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The fading Turkish model for the Arab world

Allegations of corruption against the government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is undermining what little support may still remain across the Middle East.
A statue of modern Turkey's founder Ataturk and a mosque in the background are pictured in a square where Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan (not pictured) is to attend an election rally of his of ruling AK Party (AKP) in Kirikkale, central Turkey March 4, 2014. Turkey will hold municipal election on March 30. REUTERS/Umit Bektas (TURKEY - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) - RTR3G17X

My personal experiences in Egypt — a country I have visited countless times over the past three decades and have strong feelings about, due to historic family connections — has shown me that common attitudes toward Turkey in this leading Arab country are often ambivalent, to say the least. I have found from my experiences in other Middle Eastern countries that the general Arab attitude toward Turkey is a strange brew of derision and admiration.

From the Islamic perspective, especially of those who are members or sympathizers of the Muslim Brotherhood, the most prevalent view is that Turkey lost its Islamic soul after late President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s Westernizing reforms. A secular Turkey aiming to be a Western-style democracy — even though its population is predominantly Muslim, and devout at that — was widely considered the antithesis of all that the Brotherhood stands for.

This was also made highly apparent during the heyday of the Arab Spring, when the Brotherhood reacted angrily to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s September 2011 call for Egyptians to adopt a secular constitution, underscoring that secularism does not mean atheism and is a system of governance that stands equidistant to all faiths.

Erdogan’s exhortation, however, was generally welcomed by non-Brotherhood Egyptians with secular leanings, whether Muslim or Christian. Erdogan’s words were also welcomed in Europe and the United States, where the feeling at the time was that Turkey, as a predominantly Muslim country that nevertheless operates as a Western-style democracy, would also provide an important example for the countries of the Arab Spring.

Erdogan did not press the issue further and left it at that, going on to support Mohammed Morsi’s bid for the presidency and the Brotherhood’s bid for power in Egypt’s first democratic elections. Neither did he have any criticism for Morsi and the Brotherhood after they came to power and revealed their overbearingly Islamist and anti-democratic inclinations, especially in the writing of the country’s new constitution and the manner in which it was forced on the whole country.

There was, of course, little reason for Erdogan to criticize Egypt at that stage, as he and his Brotherhood-sympathizing Justice and Development Party (AKP) had also started to pursue an increasingly authoritarian and Islamist political line based on a majoritarian, as opposed to pluralistic, understanding of democracy.

That sympathy made Erdogan the darling of Islamists across the Middle East, where the Brotherhood was hailed as an ascendant force, leading secularists in Turkey to complain that the AKP, caught in this wave, was openly abandoning the country’s path toward modernism in favor of a religiously based reactionary direction.

The European parliament, in its March 12 progress report on Turkey as an EU candidate — the most critical such report since 2005 — also highlights that Turkey is backsliding in the democratic, political and judicial criteria for full membership in the union.

Together with millions of Turks, Egyptians and others across the Arab world who continue to clamor for Western-style freedoms must also be deeply disappointed in a country that until recently was considered a model for the Middle East’s nascent democracies, should be sliding back in ways that suggest that Islam and democracy may not be compatible after all.

Having attended countless conferences and brainstorming sessions over the years, my experience has also shown that Turkey’s European vocation, even if grudgingly admired at times for historic reasons by some Arabs, was what made the “Turkish experience” ultimately valuable for many secular and modernist politicians, intellectuals and activists in the Middle East.

“If Turkey did it, so can we” is a catch phrase I have heard or read more than once. Today, however, it is the “Tunisian experience,” despite Tunisia's continuing problems, that is attracting more attention while Turkey slips into political chaos under the increasingly authoritarian and undemocratic tendencies of its prime minister and ruling party, which are also facing growing criticism from Europe.

"Recent developments in the area of fundamental freedoms, independence of the judiciary, freedom of expression and others are … a cause of grave concern for us," the European parliament's special envoy on Turkey, Ria Oomen-Ruijten, said after parliament adopted its progress report on Turkey on March 12.

"We now need a serious, constructive dialogue with Turkey on these subjects and Turkey needs to show true commitment to its European aspirations and to the values upon which the EU is founded," she added.

The report also highlights the AKP government’s attempts to restrict access to the Internet and Erdogan’s recent threat to shut down Facebook and YouTube in the run-up to the local elections on March 30.

Considering the role that the Internet played in the massive demonstrations held by predominantly young people in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011, news of the restrictive Internet law recently introduced by the Erdogan government, as well as Erdogan’s avowed intentions to curb social media, are unlikely to have endeared him to Egyptians who are not followers of the Muslim Brotherhood.

How long the current admiration for Erdogan will last among followers of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is mostly predicated on his strong castigation of the Egyptian military, on the other hand, is also questionable with the corruption charges hovering over his head.

One leading factor uniting incensed Egyptian youth of all political shades in 2011, apart from the dictatorial rule of deposed President Hosni Mubarak, was the rife corruption under Mubarak’s regime. Their political troubles at home and a sense of Islamic solidarity may prevent members of the Brotherhood from focusing their attention on the corruption allegations being leveled at Erdogan and members of his government today.

Whether admiration for him will continue, however, in the event that the new and damning revelations emerge is an open question.

Having little left to offer as a model for liberal and secular Egyptians, it is not inconceivable that Erdogan’s Turkey could also lose the moral high ground it holds in the eyes of devout Egyptians and members and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood across the Arab world.

It seems unlikely, therefore, that Erdogan’s Turkey will continue to provide any kind of model for a Middle East searching for its place in the modern world.

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