The Middle East and democracy: Turkey’s Protest

By Harry Chambers.

Written on 28/7/2016.

The self-immolation of the Tunisian Street Vendor Mohammed Bouazizi January 4th 2011 would spark what would soon be known as the Arab Spring, with the multitude of uprisings across the Middle East, producing the belief that the region would soon transition into liberal democratic states, ending the 4th wave of democratisation coined by figures such as Samuel Huntington and continuing the seeming inevitable expansion of democracy and its adoption by states worldwide. Yet, it is clear now this is not the case with the monarchies of the Arab Gulf states remaining in control, Islamic Jihadist groups creating instability across the Middle East and Tunisia, where the now negative Arab Uprising began, being the only state to have successfully implement a sustainable democratic system. Thus unfulfilling result of the uprising has led to questions of whether Islam is simply incompatible with liberal democracy or and that it is a bi-product of Christianity, or that political Islam has self-asserted itself as the dominant political ideology in the region.

One of the most recent casualties in the sacrifice of democracy, despite President Erdogan’s protestations, is Turkey. Indeed, the failure of the military coup on the night of 15th July 2016, only exacerbated the shift of Turkey from the once firmly secular and democratic state that had been planned by Mustafa Ataturk to a more radical form of political Islam. The pressure by the public to reintroduce the death penalty, formerly abolished in 2004 in order to facilitate Turkey’s membership of the European Union, signals the shift away from liberalism, whilst the ban on academics from leaving the country and demand for those already abroad to return further demonstrates the increasing illiberalism because of the expansion of the state under President Erdogan. Similarly, the sacking or suspension of 50,000 soldiers, teachers, judges and policeman supports the seeming lurch towards the Middle East as advocated by Elif Shfak in The Spectator, stating ‘night Turkey felt more like a chaotic part of the Middle East’, rather than a state yearning to join the pluralist democratic and liberal institutions of the EU and Europe.

However, the coup did perhaps provide some hope for the compatibility of democracy and Islam, with Turks of all backgrounds, including liberals, Kurds, Kemalists and Alevis all opposing the military coup and supporting the incumbent government. Likewise political parties acted against the use of military force, with the main opposition (CHP) Republican People’s Party and pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party all siding with the AKP government, while the liberal media that in many ways has been restrained by the government also sided with it. Moreover the televised brutality of the coup, particularly the killing of 290 people, wounding of over 1,400 people and bombing of the Turkish parliament by the military has rallied more support for President Erdogan, certainly confirming that the government remains democratic in the representative sense. Outside support, such as that from the USA, the EU and NATO for the AKP government remains firm, although their need for stability in the region and strategic military concerns should be taken into concern, rather than evidence of Turkey’s democratic status.

On the other hand, Erdogan’s exploitation of the coup should not be dismissed, with the harsh treatment of the 13,000 people taken into custody highlighted by Amnesty International is only one of the results of the failure of the coup. It’s violence, such as the bombing of the parliament, that has allowed it to be so effectively exploited and galvanise public support from all sectors for the AKP government, has lent it comparison to the 1933 Reichstag fire. This is not in the belief that the coup was put in action by the Erdogan, but rather in the sense that it has acted as an excuse for the curbing of democracy and the need to expand state powers in order to provide security. Potential rivals, particularly followers of Fethullah Gullen who has been in exile to the USA since 1999 and was one of the possible instigators of the coup, will now face a state crackdown as a result of its failure. Similarly, pro-government and anti-coup demonstrations are being demanded by the state in order to give the appearance of wide public support for it and possibly reduce the pluralistic nature of Turkey’s political landscape. Thus it is clearly exhibited by recent events in the aftermath of the coup that the expansion of the state through extended emergency powers and exploitation of the seeming danger to the public that liberalism and democracy will be further endangered as they were prior. In spite of the momentary wide support for President Erdogan and the AKP, the apparent democracy preached by the government is not so, with the Turkish state increasingly transitioning to an illiberal form of representative democracy. Indeed, more than simple elections for a president and a legislature are needed establish a sustainable form of liberal democracy, with the winner takes all view from politicians and lack of a free media undermining the possibility of this.

