As Egypt struggles to reinvent itself, many experts in the region say that it might look to Turkey for some valuable lessons.
Arriving at a template that effectively integrates Islam, democracy and vibrant economics has been a near-impossible dream for Middle East reformers stretching back decades. To a large extent, Egypt’s inability to accommodate these three themes lies at the root of its current plight.
However, no country in the region has come closer to accomplishing this trick, warts and all, than Turkey. As a result, diplomats and analysts have begun to present the still-incomplete Turkish experiment as a possible road map for Egypt.
“Turkey is the envy of the Arab world,” said Hugh Pope, project director for the Turkish office of the International Crisis Group. “It has moved to a robust democracy, has a genuinely elected leader who seems to speak for the popular mood, has products that are popular from Afghanistan to Morocco — including dozens of sitcoms dubbed into Arabic that are on TV sets everywhere — and an economy that is worth about half of the whole Arab world put together.”
The idea is not new. US President Barack Obama’s first trip as president to a Muslim country was to Turkey in April 2009, and he hailed its progress as a Middle East model. (His visit there preceded his better-remembered speech in Cairo by two months.)
Since then, the already wide distance separating these countries has grown. Turkey’s economy and its internationally competitive companies are expanding at a relentless pace. Meanwhile, its mildly Islamist Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems on a path to win his third election in a row, having effectively neutered a once-all-powerful military apparatus long seen as the guardian of secularism in the country.
It has not always been this way.
Indeed, when Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak came to power in October 1981, after the assassination of then-president Anwar Sadat, Turkey was still being governed by its army, which one year earlier intervened to impose a sense of order on the country’s fractious political scene.
However, while Mubarak, a military man himself, banked upon authoritarian rule, paying only lip service to democratic institutions and running rigged elections, the general behind the Turkish coup, Kenan Evren, moved to withdraw from politics. The Constitution he imposed left the military considerable scope to meddle in political affairs, but it allowed civilian institutions to bloom.
On the economic front Egypt maintained state control, with many restrictions on foreign trade and domestic competition. By contrast, Turkey, which hopes to join the EU, has opened up its economy and unleashed a dynamic private sector.
Today, with similarly sized populations of about 80 million, Turkey has an economy that is nearly four times the size of Egypt’s. Its recent growth spurt has been driven by Erdogan, who came to power in 2003 and focused first on reducing deficits and bringing down inflation. Only after he demonstrated success in raising living standards did he feel confident enough to overcome opposition from the determinedly secular army and the cosmopolitan elite in Istanbul by introducing elements of Islam into Turkish public life.
He has been rewarded with broad popular support at home — demonstrated in September when Erdogan easily won a referendum that further diluted the military’s powers — and growing influence abroad.