February 28 is a date full of meaning in Turkey. On February 28, 1997, we underwent an important and difficult test. It was a troubled time, and one that we do not want to go back to.
Present-day Turkish writers frequently equate today’s events in Egypt with February 28. February 28 is, in fact, an instructive deterrent example regarding both what needs to happen in Egypt and what should not have happened.
Necmettin Erbakan, who came to power in Turkey by forming a coalition government in 1996, was a conservative. Despite his gentle nature and humorous and witty character, his conservative nature and conservative circle and hislifestyle compatible with that ideal soon led to a sense of unease in Turkey. The party adopted various innovations; efforts were made to include unveiled women at party meetings, and there was a trend toward foreign brands in terms of consumer goods. But these reforms produced no changes in the government’s grassroots, with its entirely traditional conception of Islam, and the party known for inviting only religious figures dressed in robes and turbans.
National security decisions taken by the Turkish Armed Forces on February 28, 1997, spelled the end of the coalition government. The 11-month-old government was forced to resign and the party was shut down in subsequent legal proceedings.
The army’s actions were motivated by the fear of radicalism. The concern was that a conservative and devout prime minister was going to establish an Islamist regime, together with his devout circle, in democratic Turkey. Turkey would lose its democracy and assume a traditional appearance; liberty, rights and freedoms, and women’s rights would be blocked and an autocratic Islamist regime would be installed using repressive methods. This scenario terrified Turkish secularists. They have always had this same fear of an extremist conception of Islam.
I knew Necmettin Erbakan very well. I know he was not a fundamentalist; rather, he was an enlightened thinker, a rational theorist and a man with rich ideas. But I also understand the fear that arose in my country in the face of the possibility of fundamentalism. If the appearance of those in charge does not represent the majority of the country, then a problem arises. The fear of fundamentalism will arise not just among your own people, but the entire world. As countries look at you in fear, you become a permanent threat—and those countries will try to permanently eradicate that threat.
That was exactly the problem in Egypt. No matter how much Mursi tried to present a more liberal appearance and no matter how much he pushed for reforms within the party, this was not enough to overcome the fear of radicalism. Of course there were reformist, modern and innovative figures in Egypt’s Freedom and Justice Party, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing. This was clear for me when I met with Abdul Mawgoud Dardery, Saad Abdel Mawgoud Ahmed, and Mohamed Abdelsalam Mahmoud El-Sanousy from the Egyptian government in Istanbul in April, and I listened to their important plans for Egypt. Their aims were great, but it was not enough.
As the world wrestled with the nightmare of radicalism, as almost the entire Western world thought of Islam through the prism of Islamophobia, and as some Islamic republics became repressive tyrannies, the first thing the devout Mursi government should have focused on was to show that they did not have a radical mindset. A government that valued liberty, art and beauty would have given the people a psychological guarantee. A government that supported women’s rights to the fullest extent would have resulted in enormous peace of mind among the people. A Mursi who embraced all without discrimination would have won the sympathy of all sections of society.
Societies that are psychologically relaxed and secure do not rise up and become angered. If the people are troubled and tense and the reforms brought in insufficient, the fear of radicalism persists.
It is important to remember that things did not go well in Turkey for a long time after the army’s intervention on February 28 and the decisions that followed. Measures aimed against radicalism turned against Muslims. Those who took charge in the name of freedom restricted freedoms, people who prayed and fasted were marked, and officers whose wives covered their heads were treated differently. The prisons filled up with believers who had committed no crime. Terror organizations flourished in the Turkish deep state (and alleged anti-democratic coalition within the political system) and Muslim believers were invariably top of these organizations’ hit lists. Democracy went backwards and terror infiltrated the state.
Now Egypt must not repeat Turkey’s mistakes. One side establishing a regime by suppressing another side whose ideas it dislikes always leads to tragedy. Islam requires that conflict be set aside in the event of disagreement. Although the intervention by the army in the country was intended to stop any fighting, it is important that a moderate policy be brought in after this. Arrests, political exclusion, tanks, and soldiers with guns appearing on the scene are chilling and terrifying. This will only lead to deeper public unease regarding social stability. That is the sole reason for the appearance of civil war on the streets of Cairo. That turmoil cannot be eliminated with guns or oppression; the people can only be calmed down by instilling in them a sense of confidence and putting forth positive and constructive plans for the future. That is why we must see decisions that will calm the situation in Egypt being issued at once.
That is why the army must declare an election in which all parties can participate freely. It must not be forgotten that detentions mean limitations on liberty, and this will always trigger unrest in society. At the same time, this may also potentially eliminate foreign support and assistance for the country. Foreign powers that regard the army’s move as appropriate and necessary will not look at the situation in the same way in the face of arbitrary mass detentions; the West is quite allergic to such things.
Therefore, detentions must be brought to an end and a management committee combining the army and representatives of all parties must be set up. This council must be structured for the present so as to take joint, day-to-day decisions. Joint decisions and consultation will calm the people. Supporters of both sides will see their voices are being heard and will relax.
But what is most critical is what comes next? The Egyptian people want neither a radical mindset nor an autocratic dictator. They want to live in a modern system in which their voices are heard. And that is the best thing: Egypt cannot achieve a solution so long as the people’s voice is not heeded. That libertarian mindset is the only solution that will satisfy all the people and bring down the hatred and rage.