Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

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The Turkish Model for Egypt? Beware of False Analogies

by Steven A. Cook
February 4, 2011

Turkish air force cadets march during a graduation ceremony for 197 cadets at the Air Force war academy in Istanbul

Turkish air force cadets march during a graduation ceremony at the Air Force war academy in Istanbul. (Osman Orsal/courtesy Reuters)

Despite my best efforts and those of others including the estimable Ellis Goldberg, the romance with the Egyptian military is now in full swing. Omar Suleiman, a Dark Lord of the Sith, is now seen as Egypt’s savior along with the rest of the generals. How have we gotten to the point where people are pinning their hopes on the top brass? Historical analogies and precedent are always important in helping policymakers, journalists, and analysts make sense of events. The problem is you need the correct historical analogy to help guide you. In the case of Egypt, it is decidedly not the so-called “Turkish model,” which is starting to pop up in the debate about the Egyptian uprising.

Between 1960 and 1997, the Turkish General Staff intervened four times (1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997) to undermine governments it did not like. Each time, the generals returned government back to civilians and thus, the “Turkish model”—at least in the minds of many Western observers—was born. Here was a military that could play a moderating role in the political system, keeping the excesses of the civilian politicians whether they were Rightists, Leftist, or Islamists in check, paving the way for a democratic Turkey. It sounds all warm and fuzzy and a seemingly sensible prototype for Egypt, but it is not. This narrative leaves out some critical parts of the story:

1.       The military only handed power back to civilians after re-engineering Turkey’s political institutions in a way that was decidedly undemocratic. The 1971 “coup by memorandum” occurred because the general staff believed the 1961 constitution was too liberal. They wanted to tighten things up a bit. The constitution written at the behest of the military after the September 12, 1980 coup was designed to prevent challenges to the Kemalist status quo, which was authoritarian. And, the so-called February 28th Process, which ended Turkey’s first experiment in Islamist-led government, placed all kinds of restrictive measures on the political arena.

2.        If you ask pious Turks, Kurds, and liberals there was nothing moderate or progressive about the military’s penchant for intervening in the political system. These groups were consistently subject to repression on the part of the Turkish state, which was ruled, if not governed by the General Staff (sorry…I couldn’t resist).

3.       Turkey only began a transition to democracy in 2002-2005, when it undertook thoroughgoing reforms in order to meet the Europe’s requirements (known as the Copenhagen criteria) to begin EU membership negotiations. The military opposed these changes, but because the Justice and Development Party led a broad based coalition of pious Turks, big business, Kurds, and average citizens who looked forward to the political and economic benefits of EU membership, the military was constrained from acting to undermine the reforms. Militaries always need civilian support to intervene in politics and with approximately 75-80 percent of the public backing the EU process, the officers would have undermined their cherished standing among Turks had they intervened to undermine the reforms.

So it seems the real lesson of the Turkish model is: Turkey has become more democratic not because of the military, but rather despite the military.

It’s worth emphasizing that the comparisons between Egypt and Turkey are rich. As much as there are striking similarities, there are also vast differences. There is no critical external actor to play the role of the European Union that can constrain the Egyptian military. Even if the United States wanted to (Washington has more often enabled the predatory nature of the Egyptian regime) what incentives could it offer Egypt’s officers that would constrain their ability to play an outsized and largely negative role in the political system. In 2005, I suggested additional military aid in return for reform, but it is not at all clear that this honey would work and in the present environment Congress is not going to provide any additional support to the Egyptians.

My suggestion: The best way to support democracy is to support democracy not to enable authoritarians to take over the political system and hope they’ll negotiate their way out of power.

Post a Comment 8 Comments

  • Posted by sureyya

    “Between 1960 and 1997, the Turkish General Staff intervened four times (1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997) to undermine governments it did not like. Each time, the generals returned government back to civilians and…”
    I’m sorry Sir, but there wasn’t any general that took over the lead or left it back to civilians in 1997.

  • Posted by Can

    approximately 75-80 percent of the public backing the EU process? Where did you get this data?
    You mentioned that Turkey has become more ‘democratic’ not because of the military, but rather despite the military. However 40 percent of the people are against the constitutional changes and more than 50 percent is against the justice and development party decisions in parliament so we can say Turkey has become more ‘democratic’ despite the people.
    Democracy in Islamic countries take them closer to Iran… It is a good model for Egypt and the rest of the middle east.

  • Posted by Basil Venitis

    Diplomats use tact to gain strategic advantage or to find mutually acceptable solutions to a common challenge, one set of tools being the phrasing of statements in a non-confrontational or polite manner. But some Greek diplomats use freak, instead of tact! Not only Turkish diplomats far outsmart Greek diplomats on a consistent basis, but Greek Ministers of Foreign Affairs also do unbelievable masochistic stupid things.

    On October 18, 2010, a deranged Greek Minister of Foreign Affairs destroyed a distinguished professor and dissident blogger in order to appease Premier Erdogan of Turkey. Dissident head on plate is something Salome, femmes fatales, or sirens would definitely appreciate! Beware of Greeks bearing gifts, especially Trojan Horses and dissident heads!

    Erdogan, a smart man, did not bite the Greek Minister’s bait. Instead, he felt his intelligence was insulted. Moreover, the Minister’s stupidity and inhumanity backfired worldwide. Now all diplomats talk behind the back of Greek Premier Papandreou wherever he shows up, and bond traders have penalized Greek debt with a stupidity markup on required return. This is a confirmation of the Butterfly Effect of Chaos Theory!

