Will Middle Eastern countries look more like Turkey, or will Turkey look more like Middle Eastern countries? A very interesting question, seen from a Turkish perspective.
As I write this, news is coming in that Egyptian state TV is claiming that countries which once occupied Egypt are now plotting against it. Besides the USA, Britain and Israel, of course Turkey was named – well, the Ottoman Empire is long gone, but we see the point. Erdogan has spoken out against Mubarak, basically saying that he should listen to the voice of the people and step down immediately.
In Turkey, the events in Egypt have not caused too much reaction. Yes, there are demonstrations in front of the Egyptian consulate, but those are small and mainly from Islamic groups. One of the reasons they are against Mubarak – judging for example by the anti-Israel symbols at the demonstrations – is that he has not gone to war with Israel. Does that also explain why Erdogan, himself very critical of Israel, speaks out so strongly against Mubarak? Could very well be: this is a perfect opportunity for Erdogan to show himself as a democrat and at the same time appeal to his Islamic grass roots. Let me remind you that the general elections in Turkey are approaching.
Anyway, it’s also remarkable that Turkish secularists aren’t really speaking out about the events in Egypt. On the other hand: is it? Egypt is not an Islamic state like Iran, the country they fear the most, and it could very well be they just don’t have much of a problem with Mubarak. For them, the main concern is to fight Islamist politics. Supporting the Egyptians who call for the end of the Mubarak era probably just feels too scary. What if Mubarak steps down and Egypt turns into an Islamic state, like Iran? Shouldn’t the dictatorial but non-sharia government of Mubarak be preferred to an Islamic state?
They are thinking of their own country too, of course: if Egypt becomes another Iran, if other middle-eastern countries follow the Iranian path, would it inspire the Islamists in Turkey to try to establish an Islamic state too? Their biggest nightmare – far fetched, in my humble opinion, but so deeply felt that it makes them not whole-heartedly support the anti-Mubarak demonstrators in Egypt.
But what if? What if it all turns out differently and Egypt does turn out more democratic than it has ever been? Then Turkey could actually be an example. Turkey is the one country in the region with an overwhelmingly Muslim population that has a secular system. I even read an article recently about the ‘Erdogan effect’, which allegedly contributed to the uprising that is now going on in Egypt. A democracy with a majority Muslim population daring to speak out against the USA and against Israel, that’s rather remarkable. And besides that, Turkey has a rapidly growing economy, and is pushing through democratic reforms while under a so-called mildly Islamic government.
Imagine if Egypt, Tunisia, and other countries in the Middle East suffering under a dictatorship, were to remodel themselves with Turkey as an example. I don’t know enough about the Middle East to judge if that is a realistic prospect, but it sure is a challenging one. It would also make Turkey’s democratisation process stronger. It would prove that a majority Muslim population and democracy really can go together. That Turkey’s democracy doesn’t need anti-democratic structures to avoid islamic dictatorship, as has been the case in Turkey for so long.