Egypt’s Tunisian Future

August 28, 2013 § 3 Comments

Watching what is taking place in Egypt as the military goes after the Muslim Brotherhood, I can’t help but note the parallels to Tunisia under Ben Ali’s first few years in power (which, not coincidentally, is one of the case studies in my dissertation). There too, the regime mounted a campaign against Islamists in the name of national security and anti-terrorism following Islamist electoral success, while the secular Tunisian opposition parties supported the government’s efforts on the theory that the regime would eliminate an ideologically threatening political foe and that they would benefit in the end. What happened instead is that once authoritarian methods were deployed against the Islamists, the state quickly decided that it wanted to repress any and all political opposition, no matter the ideological bent, and so the campaign that had initially only targeted Ennahda quickly morphed into a wider effort. I use this episode to argue in Foreign Affairs today that Egyptian secularists and liberals are being myopic in their cheering on the army’s fight against the Brotherhood, since that fight will quickly boomerang back in their own direction. Here is a snippet:

An Islamist political party does well at the polls, and an authoritarian regime goes after it with a vengeance, killing its activists and arresting its leaders. The party is driven underground while secularists and other political groups applaud the government’s harsh measures, all taken in the name of eliminating a terrorist threat. Meanwhile, the regime and the non-Islamist parties assure the world that once the Islamists have been dealt with, the regular political process will resume again.

So it has happened in Egypt, but it is also the story of Tunisia in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when hopes for a democratic transition were smashed after a campaign of repression that first targeted Islamists but eventually grew into a much wider effort to eliminate all political opposition. Tunisia’s experience offers a glimpse of what may be yet to come in Egypt — and suggests that Egyptian secularists should think twice before supporting the army’s efforts to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood.

After replacing President Habib Bourguiba in a bloodless coup in November 1987, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, a military officer, embarked on a program of liberalization and democratization that was at that point unprecedented in the region. His government released all political prisoners and gave them amnesty, revised the laws governing the press and political parties, and got every political bloc — including the Islamist Ennahda Party — to sign a national pact guaranteeing civil liberties and free elections.

Those elections were held on April 2, 1989, and were at the time the most competitive in the country’s history, if not in the entire Arab world. Although the winner-take-all system guaranteed that Ben Ali’s party would carry the day, given its organizational advantages developed over decades of unopposed rule, the president and most observers assumed that the secular opposition parties would emerge as the dominant opposition. Instead, the Islamists received the highest share of the opposition vote, 14.5 percent, a figure that was likely deflated due to fraud.

Just after the election, The New York Times declared [3], “Tunisia is undergoing a transition from a one-man dictatorship to a much more open society with a sleight of hand that could furnish lessons for Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the Soviet leader.” The article went on to quote the head of the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights saying, “I am absolutely certain of Ben Ali’s good will.”

As it turned out, though, the prospect of a strong Islamist opposition, and especially of an Islamist government at some point down the road, was too much for Ben Ali and the Tunisian state to bear. The government launched a brutal crackdown, killing 1,000 Islamists, jailing another 30,000, and forcing into exile the leader of Ennahda, Rachid al-Ghannouchi. The regime justified its actions by claiming that the Islamists were terrorists out to sow discord and tear Tunisia apart. Only because of the national security threat that they presented, Ben Ali argued, were the Islamists being targeted.

To read about how the Tunisia story played out, and the specific lessons for Egypt, please head over to Foreign Affairs for the rest.

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Erdoğan’s Paranoia Hits An All-Time High

August 20, 2013 § 12 Comments

Apologies to all for the extended blog hiatus over the last few weeks. I had to go on a self-imposed blog and twitter blackout in order to finish my dissertation, since otherwise it was never going to get done. Now that a complete draft is in to my committee, it’s time to get back to the topic du jour, which is the continuing crackup of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The Turkish prime minister today accused Israel of being behind the Egyptian military coup and claimed that he has evidence, which consists of an unnamed Jewish French intellectual – and Erdoğan took pains to emphasize that this person is Jewish – telling an Israeli minister in 2011 that the Muslim Brotherhood would not be in power even if they won elections because democracy is about more than the ballot box. As it turns out, the intellectual to whom Erdoğan was referring is Bernard Henri-Levy, who was on a panel with Tzipi Livni in June 2011 and said that the military should be called out if the Brotherhood comes to power in Egypt through elections. Got that straight? A French Jew said two years ago that he does not want the Muslim Brotherhood ruling Egypt, so therefore Israel is behind the current military coup. Who can possibly argue with such sound logic?

