Louafi Larbi / Courtesy Reuters Army soldiers take their positions on a bridge which leads to Tahrir square in Cairo July 5, 2013.

Officers and Democrats

Can Egypt Pull Off the Turkey Trick?

When a popular military coup dislodged Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi from power earlier this week, it became fashionable once again to speak of the Turkish model -- the country is relatively well functioning, it is Muslim majority but also secular and democratic, and it has a history of military interventions against Islamist-leaning governments that supposedly advanced democracy.

The idea that other countries could learn from the Turkish example has been around since the early days of the Arab Spring. It might be tempting for Egyptians to latch onto it now, hoping that the Egyptian military’s actions over the past few days will lead to a similar outcome. And despite the fact that the coup’s immediate aftermath has brought reprisals against members of the Muslim Brotherhood and armed clashes in the streets between the Brotherhood’s supporters and opponents, there are certainly arguments to be made that this particular coup may have a happy democratic ending. But looking to Turkey as an example badly misreads Turkish history and political development. Turkey did not get where it is today because of the military but, rather, in spite of it.

The so-called Turkish model, in which the military provides the space for secular democracy to thrive, is built on the assumption that decades of military tutelage in Turkey were beneficial. The army, the thinking goes, served as an important check on elected governments until Turkish democracy had matured to the point that it could run on its own. In fact, military rule in Turkey, particularly following the 1980 coup, did the opposite. For one, it brought the torture, imprisonment, and disappearance of thousands upon thousands of Turkish citizens. In addition, although the coup had enormous public support -- much like the recent one in Egypt -- it did not lead to political utopia. No country can be democratic until there are no unelected bodies with power over elected officials. So long as the Turkish military had the ultimate veto, elected governments had to look over their shoulders, which in turn, damaged state and civil society institutions. Kemalist judges relied on the army to further their interests, Turkish media became part and parcel of a climate of censorship, and state institutions remained immature. 

The argument that the Turkish military was solely out to protect the secular character of the Turkish state is also flawed. Much like the Egyptian army, Turkish officers were looking to protect their place in the system and their own privileges. It is true that the military coup plotters in 1960 talked about rescuing Turkish democracy from religious ideologues, and that they returned power to elected civilians in less than two years. But it is also indisputable that the junior officers who carried out the coup had done so because the government had been neglecting the armed forces’ upkeep, so that it was in a shabby state compared to its NATO counterparts. In the case of Egypt, the fact that the Egyptian military worked with the Muslim Brotherhood until doing so was no longer convenient speaks volumes about whether the army has an ideological agenda, or a self-interested one. The military may not want to govern. But it also does not necessarily want genuine democracy in Egypt.

Much has been made about the fact that the Turkish military returned to the barracks relatively quickly following each coup. But that was never a given, and it had more to do with Turkey’s own history than with a commitment to democracy. The best predictor of whether a country is democratic in any given period of time is whether it has been democratic in the past. Turkey’s first coup in 1960 came 14 years after its transition to a competitive two-party system and ten years after its first democratic election and handover of power. That history made it easier for the Turkish military to restore power to civilians: not only was there a state bureaucracy already in place, but more crucially, there was a strong expectation of elections and civilian rule. After each coup, Turkey’s democratic history created public pressure for the military to step aside. The same might be true in Egypt, but the country’s lack of a democratic history makes it extremely difficult to break a cycle in which the military has intervened twice in less than three years. Smart money says that this military coup -- which comes so close on the heels of the last one and in a deeply polarized country -- will not be Egypt’s last.

Finally, when the Turkish military ultimately did give up its prerogative of overthrowing the government it was not out of fealty to democratic principles, but because it had little choice. Turkey adapted away from military tutelage for a specific purpose, which was joining the European Union. The EU process forced the state to become more democratic and made future military interventions less likely. Turkey has also been a member of NATO since 1952 and is, therefore, enmeshed in a host of Western institutions, all of which put pressure on the Turkish military to maintain some democratic standards and to make its interventions in politics short and to the point. Egypt does not belong to NATO. Nor is it vying to become part of the EU. And there is no other outside body demanding Egypt’s permanent democratic consolidation as a condition of membership.

It is understandable that Egyptians want to look to Turkey as a beacon of hope, but the comparison is an unsuitable one. Egypt today, which is already experiencing violence along ideological and factional lines, looks very little like Turkey in 1960. The pressures that pushed Turkey toward stable democracy do not exist in Egypt. In short, expectations that Egypt will soon resemble Turkey -- as opposed to a country like Pakistan, whose history of military interventions has led to chronic instability -- are bound to end in disappointment. 

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