02/15/2011 04:58 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Inshallah, Cairo Will Be More Like Ankara Than Tehran

As a longtime ally of the West and new partner of Iran and Syria, Turkey has been seeking the role of mediator and model in every available arena, including Egypt, Lebanon, and Tunisia. As a G-20 founding member, holder of a seat on the UN Security Council, European Union aspirant, and head of the Organization of Islamic Conference, Ankara has transformed itself into an international actor, capable of bringing considerable clout and influence to its regions. Often lost in the debates about Turkey and its potential as a model is the fact that Ankara did not transform itself overnight from a defeated post-Ottoman state led by Ataturk's military to a flourishing market-democracy led by a conservative Muslim party. It has been almost a century in the making.

Given the recent events in Egypt, the role of the Turkish military and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by Prime Minister Erdoğan has garnered many comparisons to the Egyptian army and the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt and Turkey's official aspirations -- modernity and secularism -- are remarkably undefined, though officially upheld and enforced by the military institutions as pillars of the grand idea of these nations themselves. Apart from generic rhetoric, there has been little refined thinking by most analysts about the substance of these terms or about the relationship between society and the political elite in Egypt for the last thirty years given the lack of civilian empowerment, while Turkey has been struggling with civil-military tensions since the arrival of the AKP.


Supporters of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party or AK Party wave party and Turkish flags during an election in Istanbul, Turkey, Sunday, July 15, 2007. (AP Photo)

In Turkey, far from following a stylized, consistent course, the secular state has at times negotiated, sought compromises and even shifted its position to incorporate Islamic vocabulary into official discourse since the 1980s. The military and secular elites have reacted when they have seen the "the irresponsible use of Islam for partisan purposes," as was done after the 1997 intervention. However they have demonstrated a dynamic and dual strategy of strengthening "centrist" forces by shutting down the predecessor to the AKP, the Welfare Party, while working to incorporate "moderate" political Islamists like the AKP. For example, while the official strategy during the 2007 presidential elections was to prevent the AKP candidate from taking office at all costs, still the chief of general staff at that time did not consider it unacceptable, unprincipled or inconsistent to hold a secret meeting with Prime Minister Erdoğan soon after his party won the elections, widely believed to be for the purpose of reaching an agreement to disagree, and to continue working together pragmatically.

The speed with which the Turkish military reinvented itself from being a trailblazer in 1960 -- "liberating" the country from what it termed economic, political, administrative and cultural underdevelopment -- to consolidating in 1980 a capitalist democracy and a tenaciously conservative presence in public life, is yet another prime example of the flexibility it allows itself in its political role as guardian. Erdoğan's recent robust defence of the military against accusations from secular opposition parties' claims that it has been co-opted have added another chapter in the complex dance between the AKP and the Turkish military. Therefore, as the Egyptian army assumes its position as a political guardian, finding a civilian counterpart willing to enshrine this institution like in Turkey will be critical to watch.

Although the AKP has abandoned explicitly Islamist politics in characterizing itself as "conservative," the ruling party has left its ideological transformation usefully ambiguous. By proclaiming itself "conservative democrat" yet keeping some affinity with the Islamist ontology, the party conveniently weds pragmatism with nostalgia, and a new vision with a populist reformism shaped by conservative sensibilities. Rather than consistently and clearly reproducing a past tradition, the party leadership relies upon contradictions and inconsistencies as the sources of creativity and energy. This was made possible in Turkey because of the political inclusion of various Islamic movements that have been moderated over time and not been hastily handed power.

The Turkish experience with the AKP in a still-secular state with the continuing influence, albeit weakened, of the military with direct connections to the West does offer the hope that an Islamic religious movement can coexist with democracy in the Middle East. But comparisons to Turkey should be approached with extreme caution. Despite their superficial similarities, the Muslim Brotherhood and Turkey's AKP have little in common, Egypt and Turkey represent different political traditions, and the shape of any possible government in Cairo is likely to be unique. However, pushing for a Cairo that looks more like Ankara than Tehran seems eminently more likely and desirable in the long run.

Joshua W. Walker is an International Security Program research fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School and a post-doctoral fellow at the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University.