  • Posted by Mark Apple

    It’s the second your article I read. The first I read 2 days ago; its main thesis was (almost exactly) “Mubarak is hated by Egiptians for support of Israel”. Maybe you describe both Egiptian and Turk people correctly in both articles… I just think that current “democratic” process in both countries will bring economic stagnation and opression of all liberties not seen during previous despotic regims. Let’s wait 10 years from now.

  • Posted by Melih Calikoglu

    A short but contains true analysis.

    1) The first coupe was not 1960 actually. There were military intervention in the system before that. Actually after the establishment of the Republic, the military and civil bureaucracy that carried out the Independence war, actively took the power from the Emperor and thus created a contemporary authoritarian state. Although the first parliament was established in 1876, later interrupted by the monarchy, it could be said that until 1920 there had already been a ground for a democratic society to be established, with pits and falls, mainly because of the destruction of the WWI and fight between various ethnicities inside the empire.
    So, literally speaking in 1920’s military centered bureaucracy became the real power in the state, choking early efforts to establish a legitimate opposition to the “One Party” state.
    Thus, the beginning of democrasy is accepted as the first free elections in 1950, the year that the “One Party Rule” have fallen. A 10 years of period where the military and civil bureaucracy couldn’t stand for long and making the first coupe d’etate against legitimate democratically elected governments, killing the prime minister and 2 other ministers.
    1960 – 1990 can be accepted as the period, where authoritarian bureaucracy, created a medium in which they can intervene the governance when ever they wanted. Although politicians were elected in free elections, the constitutional system laid upon them created a level of control of the authoritarian state, which protected the public from the twisted politicians !!!
    After the end of cold war in 1990, Turkish political system dropped into a turmoil, Turgut Özal, a decisive political figure as the prime minister, made such reforms that the authoritarian state began diminishing. Later Turgut Özal was to be elected as the first truly civilian President of Turkey. His death in 1993, deepened the chaos of the period which led to the last coupe d’etate of Turkey in 1997, which was said to last 1.000 years. Leaving the area to democracy as it has always been said by the generals, they made the following governments merely puppets but that only took only 4 years for this crippled and premature system to collapse with one of the greatest economical crisis in the Turkish history.
    This crisis gave the ordinary people the way to erase the old political parties to the ground and rise a new party, which itself was born out of a cold war era political movement (islamists as called in general), with a great power.
    It turns out that the mighty and secret secular bureaucracy did not give up quite easily, as other plans for coupe d’etats have been revealed recently.
    In 2007, they tried their last chance by trying to create religious-secularist struggle in the society but again, the population fed up with this “deep state (as it is called)” supporting the legitimate government with an unseen rate of vote 46.7 %.

    It seems the new political stability, which led politicians to gain more power, but also change the state into a more democratic one showed how beneficial for the country and the people, that the self esteem and trust raised among the people, which in end, effected the political system to do more reforms and creating more powerful and rich country.

    Now, it is a period in Turkish political history, where not only a legitimate freely elected government in full power is to be accepted, but also the country is at the verge of creating a democratic opposition to compete with it.

    So, you are totally right that military had nothing to do about Turkey becoming more democratic. It was just unfeasible in such a country, where historically there were no period of military rule. (Even in during the Empire, the military coupes ended with just changing the political leader with a new one. Even during the beginning of the Republic, where at last the military elite has completely get rid of the monarch, the real civilian governing authority, they established a civilian looking authoritarian regime) It is just impossible to hold the society under a few years of real military rule.

    And for Egypt, the story is just beginning where we will see the same semi-governing military, hidden inside the so called civil regime, and with the premature civil political system they will see a period to do this until the society takes time to evolve and gain the real power.

    Despite what Bush thinks, democracy is not created in one day. It takes time, sometimes a century and more.

  • Posted by Kazi

    In response to Can … about your observation that democracy in muslim countries take them close to Iran, i think u do not know about Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia (at least) who are Muslim majority countries (Indonesia being the largest one while Bangladesh is third largest) as well as (vibrant) functioning democracies.

  • Posted by Jon

    You can hardly call Bangladesh and Indonesia vibrant secular democracies. Indonesia officially has a form of sharia law implemented in a majority of states at the regional level. While Bangladesh does not, they do have informal sharia courts controlled by communities at the local level. The Central Government thus far has been rendered powerless to adequately eradicate them. Let’s not forget that Indonesia has only been a democracy for 12 years now or the fact that regular attacks have been launched against religious minorities in those nations. As far as Malaysia is concerned, it is illegal in Malaysia for a malay to be a non-Muslim. It is illegal for a non-Muslim to change his religion. All Malay Muslims are required to have islamic religious instruction in public schools. Let’s not forget about the influence of the significant and economically prosperous Chinese and Indian ethnic minority populations.

  • Posted by hussein

    Turkish army sees itself as the founder of the Turkish republic and sees the right to save it from dangers when army sees necessary. Until 2000’s, this was the case. Because of the cold war atmosphere, western countries supported the army. Army has its own firms in Turkey, retired generals and their children work in big companies and it was good business for them. The idea was army is the modernising force in Turkey, so it must be supported at all costs. During that time high officers in the army was making good business. But now things seem to change. You know better than me because of your works and book, but I wanted to remind other readers.

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