Even for Erdoğan, this latest broadside is absurdly over the top, and make sure to keep it in mind the next time a Turkish government official insists that nobody in the government has a problem with Jews but only with Israel, and that references to Jews and Zionists are always meant to refer solely to Israelis. Erdoğan’s paranoid scapegoating of Henri-Levy ( “O da Yahudi” as Erdoğan would like to remind us) is part and parcel of his general histrionics surrounding the military coup in Egypt. Since the generals overthrew Mohamed Morsi, Erdoğan and Ahmet Davutoğlu have been raging on a daily basis against the Egyptian army, at first refusing to recognize Adly Mansour as the new Egyptian president and eventually temporarily recalling the Turkish ambassador in Cairo back to Ankara last week. With Qatar appearing to recognize the writing on the wall and working to establish a good relationship with the military government in Egypt, Turkey is now standing alone in its vociferous support of the MB and largely isolated in the measure of rage it is directing toward the generals.

The coup in Egypt touches a nerve with Erdoğan for a number of reasons. First, the downfall of Morsi and the routing of the MB exposes the emptiness of Turkish foreign policy, which had placed all of its eggs in the basket of a new MB-dominated order in the Middle East. With its Syria policy in complete shambles and the new Middle East starting to look a lot like the old Middle East, Ankara is as isolated as it has ever been. None of its initiatives have worked and not only does it not have influence with important regional actors such as the Israeli and Egyptian governments, but it has gone out of its way to offend leaders who view Turkey as trying to meddle in the internal affairs of other states. Morsi’s removal dashes Erdoğan’s hopes of building a new regional order with Turkey at its head.

Second, the specter of crowds massing in the streets and the military overthrowing the government hits a little too close to home for Erdoğan given what he was dealing with in June and the history of Turkish military coups. Erdoğan’s biggest claim to fame is his defanging of the military, and even after demonstrating that Turkish civilian control (and undemocratic intimidation) over the army is complete with the Ergenekon verdicts a couple of weeks ago, no Turkish prime minister – and certainly no Turkish prime minister with Erdoğan’s background – is ever going to feel completely safe from the long arm of the military. Erdoğan looks at what is taking place in Egypt through a distinctly Turkish prism, and in many ways his views on the Egyptian coup are actually a complex psychological projection of his fears about his own position.

Finally, the view that, despite being elected in free and fair elections, the Morsi government was not a democratic one because of its embrace of absolute majoritarian rule at the expense of all minority viewpoints is the same charge hurled at the Turkish government (including by yours truly) when the Gezi protests were brutally suppressed. Erdoğan hangs onto the idea that elections confer absolute legitimacy that can never be overridden no matter what the circumstances because that is how he legitimates all manner of questionable Turkish state action. He will never abide admitting that perhaps the Morsi government was damaging its democratic credentials because to do so would open the door to accusations of error on his part as well. Erdoğan sees the army removing an elected government amidst accusations of policy overreach and undemocratic behavior, and he imagines a nightmare alternate universe where the same could happen to him. This is the context in which his ridiculous comments today about Israel come in (although it should be said that while Israel had absolutely nothing to do with the coup, it has supported the Egyptian military in the aftermath with a zeal that is worrisome). He is so incensed and blind with rage about what went down in Egypt that he is wildly striking out and trying to hit any target that he can with anything that will stick, and Israel is always a convenient piñata.

Erdoğan is accelerating a trend that began in earnest with the government’s response to the Gezi protestors, which is sacrificing any vestige of Turkish influence internationally in order to solidify his position at home. Blaming Israel – or more accurately, Jews – for the Egyptian coup, the Gezi protests, and anything else he can think of will play well domestically, but his reaction to Egypt has just deepened Turkey’s isolation. Turkey has gone from a zero problems with neighbors policy to one in which it is hard to find any former regional ally left with whom Turkey is not feuding to one degree or another. As Erdoğan allows his worst instincts to overtake him, he is bringing Turkish foreign policy down with him as well.

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