Turkey likes to think of itself as a model for the Middle East, a democratic state mixing secular ideals with Islamic heritage. Indeed just after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak it was Turkey that looked to many as “a map for Egypt” (NYT 5/2/11).Two-and-a-half years later this prediction may well be vindicated, though not in the way envisioned by its proponents. Rather than providing a lesson in democracy, Turkey provides Egypt with a course in Machiavellian politics and in this regard it appears that the Egyptian military has been the party that has profited most from the Turkish example.
Less than a week into the popular coup it has become clear that the coup is not quite as popular a coup as it may have seemed at first. Impressive though the mass demonstrations were, it is far from certain that they have been instrumental in starting off the coup. As early as the 23rd of June it had become clear that Morsi’s position could not be maintained. Seven days before the mass protests kicked off, his fate had already been sealed. As for the reasons behind this initiative, most point to the thorough ineptness of the ikhwan in managing the country coupled with their single-minded implementation of an Islamic standard in legislation and in government. There is a lot to be said for this assessment – economy in tatters, appointments of conservative members to key spots etc. Morsi promised prosperity within a hundred days. He delivered demise within three-hundred-and-sixty-five.
The fact that Morsi is a bad administrator, however, does not of itself explain his removal. Looking at the historical role of the Egyptian armed forces they have until very recently not seemed overly concerned with bad public governance. ‘Stagnation’ captures quite well the period during which Mubarak ruled the country with the military’s full consent. This is not to say that these Egyptian officers have no concern for their country, or that this was no consideration in opting for Morsi’s ouster. But at the very least, it is remarkable for the military to suddenly be this eager to call for new management.
It is not unreasonable to assume that more direct, personal concerns over the Brotherhood’s measures aimed at consolidating its hold on national institutions have led to this decision. Morsi has proven to be a forceful opponent of military influence in public affairs since he took office last summer, starting with the sacking of general Tantawi in August. At the same time the army’s control of the economy, their billion dollar deal with the US and much more depends on their remaining at the center of power. Thus, although there is no confirmation that the report in Sunday’s edition of the Saudi newspaper al-Watan of a plan to replace certain key figures within the military, it is almost certainly true that preventing the Brotherhood from further eroding military political influence was a major consideration for the generals in giving the green light.
Perhaps Turkey served as an example in this regard. In protecting Atatürk’s political heritage and with it its own power as protector of Kemalism, the Turkish military averaged about one coup a decade over the second half of the 20th century. As a result civil parties never quite got a chance to settle in the national power structure so as to be able to withstand the might of the army. This changed in the late 90’s when Turkey became a candidate for EU-membership. On the one hand the promise of membership appears to have soothed the military, convincing the generals that taking a step back would be in their and in their country’s best interest as that would be a way of moving towards EU membership. On the other hand the AKP, after its electoral victory in 2002, appears to have taken its time curtailing the army’s powers piecemeal. Rather than starting on the offensive, the AKP used its time in office to cement a power base amongst the religious Anatolian middle-class by providing years of economic growth. It only started its crackdown on military power in earnest with the arrests of those implicated in “Operation Sledgehammer” (2010-11) – an alleged plan to create chaos as a justification for another coup.
In Turkey a hesitant military and a patient governing party thus created the right circumstances for curbing military control of the political sphere in the long term. Egypt’s situation is the opposite: an Islamist party that puts power before government and a military eager to take matters into its own hands. From this perspective the Turkish example turns out to be not quite what commentators expected it to be back in 2011. Rather than providing an example for the Brotherhood on how to steer away from a dictatorial past it has proven to be a lesson for the Egyptian armed forces on what happens if you wait to long before neutralizing such aspirations.
The recent coup represents a wasted opportunity for the Muslim Brotherhood. One year ago they came into power with a over half of the vote, supported by a solid organization built up over decades and faced with a disorganized motley of opposition parties. They had the popular mandate and the lack of rivals required to make the hard choices needed to turn the country around. Instead they focused on maintaining power they hadn’t yet fully earned, neglecting the real problems and pursuing cultural change before economic stability.
Had they instead taken a Machiavellian perspective on the Turkish example, they would have bided their time. While putting the military leaders at ease by shunning an Islamist agenda, they would have reformed the economy. Making use of their committed following – appeasing them with a few token reforms – and winning over some of more secular opposition through pragmatic policy they would have sat out an election cycle or two. In time they might have started to gnaw at the military privileges, but cautiously taking care not to rouse its leaders before controlling them. Whether this would have been for the good of the country in the long run is another matter. In the short term, though, it is hard to see how even following the sinister interpretation of the Turkish example could have created a bigger mess than the one Egypt’s in right now.