The Middle East Channel

Erdogan comes to Tunisia

Nearly 2,000 people pledged to attend "Say ‘DEGAGE’ to Erdogan," one of a few solidarity protests Tunisians have planned for the Turkish prime minister’s visit. A small battery of security vehicles — some of which, ironically, were purchased with Turkish assistance — stand sentry at the Turkish Embassy in Tunis awaiting likely demonstrators. It’s an ...

FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images
FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images

Nearly 2,000 people pledged to attend "Say ‘DEGAGE’ to Erdogan," one of a few solidarity protests Tunisians have planned for the Turkish prime minister’s visit. A small battery of security vehicles — some of which, ironically, were purchased with Turkish assistance — stand sentry at the Turkish Embassy in Tunis awaiting likely demonstrators.

It’s an altogether different welcoming for Turkish Prime Minister Reccep Tayyip Erdogan, who last visited Tunisia in September 2011 as part of what might be termed his Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region victory lap. 

Back then, Erdogan was king of the Arab streets, cruising high on a regional wave of popularity. A number of factors — from Erdogan’s stand-up attitude toward Israel (exemplified most memorably by storming out on then Israeli President Shimon Peres during an interview at Davos in 2009 and tacitly supporting the Mavi Marmara aid convoy in 2010), to Turkey’s rapidly ascendant economic might, to the parliament’s 2003 refusal to allow the United States to invade Iraq over its land border — combined to make the no-nonsense leader and his Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AK Party) popular amongst Arabs.

But the situation has changed. Over the past week, Tunisians have been ingesting a steady stream of news concerning Turkey’s protests on radio, TV, newspapers, and Facebook. While Erdogan remains popular with a large cadre of Tunisians, many have grown suspicious of his overtures and mock the notion that Turkey’s AK Party can serve as any sort of "model" for democratic Muslim-majority states.

Erdogan’s visit to North Africa is certainly a good thing for Turkey, which has been afforded a few days respite from his heavy-handed and provocative statements. Cooler heads, like President Abdullah Gul, are taking the microphone back home. But for the mildly Islamist Ennahda party in Tunisia, Erdogan’s visit, coming so hot on the heels of his declining fortunes back in Turkey, poses some sticky conundrums. Ennahda’s top brass must find a way of cordially welcoming Erdogan without appearing overly cozy with a leader perceived as bullying and increasingly authoritarian by many of its secular and liberal opponents in Tunisia. More importantly, though, Ennahda must find a way of communicating that — despite its frequent invocation of the "Turkish model" — the AK Party in 2013 does not represent a fast-forwarded version of itself.

As a former Fulbright scholar to Turkey now living in Tunisia, I was initially perplexed when, particularly in the run-up to Tunisia’s October 2011 elections, I heard Ennahda’s leaders repeatedly comparing their movement to Turkey’s AK Party despite criticisms of AK that had been brewing inside Turkey for years. So as I interviewed dozens of Ennahda members across Tunisia, I made a point of asking them a few questions: "What does the ‘Turkish model’ mean to you? Has AK Party been successful in Turkey? Why not be more inspired by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, or by a more Saudi model?"

The answers I heard from Nahdawis (Ennahda members) from party leadership in Tunis to grassroots activists in Sfax and Kairouan were fascinatingly consistent. Above all, the responses revealed an acute lack of knowledge about Turkish domestic politics. Ennadha members, even well-traveled intellectuals at the helm of the party’s leadership, appeared almost totally unaware of negative developments that had been unfolding inside Turkey — rampant gentrification of poor, Roma, and immigrant neighborhoods; creeping restrictions on media freedom; and the increasingly non-consultative nature of Erdogan’s rule. For the Nahdawis I spoke to, AK Party and, by extension, the "Turkish model" were surface symbols based on a quick reading of Turkey’s international reputation at the time: a democratic, very mildly Islamist-led country experiencing a stunning economic boom. These symbolic goals played well in Tunisia, and sketched out Ennahda’s basic goals in a few broad strokes: to combine piety, prosperity, and democracy under the aegis of internationally respected, moderately Islamist rule.

