Which Turkish model?

The visit of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Cairo this week was probably the peak of a now well-established phenomenon of Turkophilia (some call it "Ottomania") in Egypt. Indeed, there is much to admire about Turkey. It's a regional economic powerhouse, with clout (and exports) in Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia. It's a country that in the last 20 years has made the transition from coup-prone military dictatorship to a vibrant democracy. It has, unlike most Arab states, a foreign policy that goes beyond preserving the regime in place.  

All these things were accomplished in some part thanks to Erdogan's leadership. He has gone from political prisoner (he was jailed for six months for publicly reciting a poem with Islamist and anti-military overtones) while mayor of Istanbul to the founder of the most successful Islamist party in the world — one that has been re-elected twice despite the country's history of unstable ruling coalitions. He has stood up to Israel over its targeting of civilians in the Gaza war, over its blockade of Gaza and over the murder of Turkish citizens in the raid on the humanitarian relief flotilla to Gaza. And it should be noted that he was among the first regional leaders to deliver a clear message to Hosni Mubarak during the Egyptian uprising: "I say that you must listen, and we must listen, to the people’s outcry, to their extremely humanitarian demands," he said on 1 February. "Meet the people’s desire for change with no hesitation." 

For these reasons, and particularly because of his recent bravado over Israel, it seems that every Egyptian commentator these days is asking, "Where is Egypt's Erdogan?" To me, this seems like the wrong question.  

First of all, while Erdogan is in part responsible for his country's recent high-voltage diplomacy — notably his making clear to Israel that there are consequences for its actions — he is also responsible for the bad. That includes not following up on his recent ultimatum to Bashar al-Assad to stop brutalizing his own population or his empty threats to block Israeli gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean (in part because the gas field in question is shared with Cyprus, a Turkish foreign policy question unsolved for nearly four decades).  

Secondly, the yearning for an Egyptian Erdogan seems to be a misdiagnosis of the situation. Even if Erdogan were to suddenly become Egyptian, this does not mean that Egypt has suddenly become the equivalent of Turkey. Erdogan is playing with a good hand: Turkey has economic, military and diplomatic clout in the region and beyond. Unfortunately, this is not the case for Egypt.  

Consider the staggering news from Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS) this week that illiteracy among the poor actually increased in the past five years. The reality is that it will be a while before Egypt recovers from the damage of Mubarakism; the Egypt that the ex-president has left behind is highly dependent on external goodwill and has little leverage over its partners aside from the danger of its own collapse. 

Thirdly, Erdogan represents different things to different people. For secularists and many among the Egyptian elite, he might represent an Islamist they can live with — one who is worldly, tolerant and whose political philosophy doesn't just boil down to the populist motto, "the Quran is our constitution." The Turkish model for them is that of a democratic secular state.

Islamists rushed to welcome the Turkish PM, perhaps seeing in him their own future. But once he opened his mouth, they found themselves decrying his advice to adopt secularism. Their Turkish model emphasizes that Islamists are in power, but forgets that Islamism is not Turkey's constitution — and indeed, ignores that secularism made it possible for Islamists to be elected. 

For Egyptian presidential candidates such as Amr Moussa, who remains prone to grandstanding and flip-flops (note his recent comments on Camp David: the treaty both "must be revised" and is "untouchable" — which is it, Mr. Moussa?), Erdogan also represents the embarrassing realization that being a statesman requires more than chest-thumping. He may take Ataturk as his Turkish model, much as many Egyptians long for the "providential man" they had in Nasser. They forget that the experience was deeply flawed, and that these are different times. 

Even the SCAF generals are confused about the Turkish model: they would probably prefer that of the 1980s, when generals ruled, than the vastly more successful one currently in place. Erdogan's visit was in part an embarrassing reminder of their own inadequacy — as well as the fact that a responsible, powerful statesman need not wear a uniform. 

The Turkish model Egypt should be looking at has nothing to do with Erdogan's personality, as admirable as it might be. It has to do with hard work to create economic prosperity. It has to do with the rule of law, clean elections and working to respect human rights even when strong prejudices are in place (Turkey still has some way to go with regards to Kurds). And it's not particularly unique to Turkey: it's called democracy.  

Issandr El Amrani is a writer on Middle Eastern affairs. He blogs at www.arabist.net.

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