What’s to come in the Middle East and North Africa and beyond: A ‘Turkish model’?

15:44 11 February in ARTICLES, In English, PUBLICATIONS

Todays ZamanToday’s Zaman | 11 February, 2011 | 

By Mehmet Öğütçü* and Jonathan Clarke | 

By and large, ordinary people in the Middle East are fed up with corruption, nepotism, great disparities of wealth and suppression of opposition in every day life across the region.

This state of affairs poses a great dilemma: how to achieve reform without opening the door to possible Islamic radicals. A related question: How do the ruling elites take the necessary steps without risking their own deeply entrenched interests?

There are no easy answers but increasingly, not only in the region, but also in Europe and the US, there is talk of the “Turkish model.”Tunisia was the first Arab regime to go down. Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia was toppled in less than a month — the first time in the Arab world. There was no leader of opposition, no outside influence — this was done on the streets.

No Islamist role in it. His successor will not likely be an Islamist. Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the Islamist al-Nahda party, who has returned to Tunisia from exile, said he was optimistic that the Tunisian people have provided a model for how, through a peaceful revolution, people can topple the strongest dictatorships. The French made an embarrassing mistake by protecting Ben Ali to the last minute.

With the decisive involvement of modern communications technology and media, such as Al Jazeera, and mobile telephones and social networks playing a decisive role, autocratic governments no longer have a place to hide. They can no longer rely on their security apparatus. A time bomb has exploded.

Will the Muslim Brotherhood march to power?

Throughout Egyptian history only Cairo has mattered. It is a heavily centralized country. Some observers tend to see radical Islam behind everything that happens there. Certainly, the radicals are excited by the possibilities it opens up, but they have already suffered setbacks. The majority of the demonstrators appear to be secularists and democrats. The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) wants to take part in this general uprising, not to dominate it. The MB neither initiated nor led the current round of protests, but they have joined them. They are likely to be a prominent player in a democratic Egypt, but without being neither dominant nor marginal.

Because Egypt has never had free and fair elections, both the MB’s popularity and its commitment to democracy remain untested. In Egypt’s 2005 election, which was less rigged than any previous Egyptian vote, MB members running as independents managed to increase their share in the legislature fivefold. It won 88 seats, making it the biggest opposition bloc in parliament. But the MB is internally divided. It faces a generational struggle, with an old guard trying to prevent its ideals from being diluted while a younger generation (those in the 35-55 age bracket) looks to Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AK Party) as a role model.At best, while it is clear that the MB is on the verge of benefiting from demands for democracy in Egypt, its most realistic expectation is to be the largest political force in a future government, one in which the military would have a huge say.

How the MB fares depends on the actions of the other reform leaders. No one person stands out. Mohammed ElBaradei could be the man for the job, but he seems to lack a domestic political base and is not seen as a serious contender for the presidency because he is not close to the grassroots or elites in the country. To date, he lives at his Vienna flat and comes to Cairo from time to time. The current prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, is highly respected. Another figure with similar stature is Arab League Secretary Amr Moussa.

The military has the real power

Although it is the crowds in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that have captured the world’s television screens, the force now pushing Mubarak out is in fact his own military. The army is enormously more powerful and popular than the demonstrators. It has been so since 1952. A range of technocrats have appeared in public roles, but it is the generals who run the country — especially the Air Force generals.But there is much we do not know about the institution of the Egyptian military. It is hardly a monolith, but operates as a parallel economy, a kind of “Military Inc.,” involved in the production of electronics, household appliances, clothing and food. Although the Pentagon has long promoted its close ties to the Egyptian military, which receives $1.3 billion annually in US aid, neither Defense Secretary Robert Gates nor Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen have especially close relationships with their Egyptian counterparts. It is clear that, rather than listening to the US, Egypt’s military leader Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi and the small circle of military men around him weighed their personal loyalty to Mubarak against the threat to the military from the crisis — and chose their own survival.

Implications for the West and Israel

The West has this time acted in a timely and responsible manner. Obama’s call for Mubarak to heed the popular reform demands has gone down well. No anti-Western backlash is expected. Yet the Israelis are most worried. They worry about Hezbollah, they worry about Hamas — these are trivial threats right now compared to Egypt. Dealing with Egypt, one way or the other, will become a new primary national concern. Amplifying the Israeli anxiety is, of course, the added fact that after having effectively “lost Turkey” it faces the risk of losing another key, albeit indirect, ally in the Middle East, where it is already sufficiently isolated.

Indeed, events in Egypt have been met by near hysteria in the Israeli press. Splashy headlines, including “We’re on our own,” “Obama’s betrayal of Mubarak,” and “A bullet in the back from Uncle Sam,” highlight Israel’s growing isolation, the potential rise of Islamist forces and withering criticism of the US government. The Netanyahu government has been lobbying Western capitals to adopt a supportive approach to the Mubarak regime as Mubarak has been a key facilitator of Israel’s agenda in the region. In recent years, this alliance has extended beyond easing pressure on Israel grown to include support for Israel’s blockade of Gaza which depends crucially on the Egyptian closure of its own border to the Gaza.

