Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Egypt: Turkey’s secularism or Pakistan’s radicalism | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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An intellectual current influenced by the wave of Arab nationalism was established in Egypt at the beginning of the twentieth century. A prominent feature of this current was the call to modernize Egypt by distancing the country from the Turkish Ottoman model, which was considered a source of backwardness and subordination. However, nearly a hundred years later, a considerable spectrum of the Egyptian elite is now calling for the Turkish model to be imitated. Likewise, the Muslim Brotherhood have paid tribute to Turkey’s (Islamic) Justice and Development Party, whereas the Egyptian army has intimated [its admiration of] the role played by its Turkish counterpart in maintaining the civil and secular nature of the state, in its capacity as the guarantor of the constitution. Even traditional parties such as the Wafd Party have overtly called upon the Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to “implement the Turkish model”. Yet, we have to ask ourselves an important question here: Is the Turkish model compatible with Egypt?

A report entitled “Egypt’s generals may maintain large role in governance” (Washington Post, 17 July) quotes a number of supreme Egyptian military council members as saying that serious consideration is taking place with regards to the issue of the Egyptian army playing a role similar to that of the Turkish army. This would see the government being presided over by elected civilian parties, whilst the military maintains the right to manage its own affairs – specialty its budget – and enjoys immunity, so it can play the role of guarantor and guardian of the constitution. A Supreme Council of the Armed Forces member, who asked to remain anonymous, was quoted as saying “we want a model like Turkey, but we won’t force it…Egypt as a country needs this to protect our democracy from the Islamists. We know this group doesn’t think democratically.”

The Turkish model is attractive to some Egyptian elites, but each has its own reason or angle on the situation, which are multiple and sometimes contradictory. With regards to the Muslim Brotherhood, they want the opportunity and space to rule albeit indirectly, whereby they can form an electoral alliance representing the majority, but at the same time, remain at a distance from the forefront. The Muslim Brotherhood wants Western countries to continue to pressure the Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, to ensure that elections are protected from possible military coups in the future, referring to the Turkish model following 2002. For its part, the army wants a situation where it can indirectly supervise the state’s affairs, and intervene when it senses that a [political] current or party has began to jeopardize its exceptional standing in the country; along the lines of Turkey after the year 1980.

Even Egyptian figures such as Mohamed ElBaradei, El-Sayed El-Badawi, Hamdin Sabahi, and others who can be categorized as minor parties and independent figures also want a Turkish model, yet they are seeking a model in line with Turkey’s [political] pluralism, which allows even small parties and minorities to participate in the political arena without their voices being marginalized by the parties of the majority. They allude to the post-1995 Turkish model, where major Turkish parties required assistance from independent figures and minorities in order to ensure a presence in half of the electoral districts, as stipulated by electoral law.

Despite the enthusiastic discourse inspired by the successful Turkish political model, Egypt may be unqualified to adopt the same course as Turkey for several reasons, most notably the different historical experiences between the two countries. Turkey, as a state, transformed into a Western secular model and managed to reform its systems and economy into one similar to that of western European states in the first half of the 20th century. Therefore, it was not difficult for Turkey to rectify its route in 2002 by amending its trade laws so as to comply with the European common market, and adopt a reformative and legislative course in a bid to join the European Union (EU). It is true that the Turkish Justice and Development Party’s enthusiasm for joining the EU was dampened following the 2007 elections, yet during the 5 years prior to that it undertook a set of liberal reforms in line with the requirements of EU membership. This enabled the party to achieve genuine development in the country, with the Justice and Development Party being akin to a student who was well prepared for an exam but unable to take it. The studying process demonstrated that this student was a diligent worker and he ultimately acquired significant knowledge from what he learned.

