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Turkey: a model of democracy for the Arab world?

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Robin Lustig | 11:30 UK time, Friday, 18 November 2011

Do you think Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, having deposed their autocratic leaders, are about to join Iran as Islamist republics?

Do you think that after elections are held (the first have already taken place in Tunisia), Islamist parties will take power and install theocratic systems of government in which Western liberal ideas of freedom and tolerance have no place?

Well, I've been here in Turkey for the past few days to ask if Islam, democracy and prosperity are compatible. Next week, the Turkish president, Abdullah Gül, will be in London for a State visit - the first by a Turkish head of state for more than 20 years - and you can be sure that his answer (and, come to that, the answer of his hijab-wearing wife) will be a very definite Yes.

Consider: since 2002, Turkey has been ruled by the Justice and Development Party, known here as the AKP. Its roots, and those of its leaders, are in the Islamist tradition - a far cry from the principles of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish state, who enshrined secularism in the country's constitution.

Consider also that over the past decade, the Turkish economy has trebled in size. Average incomes have doubled. When I spoke to workers at Istanbul's main bus station a couple of days ago and asked them if it's easy to find work here, they answered Yes. There aren't many countries these days where that happens.

So is Turkey a success story, a good democratic model for post-autocratic Arab states to follow? It depends whom you ask.

No, says former star TV presenter Banu Guven, who lost her job after objecting to a ban at her TV station on interviews with leading Kurdish campaigners. She says there's growing pressure on the media, even intimidation, leading to more and more self-censorship. Not a good democratic model.

No, says former general Haldun Solmazturk, who argues that the army, which has traditionally claimed to be a guarantor of Turkish secularism, has now been marginalised to such an extent that the AKP no longer has any institutional check on its power. (But perhaps it's relevant that the army has been responsible for the overthrow of four civilian governments in little more than 50 years.)

Yes, says novelist and cultural commentator Kaya Genc, who argues that the army should play no political role in a modern democracy, and that the AKP represents the views of the majority of Turks far more accurately than did its secular predecessors in government.

But when I met the leading Egyptian actor, film-maker and activist, Khaled Abol Naga, who has come to Istanbul for an Arab activists' conference this weekend, he dismissed the idea that Arabs need to look to Turkey for a model. The 2011 Arab uprisings are home-grown revolutions, he said, and they need to look to no one for inspiration.

As for the army, which currently rules post-Mubarak Egypt and which is angrily condemned by pro-democracy activists for seeming in no hurry to move to a genuinely democratic form of government, he fears the military - unlike Egypt's democracy activists - are indeed looking to Turkey as a model.

After all, if the Turkish military could, for many decades, pull the strings both behind the scenes and up on the front of the stage, why shouldn't the military in Egypt try something similar?

And there's one, further complicating ingredient to add to this combustible mix. As I write these words, I am looking out of the window towards the elegant splendour of the Blue Mosque and the 6th century Ayia Sofia, once the greatest church in all of Christendom, two powerful reminders of the central place Turkey (and especially this city, in its previous guise as Constantinople) used to occupy in world affairs.

For hundreds of years, the Ottoman empire dominated much of Asia, Europe and north Africa. No one is suggesting that the rulers of modern Turkey harbour similar imperial ambitions - but few doubt that the charismatic, and populist, prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, enjoys his newly-won status as a global statesman.

So as the Queen welcomes President Gül to Buckingham Palace next week, she will know that he represents a nation that has earned its place as a global player. When I asked a leading AKP official if Turkey's hour has come, he laughed and said: "I hope so."

I'll be reporting from Istanbul in tonight's (Friday's) programme; if you miss it, it'll be available as a podcast or online for the next seven days.


  • Comment number 1.

    Democracy is a process where the people have some say in the type of government. If a people decide to go one way or the other, is their decision. The West should not be telling others what is the definition of democracy. The elected officials of the West facilitated the current global financial crisis by turning their heads while the banks colluded to run a world-wide ponzi scheme so they are in no position to be lecturing anyone. The development of democracy is a process. In the
    West it has taken hundreds of years and many confrontations to gain a sense of individual rights. Today, democracy is only defined in economic terms, which is not democratic at all. The words of the West ring hollow around the world and everybody recognizes that but them. Turkey has a unique geographical location, that can not be replicated. The snake oil salesmen are out there selling their nonsense again. Europe should concentrate on developing its own economic and democratic systems before it is advising others. Do they really want to promote that others should do as they have done. It has caused all the problems that now exist.

  • Comment number 2.

    At 13:31 18th Nov 2011, ghostofsichuan:
    Read your piece. You didn't tell me anything I didn't know, but I admired your style in doing it. Thanks for taking the time.

  • Comment number 3.