Undoubtedly, Egypt remains the cornerstone of much Middle Eastern politics — the domino effect is now in full swing. Jordan, Algeria, Syria, Yemen and Morocco are all candidates to suffer the same fate sooner or later. Yet it is misguided to assume that a democratic tsunami will necessarily sweep the whole of the Middle East as many of the issues that have brought Egypt to the brink may be more easily solved by Arab countries richer in oil.Though less influential than it was 30 years ago, Egypt still has more than double the population of any other Arab country and is looked to by Arabs around the world. Where Egypt goes, history shows that other Arab countries soon follow. Almost every major social or political movement of the last 100 years started in Egypt — from the Muslim Brotherhood, launched in the city of Ismailia in the 1920s, the events involving Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s chief ideologist.

The Gulf States, Israel, Turkey, Iraq and Lebanon are the least likely to witness similar unrest, though the last two obviously face other serious threats. While countries such as Mauritania, Morocco, Jordan and Yemen politically have more in common with Egypt and Tunisia – and in some cases have already seen protests, their low levels of political development suggest that mass uprisings could be hard to sustain.In neighboring Libya, for example, the regime has just announced vast spending on public housing in an attempt to buy off disquiet. Syria is still under Bashar al-Assad’s strong control. In Oman there were only 300 protestors. Qatar is a tiny but enormously rich country. Sudan and Iraq are preoccupied with their own ongoing troubles.Iran’s hardliners are clearly hopeful that grass-roots Islamist groups in the Arab world will soon stake their claim and head any new governments that may emerge, while steering their countries out of the “hegemonic” orbit of the United States. They are encouraged by what they see as recent Iranian gains in the region, despite US attempts to isolate Iran and international sanctions imposed on it because of its nuclear program. They deride Mubarak as an ossified “pharaoh” who has taken US aid in exchange for upholding his country’s unpopular 1979 peace treaty with the “Zionist entity,” Israel.

Turkish model?

The Iranian model seems, however, to offer little for either the region’s leaders or the people. Rather than viewing Iran as a model, many of the Arab world’s Islamists circles look to Turkey, where the moderate, Islamist-rooted ruling party has increased democratic participation, strengthened the country’s international standing and improved the economy.

For decades, the choice in Egypt was between autocratic stability and radical Islam. Hosni Mubarak and other autocrats had become masters at presenting themselves as the only alternative to the MB. There was no third alternative. As the West and Egypt are now discussing the possibility of such alternatives, Turkey, with its secular and democratic political system, is once again emerging as a potential model. But what exactly is the Turkish model? The answer is complex.

In fact, there are two different Turkish models. One concerns the role of the military. In a political climate where the Egyptian army calls the shots it is only a matter of time before analysts draw the analogy with Turkey, another country where the military has been the most important political actor for decades. The second Turkish model is about the nature of political Islam in Egypt and the future of the MB. Will Egyptian political Islam be radical? Or can the Muslim Brotherhood change the way Turkish political Islam did? We should steer clear of simplistic comparisons between Turkey and Egypt.

There are important structural differences between the two countries.Turkey is a country where for the past 50 years political Islam has found a place for itself in democratic elections, both in parliamentary and local elections and where it has made significant gains within the system over the years. The AK Party is the third reincarnation and most moderate version of Turkish political Islam. But even its predecessors played the game by the rules and learned to adapt themselves to a secular and democratic system. Such a democratic system has yet to be created in Egypt.That was why US President Barack Obama telephoned Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and listened to his evaluation of the developments that have taken place in Tunisia and are still unfolding in Egypt. The message Erdoğan delivered to Mubarak was a rather clear one: “It’s high time to pack up and escape to oblivion.” As clear as that… Erdoğan did not play with words. He did not try to be gentle.

Where do we go from here?

Whether the “Turkish model” takes root or Egypt goes in a different direction, there will inevitably be some disruptions to international business. The cost of doing business might increase as populist policies dominate the business scene with higher subsidies, wage increases and public expenditures to buy out the opposition. Economic reforms will take a backseat in the foreseeable future. Some businesses will be worried about the possibility of the cancellation of the deals negotiated by the previous regime.Economic dislocation is, however, for the moment in the background. The key lies in the political sphere. The most favorable next step would be if someone known and respected was to become acting president for a few months before free multi-party elections were held. This would create the necessary breathing room in which to build a pragmatic consensus on the way forward.Whoever emerges as the dominant political force after elections in September (perhaps even in May under the “Uncle Omar stewardship”), the rich and secretive Egyptian military will certainly hold the key to the governing of Egypt, the country’s future and by extension to the stability of the Arab world. Some will shudder at this prospect but, as the example of Turkey shows, if the civilian and military pillars of the society can reach a mutual understanding (“co-habitation”), stability and prosperity are within reach. And without waiting the five decades of experience that Turkey has had.