Egypt's Aliyah: Turkey, Israel, and Egyptian Democracy

The world erupted in solidarity with the Egyptian people over their new found liberation from the rule of Hosni Mubarak. Now that Egyptians will finally taste true freedom, we should pause for a moment and ask what Egyptian democracy, long seen as an impossibility, will look like.

International pundits have begun looking toward the regional neighbor, Turkey, as a model for Egyptian democracy. While this comparison seems obvious, especially since the two states both have Muslim majority populations of approximately eighty million people, it ignores glaring historical differences between the two regional heavyweights. In truth, the future of Egyptian democracy lies in its eastern neighbor, Israel.

When the dust clears over Tahrir Square, and if true parliamentary and presidential elections are held, what will matter most is the position the military will take in relation to the desires and decisions of the Egyptian people. While Egypt, Turkey, and Israel all conscript their armed forces, sentiments toward their respective militaries vary widely. The Turkish military defends the secular ideals of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, with incredible vigilance. In doing so, the military has motives beyond merely promoting the wishes of the Turkish people. This “Turkish Model” illustrates the responsibility a state’s military can play in holding back true, liberal democracy. Egyptian military leadership, like Israel’s, does not have this tradition. Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, current head of the Egyptian military and de facto Egyptian leader, has never voiced his desire to uphold Gamal Abd al-Nasser’s (the founder of modern Egypt) secular ideals.

That is good news for the Muslim Brotherhood, which will probably hold a plurality in the future Egyptian legislature due primarily to its ability to mobilize faster than other parties and its popular, anti-corruption stance. But Egypt will probably also have at least one liberal party that represents the secular interests of the country’s youth and elite. Simultaneously, more radical Islamic organizations will seek to influence national politics, ideally through the ballot box. In all likelihood there will be a Coptic party to represent the interests of the sizable Christian minority. Interestingly, these elements of Egyptian politics will come to resemble Israel’s hyper-representational political party system, where the Ale Yarok (Green Leaf) Party represents the interests of Israeli cannabis aficionados and the Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our House) Party speaks primarily for conservative, Russian-born Israeli citizens of a nationalist bent. Now that the Egyptian people will finally get their chance to be heard, Egyptian parties will rush to form in order to represent the many voices of the Egyptian polity that have been kept quiet for so long.

Egypt is likely to develop into the pragmatic bridge between Islam and the West that Turkey is so well known for because Egyptians recognize the strong economic value in close ties to the West. Its political party structure, however, will look strikingly similar to pluralistic Israel’s because of the diversity of the Egyptian peoples’ interests and the role the military plays in supporting those interests. While it will take many years before its democratic institutions are as firmly entrenched as Israel’s, Egyptians have taken a giant step on the path toward liberal democracy and have at least one excellent model in their own neighborhood.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Daniel Bender

Daniel received his BA in International Affairs from the George Washington University in 2009. He has traveled extensively throughout India, Egypt, Israel, and Turkey and his academic and writing interests include Middle Eastern politics, geography, philosophy, and history.

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