With Turkey As a Model, Egypt's Military Asserts its Might

Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) proposed a set of constitutional guidelines just before the upcoming parliamentary elections, leading to mass demonstrations and dozens of deaths. If the SCAF is successful, it will in many ways be following the path set by Turkish military leadership fifty years ago, but without the ideological ghost of Ataturk hovering overhead. The measure would elevate the military to ‘guardian’ status of the constitution, handing the reins of government long after the planned transition to civilian leadership.

The SCAF claims to look to Turkey as a model of governance for Egypt, but its recent actions – the crackdown on protestors in addition to its proposal – indicate that it seeks to adopt the most flawed of its aspects. As of yet, it seems unwilling to back down even as the cabinet has submitted its resignation. In 1960, Turkey’s elite military leaders staged a successful coup ousting a government they considered to have jeopardized the integrity of the ‘democratic’ republic. Like Egypt’s generals, the group of officers who instigated the coup and other heads of state they nominated to their posts governed on a temporary basis. They drafted a new constitution a year later, that codified the maintenance of the Turkish army’s highly influential role in national politics with a military member-majority National Security Council. Transfer of power to civilian rule took place only when all political players agreed to never question the legitimacy of the coup.

A positive outcome of Turkey’s 1961 constitution was the provision of a more open environment that would incorporate players from across the political spectrum. It proffered the country’s first Islamist party in 1969 that would evolve into the Justice and Development (AK) Party led by Prime Minister Erdogan today, making it the sought ‘model’ of Islamic governance. The SCAF in Egypt has similarly created a space for all political players that did not exist previously.

But the Egyptian military is copying the defects of the Turkish model with alarming accuracy. Indeed, the military in Egypt has never espoused a rigid ideology similar to the Turkish military’s ardent defense of secularism. But the SCAF is clearly demonstrating that after parliamentary elections and presidential elections wrap up in 2013, it also seeks to maintain its place in politics from the shadows.

What is missing in Egypt is the secularism part. But, this need not be a negative. Turkey’s secularists, though severely weakened now compared to decades past, continue to threaten coups and judicial action against the government led by the Islamist AK Party. Likewise, the Erdogan government has been accused of jailing journalists who challenge it.   

Turkey’s democracy resulted from two-way pressure: the military elites’ imposition of secularism from above pushing against the non-secularist majority seeking representation in government from below. Turkey’s officers were able to maintain their vision of democracy for decades. But secular government hardly equates to a democratic one.

Indeed, the partnership between the military and Islamists has been severely shaken following the SCAF’s audacious proposal. But as Islamists seem poised to win big in upcoming parliamentary elections, they until recently have avoided direct confrontation with the military. The SCAF has also clearly affirmed its support of Islamic government that is the genuine desire of most Egyptians. If a secular state does develop in Egypt, it would occur gradually in tandem with a democratic process that is institutionalized over decades – the Turkish model, but in reverse.

Still, the SCAF is adopting the least desirable aspects of the Islamic democracy it purports to emulate. It continues to oppress with arbitrary arrest and trail of civilians in military courts with emergency powers. While the military is echoing the Turkish model by moving Egypt toward a more representative democracy than existed before, it ostensibly prefers to maintain its power after the transition. Acknowledging and accepting Islamists as potent political groups is certainly a function of it. But Egypt’s generals may one day soon be shown – just as has the Turkish military – that the power of democracy will outlast attempts to corral it to their will.

Photo Credit: Gigi Ibrahim