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Political Islamism between Erdogan’s Turkey and Arab Spring Countries

Turkish president Erdogan during his visit to the Ministry of Defense in Cairo in September 2011
Turkish president Erdogan during his visit to the Ministry of Defense in Cairo in September 2011

This is the tenth anniversary of the Arab Spring revolutions, which changed the face of the Middle East and North Africa region, forever. Turkey, and its current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have been present in almost all of the political events that defined the aftermath of the Arab Spring, especially in Egypt and Syria.

After the fall of Mubarak’s regime in Egypt, politicians and academicians, around the globe, went on advising revolutionists on how to replace falling dictatorships with new democratic systems of governance. Turkey’s geographic proximity, shared history, and cultural and religious similarities with majority-Muslim Arab countries made Turkey’s system of governance and Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), the most recommended model for Arab countries recovering from the Arab Spring revolutions.

In mid-September 2011, a few months after the outbreak of the Arab Spring revolutions, Erdogan, who was the Prime Minister of Turkey at that time, visited Egypt as his first station on a tour visit to Arab Spring countries. Erdogan was one of the first officials, in the world, to support the popular uprising in Egypt and Syria. On the first days of the revolutions, he publicly called for the fall of the Mubarak regime in Egypt and the Assad regime in Syria.

In Egypt, Erdogan was received with a warm welcome by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), which was responsible for running state affairs in the transitional period, after Mubarak. He spoke to a public audience at a huge event in Cairo Opera House and was interviewed by widely-watched Egyptian TV shows. Erdogan attempted to transfer his successful experience with AKP, which is an Islamist party leading a secular country, to the Egyptian youth taking their first baby steps towards building a democratic state. The Turkish rule model was more appealing to most Egyptians than the examples of Western democracies in Europe or the United States. At that time, AKP’s rule in Turkey was globally praised as a successful model of democratic governance, despite AKP being an Islamist party.

"The message of freedom spreading from Tahrir Square has become a light of hope for all the oppressed in Tripoli, Damascus, and Sanaa. Governments must derive their legitimacy from the will of the people. This is the essence of Turkey's policy in the region;” said Erdogan in his speech at the Cairo Opera House, in September 2011.

In an interview with Egyptian TV, Erdogan provided a piece of advice to revolutionary youth; to “build a secular state based on a new constitution founded on secular principles." He presented Turkey as an ideal model for a democratic state, as he is a Muslim Prime Minister for a secular state, that respects an individual’s right to be religious or not. Erdogan, also, expressed his confidence in Egypt's ability to build a modern state after the revolution based on three pillars: good public management, improving education, and good organization of state wealth to eliminate corruption.

Erdogan's moderate speech, stressing secularism as the basis for the new Egyptian state, was widely applauded by the political elite and public citizens. For long before that, Egyptian media used to praise Erdogan's leadership of Turkey and his ability to get his country out of a grinding economic crisis to make it close to joining the European Union. Most Egyptians were not impressed by Erdogan for being an Islamist Prime Minister but for his absolute commitment to secular principles and his success in eliminating corruption in Turkey.

However, only one group was offended by Erdogan's eloquent words about the need for Egypt to establish a democratic state with a constitution founded on secular principles. That party was the Muslim Brotherhood, the political Islamist group that robbed the gains of the youth revolution and falsely presented itself to the world as the Egyptian version of the Turkish AKP.

Immediately after the success of the revolution in overthrowing Mubarak’s regime, the Muslim Brotherhood formed a political party with the name “Freedom and Justice Party.” Their purpose was to match the global discourse, which prevailed at that time, proposing that post-revolution Egypt should be ruled by some kind of an “Islamist democratic” regime. In Egypt, youth used to laugh at such proposals. First, because they contradict the nature of the Egyptian people, who, over their long history, have rejected Islamists playing any role in politics. Second, Egyptians learnt, through first-hand experience, that there is no such thing as an Islamist regime that could be also democratic and respectful of individual freedoms. It took the Muslim Brotherhood one dark year in power to prove the falseness of the “Islamist democratic” regime theory.

Erdogan's statements valuing the democratic state and the secular constitution, during his visit to Egypt after the revolution, slapped the Muslim Brotherhood right on their beards. They expected Erdogan to promote the Islamist rule; not the secular democratic rule. His speech on democracy and secularism threatened their hard work, for years, on brainwashing the grassroots citizens by claiming that they are Allah’s representatives on Earth and that “Islam is the solution” for all political and economic troubles.

Muslim Brotherhood leaders responded to Erdogan’s speech with hostile media statements such as “Egypt does not want advice from Turkey or Erdogan.” On his arrival to Cairo, hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood members and leaders lined up outside the airport to receive him, as if he were a Caliphate or the long-awaited Islamic conqueror of Egypt. On his departure, they threw him with stones of despise and resentment, only because he dared to say that democracy and secularism were the perfect model for post-revolution Egypt.

This one story is evidence of the falsehood of the theories promoted that Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) is applicable in Egypt or other Arab Spring countries. The political Islamists of Turkey are not as extremist as the Islamists of Egypt, including the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist movement. The rooted secular values that the Turkish state embraced for decades can hardly be shaken by an Islamist party in power. The Islamist party is forced to adapt to the secular principles upon which the state is founded to operate, not the other way around. Unfortunately, this was not the case in the post-revolution Egypt, when the Muslim Brotherhood group and their fellow Salafists seized executive and legislative powers, in 2012, and attempted to Islamize the torn and exhausted Egyptian state.


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