From Turkey to Egypt: The Army Is Not a Solution

Why Turkey's experience of military rule does not offer a hopeful precedent for Egypt.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The July 2013 coup in Egypt has prompted considerable debate about whether transitional democracies can be nurtured by military rule. It is often argued that the military can play the role of a neutral arbiter in the political sphere; it can be useful in distributing power, limiting excessive majorities, and introducing a culture of negotiation and power sharing. In these arguments, the military is perceived as a checks-and-balances mechanism, an institution builder that will strengthen democracy in the long term.

The Turkish military is often cited as leading exemplar. Since the first military coup in 1960, the Turkish military played a central role in establishing laws, installing institutions, and regulating politics. One cannot deny its impact in shaping Turkish politics, but it is hard to argue that military interventions and the tutelary role of the military nurtured Turkey’s democracy. On the contrary, it interrupted and significantly delayed the process of democratization.

To call the Turkish military a "democratizing" power is a fundamental misconception. It is in fact an institution that has staged four coups against democratically elected governments. Following the coups, new constitutions were written by military-controlled assemblies. Until today, in fact, Turkey has been unable to produce a civilian-made constitution. The military’s role in politics has constituted major blows to Turkey’s democratization process, in which the military has a history of limiting the power and autonomy of civilian government actors.

The military thus acted not as a facilitator of democratization but as a retardant: It wrote constitutions and built institutions that were hardly compatible with a modern liberal democracy. Whenever political reforms were discussed in Turkey and demanded by the European Union as part of Turkey’s accession process, they always involved amending the constitution. This was precisely because the military-made constitutions did not include provisions to enable civilian control of the military. Nor did they protect political parties, which resulted in the closure of 28 political parties by the constitutional court since 1961.

What the military-made constitutions did was to institutionalize the autonomy of the military over the civilian governments through the powerful National Security Council. Moreover, military coups destroyed the autonomy of political parties and suppressed the internal dynamics of social actors.

The 1960 coup closed down the then-ruling Democratic Party, and Prime Minister Adnan Menderes and two members of the cabinet were executed. After the 1980 military coup, all political parties were abolished and their leaders were banned from politics for 10 years. Following the 1997 coup a civilian government was forced to step down, and the constitutional court closed down Turkey’s most popular party. In short, the Turkish military attempted to intervene in the natural course of political developments, thereby preventing Turkish democracy from maturing at its own pace.

After coups people never took to the streets to push back the military despite the fact that it was their will the military overruled. Instead, they expressed their reactions by means of the ballot box, where they usually voted for the followers of the political party that had been overthrown. Knowing this, the military established a system in which elected governments had to share power with the military.

After each coup, the military promised a speedy restoration of democracy. These promises were met, but it never restored true democracy. Rather, the military installed a "tutelary democracy," in which the military set limits on political activities and positioned itself above the government with formal and informal supervisory functions. The political system, thus shaped by repeated military interventions, lost its ability to resolve problems. Political actors and parties, unable to act independently, became increasingly weak and inefficient. This in turn gave way to the rise of radical political movements, including that of Islamists.

If Egypt is now heading toward such a tutelary democracy, the Turkish story is relevant. Those who fear the "risk of democracy" in Egypt, however, may prefer this form of government. It was only in July 2012, after all, that the electorate chose an Islamist president. These people must remember, however, that Islamists suppressed by the military are likely to win the sympathy of the people, improve their political strategy, and make a stronger comeback in the next elections.

Some Western analysts (here and here) portray the Turkish military as a model for the Egyptian military. The Turkish military is regarded as the guardian of secularism and a counterbalance to the Islamists. Yet the military’s activities to prevent the rise of Islamist movements have produced the opposite result. The Islamist Welfare Party won local elections in Istanbul and Ankara in 1994; by 1996 it was the largest political party under Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan. The military, as the "tutelary guardian" of the system, responded to these situations in undemocratic ways. It declared political Islam as the state’s principal enemy; it mobilized the media and civil society to isolate Islamists and push the Islamist-led government to step down; it briefed judges and public prosecutors about the activities of Islamic groups; and so on.

These undemocratic activities resulted in the resignation of Prime Minister Erbakan and the ordered closure of the Welfare Party by the constitutional court. Yet the military’s activities also sowed seeds of anger, discontent, and democratic reaction, not only among the Islamists but also among those secular democrats who defended the Islamists’ right to compete in political arena.

Challenged by the military and its institutional allies within the state, particularly in the judiciary, the pro-Islamic Welfare Party reformers changed their political lexicon and established the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2001. The new party transformed itself from a marginal Islamist movement into a mass political party in search of security against the assaults of military-led secularists. The AKP developed a three-part strategy: First, it adopted a language of human rights and democracy as a discursive shield. Second, it mobilized popular support as a form of democratic legitimacy. And third, it built a "democratic coalition" of modern, secular sectors both at home and abroad that recognized the AKP as a legitimate political actor.

By stressing democracy and individual rights, and thus gaining the moral high ground over its opponents by building a broader social and political front, the AKP managed to outmaneuver its secularist opponents.

Before the latest military intervention in 1997 that targeted the Islamists, the highest share of the Turkish vote garnered by the pro-Islamic Welfare Party was 21 percent. When Recep Tayyip Erdogan was elected as mayor of Istanbul in 1994 on the Welfare Party ticket he got only 25 percent of the vote. But following the 1997 coup, the political party of the reformed Islamists, led by Erdogan, the AKP won the 2002 elections with 34 percent of the vote by attracting both Islamist and non-Islamist voters. Its voting bloc has increased over the past 10 years; in the 2011 general elections, the AKP won 50 percent of the vote.

The case of Turkey demonstrates that an Islamist party, radical or reformed, can re-emerge stronger once it has been undemocratically suppressed by a military. The Turkish military not only damaged democracy through undemocratic tactics against Islamist political movements, but it also provoked them into making a stronger comeback, thus putting democracy at risk once again. Under the AKP government, which is increasingly criticized for going authoritarian, Turkey’s search for democracy still continues. Democracy in Turkey was not nurtured by the military nor has it been prospered under the reformed-Islamists. This should serve as a warning for the leaders of Egypt’s military coup and its supporters both at home and abroad.

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