The Snake That Eats Itself

Why coups beget coups beget coups.


The Turkish political system — attempting to forge a synthesis between a strong and politically-active military, the well-to-do, educated (and often bureaucratic) elite, and the impoverished, conservative, and Muslim majority — used to be touted as a role model for the rest of the Middle East. The recent demonstrations against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government have hinted that Turkish democracy is much more fragile, and in many ways more superficial, than many suspected. But despite recent events, there are still important lessons from Turkish history for the rest of the region — particularly Egypt.

The troubles of Turkish democracy over the last 70 years, and the current impasse created by the government’s hard-line attitude toward peaceful protesters, reflect a deep-rooted polarization in society, one that has developed over decades. But it has also been exploited frequently by rival factions and strongmen when they thought the polarization would serve them politically.

The polarization of Turkey, as well as that of Egypt, is often painted by outsiders as a clash between Westernizing liberals and elites on one side, and the traditional and religious masses. This image is only partly true — and mostly misleading. The essential conflict of both countries should be seen as one rooted in political, social, and economic inequalities.

The great economist Simon Kuznets argued that early stages of economic development must necessarily be associated with a surge in inequality. Economic and social modernization has indeed created deep chasms in many societies in Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East. But there is nothing natural about such inequities. Rather, they reflect the fact that opportunities are very unequally distributed, particularly in the early days of development, often open only to those who already control political power or occupy privileged positions in society.

The unfairness of this development process, as well as the sense of unfairness it engenders which often exceeds the reality of it, is beneath the tendency for polarization in these societies.

Though the faultlines in these countries center on the gulf between the haves vs. the have-nots, the ensuing polarization often takes different guises. In much of Latin America, those left behind, without political power and economic opportunity, are often indigenous or mestizo communities, who feel the unfairness of this stunted development process acutely. They are the ones without access to education, public health, roads or a political voice. They are the ones, not surprisingly, associating modernization with their plight, and rallying around populist leaders like Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and Rafael Correa in Ecuador.

In Egypt and Turkey, those often left behind are the millions who have recently migrated from, or are still living in, provincial cities and rural parts of the country. These groups are the Islamist base, but even when defense of religion and tradition becomes their rallying cry, one might wonder how much of their grievances really go back to political, social, and economic exclusion. The main problem facing democracy in many societies, particularly in Turkey and Egypt, is to mediate these divisions while creating a more inclusive political system and economy.

This is where Turkey has failed many times in its history, and Egypt should have heeded these lessons. Alas, Egypt is following the same perilous steps.

Too dramatic? Let’s look at the facts.

As with Egypt, the first transition to a true multi-party democracy in Turkey was a painful process, arriving only in 1946 with the founding of the Democratic Party (DP), a business-friendly, conservative party willing to depart from the top-down approach of military and bureaucratic elites and speak to the priorities of the masses. Two previous half-hearted experiments with controlled multi-party democracy were cut short by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, when the loyal opposition turned out to attract much more support than could be tolerated.

In 1950, to the great disappointment and apprehension of military and state elites, the DP, led by its leader Adnan Menderes, swept to power with a landslide election victory. Perhaps inevitably given their poorer, more provincial, less educated and more religious base, their rhetoric was populist and Islam-tinged, further rankling the state elites.

But the DP leaders, themselves weaned on politics within the ruling party before 1946, were no angels. Corruption was rampant. What’s more, once they saw their popularity slide, they just adopted their rivals’ playbook wholesale and notched up the repression. Newspapers started appearing with big empty columns, where articles censored at the last moment would have been.

Then, on May 27, 1960, came a military coup, widely supported by the bureaucracy, the intellectual elites, and the supposedly pro-democracy Turkish "liberals." The enthusiasm was palpable: the military was saving democracy from the DP and Adnan Menderes, wresting power from the masses deemed to be too immature for democracy or politics, and placing power firmly in the hands of the more enlightened. The military moved swiftly to hang three of the DP’s leaders — including Menderes himself.

Emboldened by the experience, the military would intervene three more times in Turkish politics in the next 40 years, deepening the polarization of society between the elites and the rest in the process.