Figures at all levels of Ennahda scoffed at Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, writing it off as a "backward" and "unevolved" party as early as summer 2011. They preferred to compare themselves, both in local Arabic and international media, to AK Party — the single international example of an Islamist-rooted party governing a state that was, at the time, respected (outside Turkey) as vibrantly democratic and rapidly developing. It was natural, also, that Ennahda compare itself to AK Party, since the political and cultural atmosphere surrounding Islamism in Tunisia has much more in common with Turkey than any Arab state.

Like Turkey, whose 1928 constitution was patterned on the Swiss Civil Code, Tunisia has, in recent decades, been profoundly shaped by its encounter with a French-inspired form of hard secularism known as laïcité (laiklik in Turkish). This model of secularism has been defined by aggressive, top-down imposition of secular norms that have often proven distinctly illiberal.

As in Turkey, for instance, where young women were long unable to attend public universities wearing hijab, hijab-wearing Tunisian women were frequently barred from attending and working in public institutions like schools, universities, and hospitals during the 1990s and 2000s. Both countries jailed Islamists in recent decades and refused to allow them to participate in party politics, regardless of their much-repeated commitments to representative, democratic norms. Tunisia was especially hard on its Islamists, imprisoning and torturing thousands of members of Ennahda — real or suspected — often victimizing their wives, siblings, and children as well. Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s first post-independence president, was a great admirer of Turkey’s modern founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Though Bourguiba adopted softer secularization policies than Ataturk, there are numerous parallels in the two rulers’ top-down "modernization" programs, as well as the cult-like status they now enjoy — particularly amongst holdout hard-liner secularists in both countries.

It was only natural that Tunisian Islamists — who see themselves as a distinctly nuanced and forward-thinking brand of pious, yet modern, politicians — would look to Turkish Islamists for symbolic inspiration. Turkey had experienced many of the same historical battles with aggressive laique-style secularization and, like Turkey, Tunisia is a Muslim-majority society which sees itself as considerably more open-minded, stable, and tolerant than other countries in the region. Because of these natural parallels, AK Party’s democratic and prosperity-inducing reputation abroad, and Ennahda members’ striking ignorance of domestic Turkish criticisms of AK Party rule, Tunisia’s ascendant Islamists repeatedly invoked the Turkish model — particularly during the October 2011 election campaign. This placed Ennahda in stark contrast to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, whose members — many of whom I interviewed that same summer — refused to acknowledge Turkish Islamism as a model and chaffed when Erdogan suggested a civil, secular state during his visit to Cairo in September 2011.

Presently, however, Ennahda’s opponents — a motley mixture of secularists, liberals, educated elites, working class people angry at the still-sluggish economy, and former members of former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s old ruling party (the Constitutional Democratic Rally or RCD) — are using the Turkish model to invoke something entirely different: an apocalyptic scenario of authoritarian, aggressively Islamist rule.

Turkey’s current protests come as a much-relished gift to fervent opponents of Ennahda, who have long craved an opportunity to tear down the sole seeming
example of an Islamist-led democracy. Many of these individuals argue that the current protests prove that Islamists are always wolves in sheep’s clothing, just waiting to unleash their true theocratic and authoritarian selves on the polity when the time is right.

While the Turkish protests and AK Party’s many missteps bear instructive lessons for Ennahda, Tunisian secularists’ claim that Islamism is inherently to blame misses the mark. As in Tunisia, authoritarianism — not Islamism — is the real danger. And AK Party’s creeping authoritarianism — though largely a product of Erdogan’s increasing bull-headedness since first winning national elections in 2002 and party leadership’s non-consultative, overly majoritarian approach — is also, to a large extent, the natural product of a party that has won swooping victories in three successive, very poorly contested, elections.

Ennahda’s Tunisian opponents must take a lesson from the failures and fractious infighting of Turkish secularists, exemplified most resoundingly in the Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) ongoing inability to provide a credible alternative to AK Party. Without credible party representation that can unite support on a countrywide level, AK’s opponents have lost election after election after election, and now find themselves with nowhere to go but the streets.

Though Ennadha is plagued with a great many challenges — most importantly its declining popularity amongst a broad swathe of Tunisians whose economic realities have not improved since 2011 — it is still far more stable and election-ready than its opponents on the left, including Nidaa Tounes (the Call for Tunis) and Jibhat Shaabia (the Popular Front). Figures at the helm of Ennahda seem to express genuine commitment to democratic principles, and — very importantly — the party is internally democratic (significant decisions are taken within its mejlis shura on a one-person, one-vote basis). Like all politicians, though, they talk differently to different groups of people, and have fought tooth and nail over various political priorities — be they administrative appointments or constitutional provisions in the country’s recent drafting debates. Still, like AK Party in 2002, many leading figures in Ennadha seem poised to combine a zest for public piety with a respectfully democratic approach. The key is for Tunisia to have a credible, legitimate, and well-organized opposition that knows how to mobilize voters and meet their needs.

