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Turkey and the development of democracy in the Middle East

January 31, 2015 at 3:16 pm

Yaşar Yakış is the former foreign minister of Turkey, and a former ambassador to the UN Office in Vienna, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia.

The evolution of democracy in the Middle East in its contemporary sense has gone through various stages. The first was the Ottoman period. With the exception of Iran and Morocco, almost all Middle Eastern countries were part of the Ottoman State for centuries. It is reasonable to say, therefore, that both democracy and the absence thereof must have been at comparable levels across the region for centuries, though some areas may have experienced better democracy than others.

The constitutional monarchy was introduced in the Ottoman State in 1876 with the inauguration of the first parliament where all Ottoman provinces (Eyalets) were represented by elected members. The people in the following modern states were represented in this parliament one way or another: Bahrain, Qatar, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen. This was no more than democracy in its embryonic stage.

The second period followed the break-up of the Ottoman State. Every Ottoman province that has become an independent state since the dismemberment of the empire developed democracy according to its own traditions and experience. Tunisia, after three centuries of Ottoman rule, became part of France’s overseas territories in 1881 and its political institutions developed according to French traditions. Egypt became a British protectorate in 1914 and its political institutions evolved according to the traditions of the United Kingdom. In the wake of World War One, Syria and Lebanon were put under a French mandate, while Iraq and Palestine were ruled by British mandate authorities; their political institutions developed in line with their respective mandatory powers. Saudi Arabia and several Gulf monarchies chose strict Islamic rule as a method of governance. The Republic of Turkey emerged as a secular state.

This diversification saw Turkey become the only secular country to emerge from the Ottoman Empire. If there is a difference between democracy in Turkey and the other Middle Eastern countries, it is due mainly to the secular character of the regime.

The third stage in the development of democracy in the region was the outbreak of the Arab Spring. At the beginning, there were expectations that this might turn out to be an epoch-making development for the spread of genuine democracy in the Middle East. These expectations have yet to be fulfilled. There were also frequent references to Turkey as a role model for the Arab Spring countries. In part this was due to the fact that the revolutions started in a country where Turkey’s secular experience had been followed with great interest and enthusiasm since the era of Habib Bourgiba, the first President of the independent Republic of Tunisia.

The Arab Spring also coincided with another political development in Turkey, where the Justice and Development Party (AKP) achieved substantial reforms in the political and economic fields in the framework of the process for its accession to the European Union (EU). “The reforms that Turkey achieved in the last 18 months [in 2004] were more than the reforms achieved in the last 80 years,” said the then commissioner in charge of EU expansion. These reforms were achieved in Turkey by a political party with Islamic roots. The leadership of the AKP pointed out that religious values were not taken as a reference in the performance of the party, but the core membership was composed of former members of the Virtue Party (Fazilet), which had strong Islamic references but had been dissolved by Turkey’s constitutional court because of its anti-secular activities. The Muslim Brotherhood emerged in many Middle Eastern countries as the strongest political force in the elections held after the Arab Spring.

In the turmoil of the aftermath of the democratic revolutions, a party like the AKP, guided by moderate Islam, was regarded as a source of inspiration for political reform. Rachid Ghannouchi of Tunisia was the first political leader to refer to Turkey as a role model. He is the intellectual leader of the Ennahda Party, which emerged as the strongest political movement in the Tunisian elections that were held after ousting the regime of President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. The chances of an Islamist political party coming to power had created mixed feelings in liberal and secular quarters, both in Tunisia and overseas. To dispel any fears, Ghannouchi announced that when Ennahda came to power it would not introduce sharia; it would not force women to wear the scarf; it would not ban alcohol in restaurants; and the party would be inspired by the practices of the ruling party of Turkey, the AKP.

A similar attitude was adopted by certain members of the Egyptian intelligentsia after the Arab Spring broke out in their country. They said that the best model suitable for Egypt was Turkish secularism. This gave way to the hope that a belt of like-minded political parties inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood movement would come to power in many Middle Eastern countries including Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Turkey, and probably Syria.

After Brotherhood parties won the first democratic elections in Tunisia and Egypt, the public were disillusioned by their failure to deliver the expected democratisation. The presidential election in December 2014 demonstrated that the people of Tunisia could show the Islamist Ennahda the red card, having tested it in power for a short while. In Egypt, President Mohamed Morsi thought that a slim majority would allow him to turn a deaf ear to those who did not vote for him. The emergence of the “Islamic State” (ISIS) has exacerbated the generally-held negative feelings about regimes that are inspired by Islam.

We are now at the fourth stage post-Arab Spring, which is characterised by several questions about democracy. Public opinion in the Middle East is asking whether unhindered democracy will be able to bring the standard of living that people have sought for a long time. Will Islamic fundamentalism overwhelm the values that they still hold dear?

Turkey is far from being a democratic paradise but it has gained some experience since the formation of its parliament 150 years ago. From 1923 to 1946 it tested one-party parliamentary democracy and now it has been testing a multi-party democracy for 70 years, albeit interrupted by several military coups. The accession process to the European Union contributed considerably to the elimination of many discrepancies in Turkish democracy. Moreover, its democracy functions much better, relatively speaking, than almost all other Middle Eastern countries.

Having said this, Turkey is no longer perceived as a role model for the Middle East. Interest in the Turkish model has faded as a result of Turkey’s increasing isolation caused by various factors, including its policies on Syria and Egypt, and by the increasing emphasis on religious values in Turkish society.

We will be able to say that democracy is dawning in the Arab countries only when we see that those who came to power immediately after the Arab Spring are replaced by governments elected through democratic processes. So far this has happened only in Tunisia.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.