In contrast, Egypt stumbled during the second half of the 20th century and slid into the abyss of Naserism for a lengthy period, before being consumed by hopeless battles that impacted upon the economy and social development in the 1960s and 1970s. Even after Sadat managed to impose peace and regain the occupied lands, despite the opposition expressed by (the bulk of) the Egyptian elite, Egypt did not build a strong economy based upon diverse industries and investment. Rather it continued to inflate its already bloated government institutions and went on subsidizing commodities and products, as if it were a rentier state with a huge reserve of natural resources. It can be said that a significant reason for the deep resentment and the subsequent revolution against the former regime was the attempt to carry out reforms through privatization and foreign investment. It is true that corruption was latent during the attempts to liberalize trade and cut subsidies, with the aim of reducing the deficit in Egypt, yet this corruption was no different to the corruption seen in previous periods in Egypt in terms of magnitude, as evidenced by international reports.

Egypt cannot afford to follow the Turkish model, because it lacks the sufficient social or scientific potential to enable it to rectify its economic situation. It may be the country that produces the largest number of college graduates in the Arab world, but their standard of qualifications is poor and modest, simply because they are the product of a backward education system that is offered for free. It is for this reason that no single Egyptian university has been placed on the list of the world’s top 450 universities. Egypt publishes nearly 9,000 books annually compared to 35,000 books published in Turkey. It is also worth noting that the majority of these books are not on the subject of modern science; which is the dominant feature [of publication] in all Arab states, including the Gulf region.

Let us draw an economic comparison between Turkey and Egypt in the 1990s and the present-day, bearing in mind that the two countries have similar populations. [In the 1990s] Turkey was once economically similar to pre-revolution Egypt, with a GDP per capita that stood at 5,500 US dollars. As for Egypt, in late 1998 it had a GDP per capita of 3,200 US dollars. However, over two decades, the GDP per capita in Turkey increased to 14,700 US dollars, making it a “rich country” according to World Bank criteria, while last year the GDP in Egypt did not exceed 6,300 US dollars. Last year, the number of tourists that visited Turkey totaled 28 million, whilst Egypt – the land of the great Pharaonic civilization – received only 11 million tourists. The national (governmental) budget constitutes over 40 percent of Egypt’s macroeconomics. Of this amount, the Egyptian army alone constitutes nearly 10 percent. Whilst the debt to GDP ratio in Egypt stands at over 11 percent, in comparison to only 3 percent in Turkey.

What do these figures mean? Simply, “revolutionary” Egypt needs to cut its budget deficit by reducing government subsidies to only 3 percent in the coming decade. Such a task seems impossible in view of the stagnant tourism and lack of foreign investment, stalled production, the increase of government spending and the erosion of Egypt’s [monetary] reserves abroad, not to mention the declining security conditions and the political tension in the country which may last for several years at least.

Furthermore, Egypt is also suffering a rising state of revolutionary radicalism, with those not content with changing the president and the symbols of his rule, but also demanded the redrafting of Egypt’s foreign policy, radical steps being taken with regards to the Gulf regions, and even threatening rapprochement with Iran. At the same time, the Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces seems powerless in the face of uncontrolled revolutionary chaos in Tahrir Square. Even the Muslim Brotherhood, which is said to be the strongest organized regional power, seems unable to harness the revolutionary current in the Egyptian street.

Egypt may slide towards a radical revolutionary state; with the army and the Muslim Brotherhood eventually coming to the conviction that the best way to win over the Egyptian people would be to adopt radical discourse and slogans which meet the revolutionary ambitions of the street. This will, however, lead Egypt towards the Pakistani model, instead of the Turkish model, with the country falling into security chaos, and conflicts erupting over power between the military and the Islamists, whilst prolonged hostilities and clashes are sparked both inside and outside the country.

Unless Egypt rectifies the chaotic path that it is on and restores stability, the opportunity for economic recovery will shrink day by day. In a statement to the Economist magazine (23 June), Ahmed Heikal said ” If we get things right, we could be Turkey in ten years. If we get them wrong, we could be Pakistan in 18 months.”