Last week Recep Erdogan showed up at the right place at the right time, just as always in his political career. As the Israeli Embassy fiasco unrolled preceded and followed by threats from the government and ruling military council to suppress protests and the press, Egyptians hungered for the charisma of a popular freedom leader. Erdogan gave them the whole package: an ambitious man who defied the military, pulled his country out of economic stagnation, pushed for social reform, resisted the West, stood up to Israel and put his country back on the geopolitical map. Turkey is what everyone talks about these days. Turkey is prospering while neighboring Europe is sinking; Turkey is staying strong and united while the Middle East is breaking into war and civil unrest; Turkey is charging on the international scene while others are withdrawing humiliated. Last week the big crowd at the VIP entrance of Cairo Airport was awaiting the arrival of the blueprint that can make Egypt a similar success.
Egypt today looks very much like Turkey 10 years ago. A broken economy, gaping social inequality, and lack of security pestered the country, which had not seen political stability since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk died in 1938. Under the guise of protecting Kemalist secularism, the army had led four coups (the most recent one in 1997), suspended the constitution multiple times, shut down parties it deemed anti-secular, and engaged in widespread violence against civilians. It curbed basic personal and political rights and stifled democratic progress in Turkey for decades.
After the coup in 1980, it imposed martial law and sanctioned the arrest of close to 1 million people. At least 100,000 were put before special military tribunals and thousands were the victims of torture, forcible disappearance and death. By the 2002 elections when the AKP won, the Turkish public had grown wary of the army. For years the military had represented nothing more than an entity with full institutional and political autonomy which by no means represented or protected the people. Instead, led by the paranoia of its small elite, it assailed the country and smothered its growth and development.
Recep Erdogan came to power when Turkey was ready to shake off military repression and head for a democratic future. After 10 years of AKP (Justice and Development Party) rule, the very foundations of the military are shaking. Hundreds of officers are under arrest and Turkish courts are investigating two major anti-government conspiracy cases with military involvement: Sledgehammer and Ergenekon. Recently the entire higher command of the army handed in their resignations and their substitutes were chosen for the first time by the civil government.
Achieving supremacy of civil power within the state is just one of Erdogan’s many accomplishments. By the beginning of his third term this year, he had already brought the country out of recession with 8% growth for 2010; tripled GDP since 2002; reformed the judiciary, police, health care and social security; and even set up a state-sponsored housing scheme for the poor. All this success swept a third term victory in the recent elections.
At a first glance, Turkey is a great example for struggling and divided Egypt to follow. But the Turkish model comes with a well-hidden price tag: freedom. Somewhere along the way to what Erdogan was constantly reassuring was democracy, things went wrong.
In recent years Freedom House has repeatedly released statements criticizing Turkey’s worsening press freedom record. The country currently competes with Iran and China for the highest number of jailed journalists. At least 50 are currently in jail on a variety of charges, including involvement in Ergenekon (an alleged ultra-nationalist organization planning subversion of the government). This and its sister Sledgehammer case (an alleged anti-government coup) have allowed the government to jail hundreds of military officers and civilians it has deemed threatening. A famous example is the journalist Ahmet Sik, who published a book Imam’in Ordasu (The Imam’s Army), referring to Erdogan’s close friend and mentor Imam Fethullah Gülen, leader of a religious movement closely associated with the AKP and its rise to power. As he was being taken away by the police, Sik allegedly shouted, “Whoever touches them, burns!”
Sledgehammer and Ergenekon have also put under question the independence of the recently reformed judiciary system. Independent experts and a few brave journalists have repeatedly pointed out blatant inaccuracies and contradictions in the evidence that the prosecution is presenting, including falsified documents and evidence tampering. Yet there has been no response from the court officials working on the two cases. Some analysts say that the judiciary, along with the police and recently the military, have been slowly infiltrated by people loyal to Erdogan and Gulen and their objectivity is under question. Others have expressed suspicions that government-sponsored social programs, including housing for the poor, have been used to buy electoral votes and benefit businesses owned by AKP loyalists.
What worries many liberal Turks is that Erdogan is planning to change the constitution. His sweeping victory in the last elections was not enough to win two thirds of the parliament seats needed for an approval of constitutional changes. Some allege that his goal is to turn Turkey into a presidential republic and build himself a bulletproof presidential post, Putin-style. Although he lacks the needed parliamentary majority, Erdogan was not discouraged and vowed to continue to pursue constitutional changes by talking to the opposition.
In short, the situation in Turkey currently is far from democratic and far from optimistic, given the lack of alternative to Erdogan and the AKP. What Egypt needs to take from the Turkish example is not a model, but a lesson. Betting Egypt’s future on one charismatic figure in a rush to get rid of a military regime means gambling with freedom.
Given the long history of one-man rule in Egypt, the country can easily slip back into an authoritarian regime under false promises of economic prosperity and social stability, the ones that Erdogan always gave. The first battle that both Egypt and Turkey have to fight is for a free and independent press. It is the one democratic institution that maintains and reinforces the rest and which is quick to signal bad political intensions and rise of authoritarian tendencies. An informed electorate can then check those in the next elections.
Mariya Petkova is a Bulgarian freelance journalist based in Cairo.