Today, we are still seeing the reverberations of this polarization. Peaceful protests throughout the country are being met with brutal police crackdowns and an intransigent attitude from Erdogan and his ruling AKP, with the full backing of their loyal supporters. They see the protests as just another attempt by the well-educated, secular, and pro-military elites to retain power. This is somewhat understandable given that — as recently as April 2007 — the military, supported by these elites and the constitutional court, tried to oust the AKP from power and close it down. (The government did not resign, the constitutional court got cold feet at the last moment, and the AKP and its government survived).

What would have happened to Turkish politics without the military coup of 1960? Perhaps Menderes and other DP elites would have irreparably damaged the economy or somehow cowed society into total submission before the next election, effectively setting up their own dictatorship. But this seems unlikely. Rather, they would have probably been kicked out of power in the next election, cementing the credentials of Turkish democracy.

Through this lens, the situation in Egypt seems quite similar. Just like the DP in Turkey, once it took power the Muslim Brotherhood dropped all of the conciliatory, compromise-seeking veneer that it projected before the election. And sure, Mohamed Morsy, just like Menderes, was turning authoritarian, attempting to bring his people into positions of power within the state bureaucracy. And yes, again as in Turkey towards the end of the DP rule, the economy was ailing.

So what would have happened without the military coup that took place on July 3, 2013, ignominiously kicking Morsy out of power and taking him into military custody?

Again, nobody knows. It is possible that the economy would have been so deeply damaged that even greater and more violent protests would have erupted. The Muslim Brotherhood might have taken over the arteries of power so thoroughly that they would have been able to set up their own dictatorship, effectively blocking any path that may have temporarily opened to a truly inclusive democracy, where power is shared pluralistically rather than being wielded uncompromisingly by whoever finds himself in power at the time.

But this scenario seems as unlikely as that of the DP in Turkey setting up its own dictatorship in the face of a strong, mobilized, opposition. There was already strong discontent with Morsy and his government, witnessed by the more than the 22 million signatures calling for him to step down before the coup took place. With this level of opposition in an already mobilized society, could the Muslim Brotherhood really set up its own dictatorship before the next election?

Just like in Turkey in 1960, what Egypt really needed was for those who had ascended to power for the first time to peacefully lose an election. Not because the other side cannot tolerate the very thought of those who have so long been viewed as second-class citizens sitting in the presidential palace, but because they just weren’t governing well. Because they simply lost the support of ordinary people and had to leave the way they came, through the polls.

Just like in Turkey, Egypt needed assurances to both sides that politics can be inclusive, with every segment of society, regardless of creed, religion, gender and social status, sharing power. Instead, at its first hour of democratic challenge, Turkey got the heavy boot of the soldiers, not only crushing its burgeoning democracy but also tainting its intellectuals and elites in the deed. So did Egypt.

The Turkish elites’ failure to tolerate the inclusion of large segments of the population in the political system, and the wanton violence they exacted on political leaders they disliked, polarized society further and hardened those left out of power. It left those who were denied a place at the political table without a true belief in democratic politics. The same is happening in Egypt.

So is this spiral of deeper and deeper polarization the lot of these societies? Can Turkey or Egypt break out of it?

There is no easy solution, since the spiral feeds on itself. But many countries have shown how it can be broken by developing and institutionalizing a balance of power in politics, rather than just living with the domination of one group over the rest of society. Yet this is a slow process, unlikely to get off the ground anytime soon in either country.

A more rapid change can come from leaders with vision and courage, as exemplified by Nelson Mandela’s tireless efforts to close the enormous chasm between blacks and whites in South Africa. His gestures for building an inclusive, multi-racial "rainbow nation" reached their apex when he wore the jersey of the rugby team, the Springboks, traditionally associated with the racist, apartheid state and repression against blacks, signaling to those currently out of government that they were still, and would continue to be, included in power — their voices heard, their rights respected.

Alas, nobody in Turkey or Egypt has yet shown half that courage. But we can still wait optimistically, consoling ourselves that breaking the spiral of polarization also requires patience.

Daron Acemoglu is an economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Twitter: @DrDaronAcemoglu

James A. Robinson is a professor at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy.

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