That said, even if Ennahda wins successive elections, it — like AK Party — will not be off the hook. Ennahda must watch the Turkish protests closely, and be humble enough to realize that (1) they invoked the Turkish model without being terribly well-informed about Turks’ criticisms of AK’s recent approach, and (2) that AK’s current challenges offer highly instructive lessons for how it should (or shouldn’t) conduct itself in power throughout the coming years.

First of all, Ennahda must avoid equating electoral victories with blank checks for governance. Simply because a party wins an election — or thumps its laughably disorganized opponents — does not give that party the right to assume a mandate in imposing its will on the people. February’s protests in the wake of leftist politician Chokri Belaid’s murder — like the current protests in Turkey — represented a sort of popular, non-electoral wake-up call for the government. "We do not approve of where this is heading," thousands of Tunisians communicated during those massive protests in early February. "Make changes — hear us!" Fortunately, diplomatic thinkers in the party — most notably the party’s secretary-general and former prime minister, Hamadi Jebali, and some so-called "Jebalists" in Ennahda’s ranks — made concessions, the cabinet was reshuffled, and things carried on. Ennahda must work to further develop an appreciation that consensus-building and democratic legitimacy is an ongoing effort — not a cut-and-done deal at the ballot box. Ennahda founder Rached Ghannouchi’s criticism of "democracy of the majority" in Cairo today certainly acknowledged this principle, and may have given a subtle nod to the Turkish protests in addition to the grim situation in Egypt.

Similarly, Erdogan’s efforts to slowly impose religiously oriented policies in a kind of "boil the frog" approach, restricting alcohol sales at side shops during nighttime hours within 100 meters of mosques or schools (basically everywhere in Turkey’s denser cities) — and liberal and secular Turks’ deep unwillingness to accept those policies quietly — are also instructive.

When I interviewed Ghannouchi about the Turkish model in August 2011, he said "AK Party will gradually make Turkey a more Muslim country — through education, building the economy, and diversifying the media. That’s our model — not law. Make people love Islam. Convince, don’t coerce them."

Though Ghannouchi does not single-handedly control Ennahda, he is an important voice, and his comments belied a certain assumption that the "boil the frog" approach, as opponents might call it, or the "gradualist" or "bishwaya" (Arabic for "slowly") approach, would be good for the country. As repeated Republican victories to slowly carve away abortion rights on a state-by-state level in the United States have proven, this approach often does yield immense dividends. But Tunisia today, like Turkey when AK Party first came to power, is a society used to secular — even aggressively secular — rule. Although countless Tunisians suffered under these laique policies, they created an environment in which a sizable demographic of secularists and liberals have their ears perked when it comes to Islamism. They are on the lookout for imposition of subtle projects aimed at engineering society in a top-down, more religious direction, and they will not accept this without a struggle. While Tunisian Islamists used to be the persecuted minority under an authoritarian laique state, the country’s secularists and liberals are realizing that they are in the numerical minority and will therefore have to fight for an interpretation of democratic freedoms that enshrines minority rights, diversity, and tolerance — values which many self-proclaimed feminist and civil society activists conveniently ignored throughout the Ben Ali years when it came to Islamists who were denied basic liberties.

Erdogan’s trip to North Africa — though a convenient escape at a time of immense domestic turmoil — should be a moment of instructive reflection for him, too. Perhaps, here in Tunis, he is comparing Ennahda’s undoubtedly queasy welcome and the high profile "solidarity protests" to his victory lap in 2011. Perhaps he will see that his failure to forge democratic consensus at home is harming his friends — and the very idea of Islamist-rooted democratic rule — abroad, even in traditionally friendly countries like Tunisia. Or maybe he’ll continue to blame Twitter. Only time will tell. 

Monica Marks is a Rhodes Scholar and doctoral candidate in Middle Eastern Studies at St Antony’s College, Oxford. She is based in Tunisia.

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