    The only way to do justice to your article is to take it on one country at a time.
    Do I think Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, having deposed their autocratic leaders, are about to join Iran as Islamist republics?
    Egypt deposed.
    Tunisia deposed.
    Libya was a western, NATO coup over a leader who was well-beloved of his people, except for Benghazi - where you will note this "disposal" began.
    Do you think that after elections are held (the first have already taken place in Tunisia), Islamist parties will take power and install theocratic systems of government in which Western liberal ideas of freedom and tolerance have no place?
    1. Egypt is still struggling to hold its first election; it's still militarized. But I think in the end, it will have an Islamic Government.
    2. Tunisia has an Islamic Government, and I believe much room for secular input; therefore, it will not be a theocratic government as such, though I'm pretty sure it has seen enough of western-type democracy.
    3. Libya is one big chaotic mess where any election is unforeseeable, where NATO and the west have set back Libyan civilization into the stone age - all for oil and geopolitical advantage. Libya (in my book) harbours war crimes against the Libyan People, but who will draw the west to account?

  • Comment number 4.

    I found your next couple of paragraphs biased. e.g. In addition to reporting that Abdullah Gül, will be in London for a State visit, why did you feel it necessary to point out "his hijab-wearing wife"?
    In addition to reporting that Turkey has been ruled by the Justice and Development Party, known here as the AKP, why did you feel it necessary to remark "a far cry from the principles of Kemal Ataturk...who enshrined secularism in the country's constitution", as though Abdullah Gül's policies have slipped away from secularism. I think that you think this insinuation is supported by a good portion of your remaining article.

  • Comment number 5.

    Model for democracy: No, says former general Haldun Solmazturk, who argues army, which has traditionally claimed to be a guarantor of Turkish secularism (a peculiar statement re democracy), has now been marginalised; I didn't know that democracies relied so heavily on the military.
    In his 8 years in power, Mr Erdogan has done more than any of his secular predecessors to move Turkey closer to its goal of full membership in EU. Mr Erdogan has also faced down COUP THREATS from the country’s generals. He has since steadily trimmed the powers of both the army & the judiciary, most recently in a constitutional-reform package that was put to a popular referendum last September. Some 58% of voters APPROVED the reforms.
    Turkey’s economy has survived global financial crisis. It is expected to grow by 5% this year, putting it only just behind China & India. Violence in the mainly Kurdish south-east has almost stopped; perhaps through deals with imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Abdullah Ocalan. On Arab streets, Mr Erdogan’s blasts against Israel have made him a hero. Turkish elections are free and fair, and the press is largely unfettered. Yet there is also no question that Mr Erdogan is getting less tolerant. Why?
    Having tamed Turkey’s largest media conglomerate, Dogan, with massive fines for alleged tax fraud, government is now taking aim at other dissident voices: Oda tv, an internet news portal with a pro-army tilt. This week its founder, Soner Yalcin, was detained for alleged involvement with the so-called Ergenekon GANG OF GENERALS, who are standing trial on charges of seeking to overthrow the government. Mr Erdogan wants to replace incumbent, Abdullah Gul. Yet nobody, Mr Gul included, knows when his term will end. This because presidents are elected by the people & not parliament. The Supreme Electoral Board is expected to decide soon whether these new rules apply to Mr Gul; in other words, whether he can stay til 2014 or only until 2012. I have to think it is very interesting, don't you, that Abdullah Gül is paying a state visit to the WEST.

  • Comment number 6.

    Model for democracy: Yes, says Kaya Genc, who argues the army should play NO political role in a modern democracy, & the AKP represents views of the majority of Turks far more accurately than did its secular predecessors in government. This is my position in a nutshell!
    I also agree with Khaled Abol Naga: Arabs need not look to Turkey for a model. Tunisian uprising was home-grown. It's government must reflect Tunisian culture, etc.
    The army currently rules post-Mubarak Egypt; this is angrily condemned by pro-democracy activists. Like Khaled Abol Naga, I too fear the military may well be looking to Turkey's military for guidance, which would be a mistake since Erdogan has demonstrated to have Turkish military in its place. However, I am highly suspicious as I have said as to why Abdullah Gül is paying state visit now. Is the west looking to interfere, instigate - perhaps in both Egypt and Turkey?
    If the WEST is looking to start with its twitter/facebook/social network agitation, if it is seeking local agitators, it will meet its match in populist, PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
    As the Queen welcomes President Gül to Buckingham Palace next week, I hope she realizes from whence he comes, his potential political agenda.

  • Comment number 7.

