Israel Pulse

Israel and the Democracy Paradox in the Middle East

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Article Summary
The coup in Egypt stirs rethinking about elections and democracy throughout the region.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was the first to express his vocal opposition to the military coup in Egypt this July, which deposed duly elected President Mohammed Morsi. Given the paltry responses that the rest of the world somehow stammered out, Turkey was conspicuous for its vociferous and blunt denunciation of what took place in Egypt. It did not hesitate to call it what it was — a coup — and even launched a full frontal attack against all those parties that seemed to accept what had happened there.

When the Egyptian army responded with brute force against its opponents, Erdogan went so far as to blame the silent bystanders, especially the United States and the European Union, for failing to protect the protesters. “What right do you have now to talk about democracy, about universal values, about human rights, about freedom?” he asked, tying their reluctance to respond to events in Egypt with the attitude toward President Bashar al-Assad's actions in Syria and their complacent inaction toward the suffering of the Palestinians. If the West fails to act in response to the events in Egypt, he determined, democratic values would be called into question throughout the entire world.

This would not be the first time that Erdogan claimed that the West has a flawed understanding of what democracy really is. He adopted this same approach, juxtaposing “their false democracy” with “our real democracy,” when his government was condemned for the excessive force used by Turkish police against demonstrators in Istanbul’s Gezi Park and Taksim Square in June. “The European Union has no respect for democracy,” he declared back then. Who are they to lecture us about morality? It is the demonstrators who acted undemocratically, he argued, and reminded everyone that “We were elected by a majority on three consecutive occasions!”

The Justice and Development Party (AKP), which Erdogan heads, did indeed win an impressive majority in the Turkish parliament for the first time in 2002, due to changes to the country’s constitution. The electoral threshold was raised to 10%, and as a result, many groups failed to win any representation whatsoever. In the early days of his rule, the Islamist prime minister rode the wave of a flourishing economy and his efforts to see Turkey gain membership in the European Union. In the three elections since then, I called the AKP’s policies “economic Islam,” while others waxed sentimentally about the “Islamic democracy” that Erdogan spearheaded.

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But the Turkish prime minister gradually took steps to centralize power in the country and became far more aggressive in his handling of affairs of state. With a democratically mandated absolute majority relieving him of the burden of forming a coalition, Erdogan came to believe that he had the approval he needed to impose his worldview on the rest of the country. One example of this was his effort for the women of Turkey to have at least three children each. Similarly, he attempted to ban abortions and C-sections.

This led to unrest among various sectors of Turkish society, which felt ostracized and persecuted. The opposition reached its climax during the events in Gezi Park, but even after they were over, protests against Erdogan’s centralized government continued, as does the government’s suppression of dissent and its efforts to conceal it. Last week [Aug. 19], soccer fans in two stadiums started chanting, “Everywhere is Taksim! Resistance is Everywhere!” Turkish television muted the live broadcast so that the media magnates who own them would not be cut off from the government’s largesse.

According to the 2013 Report of Reporters Without Borders, the Turkish democracy of today is “the world’s biggest prison for journalists.” Among those journalists who weren’t actually arrested, many lost their jobs for being critical of the government, while others, intent on maintaining their livelihoods, must show extreme caution in every word they say and write.

Erdogan is quick to emphasize that there is no place for gender equality, at least as far as he is concerned, but in the same breath he describes himself as a true democrat, because he won a majority in the elections. The demonstrators in Taksim Square called him a dictator. When, in the absence of a free mass media, protesters used Twitter and Facebook to share information, Erdogan called those two platforms “a threat to society.” It is also worth remembering that the popular video sharing site YouTube was blocked in Turkey from 2007 to 2011 because it served as a platform for people to criticize the state. In all fairness it should also be noted that it wasn’t Erdogan who blocked the site in Turkey, but when it was convenient for him, he knew how to take advantage of its services. One innocent clip showing the French Jewish philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy speaking out against the Muslim Brotherhood while then-opposition leader [now Israeli Justice Minister] Tzipi Livni stands beside him, was used by Erdogan to prove that there was a “Zionist conspiracy” behind the military coup in Egypt.

But Erdogan hardly stands alone. This perception, according to which democratic elections provide a "license for dictatorship," characterizes even more the year in which the Muslim Brotherhood was in government in Egypt. After winning the first democratic elections in that country’s history, Morsi rushed ahead with his agenda. He attempted to pass a new constitution based on Islamic Sharia, and he tried to assume unlimited power for himself. He even tried to make all government institutions subject to the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood. It was on the basis of this that Hani Sabra and Bassem Sabry determined that Morsi is part of a group of people who, at best, have a very controversial commitment to and limited understanding of what democracy really means.

Soon after he was elected, the Egyptian president was the guest of honor at the congress of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party. So was Khaled Meshaal, the political bureau chief of Hamas, a movement that imposes an oppressive dictatorship on the people of Gaza. While it was hardly a shining example of democracy, Erdogan was quick to embrace it.

It is specifically because of this family-like relationship between the Justice and Development Party and the Muslim Brotherhood that I have been advocating for years that rehabilitating its relationship with Turkey should be one of Israel’s primary strategic interests. I naively considered proposing to Erdogan that he should reassert his country’s ties with Israel, the only real democracy in the Middle East, as we like to say.

But Israel is also a democracy of the privileged. So many people living within the Green Line have failed to come to terms with the fact that the state in which they live, whose legislators and leaders they elect, and to which they pay taxes, rules over 2 million Palestinians who have no rights. Just this week Guven Sak described how fed up the world is with the occupation. Many people in Turkey and the rest of the world certainly feel that way. These are the very people that Erdogan hopes to reach.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is well aware of Turkey’s strategic importance and is right in restraining his responses to Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s statements, no matter how scathing they may be. Then there is former Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, now chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, and whose return to the ministry is expected once his trial is over. He keeps trying to fan the glowing embers and does what he can to help them catch fire. He compares Erdogan to [Nazi Germany propaganda minister] Joseph Goebbels, and he calls on everyone who supports an Israeli apology for killing Turkish civilians on the Mavi Marmara flotilla to engage in serious introspection.

That’s how it is in the Middle East. It’s so much easier to see everyone else’s flaws, no matter where you are standing. 

Arad Nir Is the head of the foreign news desk and international commentator for Channel 2 News, the largest news provider in Israel. He teaches TV journalism at the IDC Herzliya and Netanya Academic College.

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Arad Nir Is the head of the foreign news desk and international commentator for Channel 2 News, the largest news provider in Israel. Arad has covered international politics and diplomacy, ethnic conflicts around the world and interviewed various world leaders, decision-makers and opinion leaders. He teaches TV journalism at the IDC Herzliya and Netanya Academic College.

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