paid to demonstrate, and Mubarak would give speeches alleging foreign hands trying to break the sovereignty of the state and how it was up to him to hold firm and protect Egypt from outsiders. And yet, last week this scenario played out identically except that it was Muslim Brotherhood thugs rather than felool baltagiya doing the detaining and beating, and it was Morsi giving a speech decrying the nefarious influence of foreign conspirators determined to bring down Egypt. It was Morsi threatening to reinstate martial law and claiming that “temporary” emergency measures would be necessary to restore order and calm. If I put up two articles side by side, one from January 2011 and one from last week, and removed all named references to the actors involved, you’d be hard pressed to tell which article was from which time period, and yet before it was Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood (among others) being repressed and now it is Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood using the exact same playbook to do the repressing.
The reason this happens is simple. Like I wrote about military intervention last week, existing institutions constrain the range of available political outcomes, and make it easier for a country’s politics to repeat the same patterns irrespective of who is at the top. New governments often inherit a logic of action and behavior that is difficult to unlodge, and when the same institutional rules, resources, and patterns of competition remain in place from one regime to the next, the behavior exhibited by the state’s new rulers begins to look identical to that exhibited by the state’s former ones. In this case there is something else at work as well as my friend and colleague Hesham Sallam has insightfully pointed out, which is that Egypt has a deep state of powerful interests and institutions that have resisted attempts to break their autonomy, and it thus becomes easy for the Muslim Brotherhood to cut a deal with these military and security apparatuses and adopt the same tactics used by its predecessor. This all combines to create a situation in which Morsi was elected to the presidency, realized early on that the easiest way to get what he wanted given Egypt’s weak political institutions and lack of cohesion was to adopt the same antidemocratic measures under the guise of legalism as Mubarak did, and when faced with protests resorted to the same tactics of torture, prosecuting his leading opponents, and alleging foreign conspiracies. Because he cut a deal with Egypt’s deep state, he is so far getting away with all of this under the protection of the military and security forces, who are happy to let him do as he pleases as long as their own prerogatives are not trampled. And just like that, it turns out that the man and organization that bitterly denounced Mubarak for torture, detentions, and giving up any pretense to democracy are doing the exact same thing themselves not even one year into coming to power.
Unfortunately, this is how authoritarian politics works, and nobody should be surprised to see the same patterns repeating themselves. In some ways, it is a miracle that democracy ever occurs, and the conditions have to be right and a healthy dose of luck must be involved for a successful transition to happen. In Egypt, neither of these two variables seem to apply so far, and thus it has been very easy for Morsi to morph into Mubarak. There is a reason that Mubarak resorted to the tactics that he did, which is that it was the most effective way for him to hold on to power, and Morsi has quickly learned that the Mubarak playbook works. Just like Erdoğan has conveniently forgotten what was done to him, so too has Morsi, and it means that Egypt is even more unlikely now than it ever was to adopt the Turkish model of a religious society with a democratic secular government.