    Et tu, Tunisia? Delay in forming govt reflects fears in political establishment of working class struggles, but broader concerns of WESTERN IMPERIALIST govts over whether Ennadha will be a support to WESTERN INTERESTS in the region. Western imperialism has often tolerated Islamists groups as loyal right-wing opposition forces (Iranian clerics under the US-backed Shah of Iran). As long as US CLAIMS to be fighting a “war on terror” against Islamist groups, there is concern in imperialist circles about the democratic freedom of allowing an Islamist regime to actually come to power. Should Ennahda fail to maintain the support of the imperialist powers, they would be ousted in some manner by imperialism. Ennahda & its coalition allies have made clear that they will continue the free-market policies of Ben Ali AGAINST THE WORKING CLASS, for the benefit of Tunisian businessmen & international capitalism. Ennahda’s Secretary-General, Hamadi Jbeli, who is likely to become PM in the transitional government, met with Tunisian business federation UTICA. He tried to reassure businessmen & investors: that Ennahdha views businessmen as partners in the decision-making process and in all economic and social cases. The imperialist powers are pushing for coalition government including Ennadha and the “center-left” parties such as the CPR & Ettakatol. US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland called this interference: “coalition-building.” Asked whether the US is concerned by rise of Islamist parties in the Middle East after Ennadha’s victory, Nuland said US would not judge Tunisia’s political parties “by what they’re called. We’re going to judge them by what they do..." What they need to do (of course) is support western imperialism. West's main concern is whether Ennadha will adhere to the policies dictated by imperialism. Party leader Rachid Ghannouchi, understands well danger of having Ennahda blacklisted by disgruntled Western allies, whose past conduct in the region is predicated on ostracizing any political entity that dares challenge western interests. Western assessment of Tunisia’s future under a Islamists-led government actually has to do with one question: Now that Ennahda has won Tunisia’s elections, how willing will it be to bow down & kiss imperialist feet?

  • Comment number 8.

    As for Egypt: 9 months after the revolution that toppled President Hosni Mubarak, tens of thousands of Islamists jammed Tahrir Square to protest efforts by Egypt’s military rulers to retain power. The Muslim Brotherhood & other Islamist political parties dominated the rally. The spark for the Islamists’ protests was a recent set of declarations issued by the military-led government as ground rules for the drafting of a new Constitution. Many of its provisions sought to enshrine protections of individual liberties & minority rights that liberals have sought. BUT ANOTHER PROVISION granted the military a long-term political role AS GUARDIAN OF “constitutional legitimacy,” which many Islamists suspect would give the military an excuse to intervene at will. The protesters also criticized provisions that would protect the military from civilian scrutiny of its budget and give the military veto power over certain foreign policy decisions.
    Many of the Islamists rebuked the military for repeatedly delaying its handover of power, initially promised by September, now scheduled for 2013 or later. Many chanted calls for the overthrow of the ruling military council or the exit of its leader, Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.
    Delivering the Muslim prayer sermon at the rally, Imam Mazhar Shahin urged protesters to keep defending the goals of the revolution.
    The ruling party right now is The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the formal name of the military authority that took power when Mr. Mubarak was ousted. The Muslim Brotherhood, through its Freedom and Justice Party, may emerge as the largest bloc in any election if an election is ever called.
    Only one major liberal group, "The April 6 Movement", was a conspicuous presence on Friday. Its members held banners proclaiming “The Friday of One Demand,” referring to their call for the military to turn over power to civilian authorities in April. That is when the elections, set to begin Nov. 28, will have produced a new lower house of Parliament that could take authority.
    Many Islamist political parties (from the giant Freedom & Justice Party founded by the Muslim Brotherhood, to the smaller parties founded by ultraconservatives known as Salafis) have put up campaign banners, delivered speeches. This Arab flower has yet to be planted. May it not whither.

  • Comment number 9.

    So where has sprung the Arab spring?
    What country are we talking about?
    All I see are people fighting for freedom being suppressed by the respective military.

  • Comment number 10.

    What exact model of democracy are we considering to be 'democracy.? Whose democracy? What is the suffrage model? Who has the franchise? Is the system of voting rigged in any way? The West's view of democracy is really quite a flawed version, isn't it?

    The long and tortuous history of government in this region (of Asia Minor) cannot be summarised neatly in a few paragraphs The end of the Ottoman Empire in the 1919/1923 Treaties of Paris was just the start of modern Turkey then we have the founding fathers including Mustafa Kemal Atatürk plus we should remember that our view of what constitutes democracy has changed very substantially since then - with such things as the enfranchisement of Women. So I repeat myself what are we taking about when we use the term democracy? Who are we to judge?

    I am sure that today our view of democracy who abhor the democracy we had in 1921? Turkey has had to withstand many tensions and un or partially resolved disputes which owe they origin to the way that the great powers divided up the Ottoman Empire many of these are still open wounds today.

    In British terms we still have to learn to overcome the disputes relating to 1917/1921 in Ireland as do the descendent administrations and states of the Ottoman Empire. The UK has still not come to terms with the loss of Empire and this does huge ongoing damage to the country. We suffer the outrageous nonsense of the empire loyalists and their modern cousins the Little Englander who do immense damage to the country every day. The same must be true of Turkey too and we need to show understanding. For example the terrible results of the ethnic cleansing and forced transportation of Turks from Greece and vice versa exactly mirror those of the Muslins and |Hindus between India and Pakistan two decades later - both episodes are stains on humanity and democracy.

    Questions for us: Can we overcome our bigotry and prejudice and welcome 70+ million European Turks into the EU fairly soon (next decade or so?) - we really ought to try shouldn't we? (In this we have to overcome the objections of the French! - but that is all part of being a open club where we do talk frankly with our neighbours!)

    It is also wrong to talk about the 'Arab Spring' as being anything to do with democracy - yet! The 'Arab Spring' is at best a marketing stunt by the media for the transitions from autocratic dictatorships to who knows what!


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