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Would the Turkish Model Work in Arab Spring Countries?

  • Mohamed Elshinnawi

Youth are seen in Ankara holding Turkey's national flag and wearing T-shirts adorned with the image of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, secular Turkey's founder (file photo).

Youth are seen in Ankara holding Turkey's national flag and wearing T-shirts adorned with the image of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, secular Turkey's founder (file photo).

The leader of one of the most popular political parties in Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, says his model for the development of democracy in the Muslim world is Turkey. And Hillary Clinton, when she was the U.S. secretary of state, also cited Turkey as an example of how Arab Spring nations could embrace democracy.

“Turkey is a model country for us in terms of democracy,” Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of Tunisia's Ennahda Party said in October of 2011, at the height of the Arab Spring uprisings that shook the Middle East and North Africa.

That same year, Clinton was even more effusive in describing Turkey as a shining example for democratic development in the region.

“People from the Middle East and North Africa,” she said, “are seeking to draw lessons from Turkey's experience. It is vital that they learn the lessons that Turkey has learned and is putting into practice every single day.”

A new study by the Brookings Institution, a research center in Washington, D.C., draws the same conclusion.

The analysis comes with a long name - “Muslim Politics Without an ‘Islamic’ State: Can Turkey’s Justice and Development Party be a Model for Arab Islamists?” – but its essence can be summed up with just a few words: Turkey’s Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) could be a democratic model for nations emerging from the Arab Spring uprisings.

The idea is that the “AKP model” would promote democracy thereby allaying fears, both in the Middle East and the West, that Islamists would turn their Arab nations into Sunni versions of Iran’s authoritarian and anti-Western system.

But while promoting the AKP model, the Brookings study also acknowledges there are many critics who dismiss the idea, arguing that the AKP’s defense of secularism in Turkey makes it an improbable source of inspiration elsewhere in the region.

The secular character of Ankara’s governing structure was put in place by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who founded the modern Turkish state in the 1920s on the ruins of the collapsed Ottoman Empire. Since then, Turkish politics have been dominated by the interaction between secular Islamists and secular liberals, with the military as the guarantor of the secular nature of the state.

The Turkish constitution does not allow any religious institution to supersede the government, nor does it specify Islam as an official state religion.

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi are seen at a joint news conference in Ankara September 30, 2012.

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi are seen at a joint news conference in Ankara September 30, 2012.

According to Mustafa Akyol, a Turkish journalist and author of “Islam Without Extremes,” this experience also altered the nature of Turkey’s Islamist political parties, allowing the late Necmettin Erbakan’s Islamist Welfare Party to win national elections in 1995 and form a government.

“In the 2000s, some of Erbakan’s more reformist students, like current Prime Minister [Recep] Tayyip Erdogan, moved away from ideological Islamism and focused on economic growth and accepted the secular-democratic framework of the Turkish state, and eventually curtailed the power of the military,” Akyol said.

“Once in power,” he continued, “the party delivered phenomenal economic growth and average Turkish incomes have tripled.”

Turkish model between Egypt and Tunisia

But Samer Shehata, assistant professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University, says this model won’t necessarily work in Arab Spring countries, especially in places like Egypt, where many in the predominantly Muslim populations see secularism as anti-religion. Additionally, he notes, Egypt’s constitution has just been rewritten under the guidance of an Islamist dominated parliament and a Muslim Brotherhood presidency.

“While the Turkish constitution kept the religion away from politics, the newly-drafted constitution of Egypt comprises further introduction of elements having to do with religion.” Shehata said. “Al Azhar, the oldest Islamic institution, would somehow have some say over what constitutes legislation that is in alignment with the Islamic law.”

Tawfik Hamid, a scholar at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., also has his doubts about Turkey’s governing model being suitable for Egypt.

“The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is not open to moderate its positions and shift its priorities from Islamization to economic growth,” Hamid says. “And the constitution contains inadequate protection for women and non-Muslims, and leaves the door open for potential oversight of legislation by Islamic scholars.”

Hamid argues that while the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party won a plurality in a free election, its main competitors were not secularists or liberals, but extreme Salafi parties and movements. He also recalls that Muslim Brotherhood leaders warmly welcomed Turkey’s Erdogan when he visited Egypt, but then harshly criticized him when he suggested a secular state.

Tunisia, according to Shehata, is much better equipped to emulate the Turkish model. The Tunisian constitution, he says, “makes no mention of the Islamic law, and because of the past secular policies of Tunisia’s first president, [Habib] Bourguiba, between 1957 and 1987, Tunisia is much closer to what happened in Turkey at the beginning of the 20th century.”

Shehata adds that Tunisia now is further along at putting together a state that provides equal citizenship, equal rights for everyone and civil liberties.

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