from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

The Turkish Model for Egypt? Beware of False Analogies

February 04, 2011

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Turkish air force cadets march during a graduation ceremony for 197 cadets at the Air Force war academy in Istanbul
Turkish air force cadets march during a graduation ceremony at the Air Force war academy in Istanbul. (Osman Orsal/courtesy Reuters)

Despite my best efforts and those of others including the estimable Ellis Goldberg, the romance with the Egyptian military is now in full swing. Omar Suleiman, a Dark Lord of the Sith, is now seen as Egypt’s savior along with the rest of the generals. How have we gotten to the point where people are pinning their hopes on the top brass? Historical analogies and precedent are always important in helping policymakers, journalists, and analysts make sense of events. The problem is you need the correct historical analogy to help guide you. In the case of Egypt, it is decidedly not the so-called “Turkish model,” which is starting to pop up in the debate about the Egyptian uprising.

Between 1960 and 1997, the Turkish General Staff intervened four times (1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997) to undermine governments it did not like. Each time, the generals returned government back to civilians and thus, the “Turkish model”—at least in the minds of many Western observers—was born. Here was a military that could play a moderating role in the political system, keeping the excesses of the civilian politicians whether they were Rightists, Leftist, or Islamists in check, paving the way for a democratic Turkey. It sounds all warm and fuzzy and a seemingly sensible prototype for Egypt, but it is not. This narrative leaves out some critical parts of the story:

1.       The military only handed power back to civilians after re-engineering Turkey’s political institutions in a way that was decidedly undemocratic. The 1971 “coup by memorandum” occurred because the general staff believed the 1961 constitution was too liberal. They wanted to tighten things up a bit. The constitution written at the behest of the military after the September 12, 1980 coup was designed to prevent challenges to the Kemalist status quo, which was authoritarian. And, the so-called February 28th Process, which ended Turkey’s first experiment in Islamist-led government, placed all kinds of restrictive measures on the political arena.

2.        If you ask pious Turks, Kurds, and liberals there was nothing moderate or progressive about the military’s penchant for intervening in the political system. These groups were consistently subject to repression on the part of the Turkish state, which was ruled, if not governed by the General Staff (sorry…I couldn’t resist).

3.       Turkey only began a transition to democracy in 2002-2005, when it undertook thoroughgoing reforms in order to meet the Europe’s requirements (known as the Copenhagen criteria) to begin EU membership negotiations. The military opposed these changes, but because the Justice and Development Party led a broad based coalition of pious Turks, big business, Kurds, and average citizens who looked forward to the political and economic benefits of EU membership, the military was constrained from acting to undermine the reforms. Militaries always need civilian support to intervene in politics and with approximately 75-80 percent of the public backing the EU process, the officers would have undermined their cherished standing among Turks had they intervened to undermine the reforms.

So it seems the real lesson of the Turkish model is: Turkey has become more democratic not because of the military, but rather despite the military.

It’s worth emphasizing that the comparisons between Egypt and Turkey are rich. As much as there are striking similarities, there are also vast differences. There is no critical external actor to play the role of the European Union that can constrain the Egyptian military. Even if the United States wanted to (Washington has more often enabled the predatory nature of the Egyptian regime) what incentives could it offer Egypt’s officers that would constrain their ability to play an outsized and largely negative role in the political system. In 2005, I suggested additional military aid in return for reform, but it is not at all clear that this honey would work and in the present environment Congress is not going to provide any additional support to the Egyptians.

My suggestion: The best way to support democracy is to support democracy not to enable authoritarians to take over the political system and hope they’ll negotiate their way out of power.