Therefore, is the decisive coup in Turkey perhaps a late instance of the failure of democracy to firmly establish itself throughout the Middle East, particularly because of the self-assertion of Islam politically and militarily? The expectations of Western powers that democracy would appear out of nowhere after the removal of dictators such as Saddam Hussein in 2003, have certainly not been met in all cases. This once widely held belief that the Arab Uprising would comprise the Fourth Wave of democracy, after the Third wave that led to the democratization of Eastern European states, has clearly been dismissed. Those states of Eastern Europe simply reverted to a form of political order that had been experienced prior to the Soviet occupation of the region, whilst the European Union and states of Western Europe offered willing support and incentives for them to democratize.

The Middle East’s lack of experience with democracy and the pressure of Western states to adopt it has led to it being seen as a foreign notion and a form of interventionism, as seen by the blaming for the coup in Turkey on the USA. Furthermore, the clear destabilising effects of the 2011 Libyan invasion and subsequent overthrow of Gaddafi has contaminated western intervention with the aim of establishing democracy and respected human rights. Similarly, the possibility of a transition to a democratic government is further negated by the great support given to conservatives off authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, in contrast to those of Europe in the 19th century who faced no assistance that could be used to prevent democratization. This is particularly from Western states including the USA, with over $60 billion in arms deals under the Obama administration and a further £3.3 billion under the UK government, whilst the natural gas and oil rush that has so greatly benefited the gulf region providing both military and financial security to the authoritarian regimes. Thus ensuring that not just are Middle Eastern states possibly unsuitable to democracy but also that many have become averse to the idea of democratic government, while Western states themselves have bolstered regimes that inhibit the democratic movements they so often encourage.

On the other hand, although Europe faced no outside assistance in democratization in the 19th century, unlike the Middle East today that has actually negated the movement, the region does share great similarities with 19th century early democratic Europe. Indeed, the increasing urbanization of the region, from 30% in 1970 to 50% in 2010 and education of the region through initiatives such as the King Abdullah scholarship programme, as demonstrated by the number of students from the Middle East going to American Universities increasing by 20%, has proved fundamental in ensuring protests and demonstration against the current regime. The educated middle class in particular is the most crucial element to ensuring a sustainable form of liberal democracy such as that in Europe, in that they hold the resources and education to organize effectively, while the middle class is most likely to be disenfranchised if their social mobility is blocked despite their increase in wealth. Their influence was clearly prevalent in the 1848 Revolution, while the middle class was further key in the Arab Uprising, with the urban middle class of Tunisia and Egypt leading the demonstrations as a result of the old authoritarian regimes blocking of their desire for greater economic and social mobility.

However, it should be noted that the support of the educated middle class is not a perfect recipe for liberal democracy, with the 1848 Revolution to which the Arab uprising is compared, itself failing after being overwhelmed by the ruling authoritarian regime, as happened during the Arab Uprising wherein the Egyptian military assumed power and deposed the government of Mohammed Morsi in June 2013. Moreover, the universal support of the middle class for a liberal democratic state should not be expected, often aligning themselves with groups simply to protect their interests, with the overthrow of Morsi in 2013 by the Liberals being supported by many liberals as a result of his Islamist policies. This is the case with Turkey, although being opposite, where the large support for Erdogan in the wake of the coup is not representative democracy but rather the desire to withhold power from a potentially more detrimental military government. Therefore, once again following the case of Europe where liberals after the failure of 1848 became supporters of nationalism, with those in Germany in particular demanding the unification of the German nation. Although the association with Europe perhaps indicates a future for democracy in the Middle East.

Yet the beginnings of democracy in the Middle East should not be overstated, with one main factor possibly proving a significant obstacle to the growth of democracy, Islam. Indeed, states in the region must contend with strong Islamists ranging from the violent ISIS, the Ennahada, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Wahhabi Saud Royal family, that prevent the establishment of democracy as a result of Islam’s incompatibility to separate the church and the state. Thus Islam itself appears incompatible with democracy which after the immediate failure of the Arab Uprising is somewhat restricted to Christian nations. Political Islam at best has cooperated with a democratic system in the attempt to nearly form the equivalent of illiberal theocratic states, as demonstrated by the Egyptian Constitution of 2012 by which legislation was derived from Islamic law. The rise of ISIS is the clearest instance of political Islam at its extreme, discounting state boundaries and forming one completely based on Islam, although the extreme use of violence and decline may suggest it is simply a reaction to the slow growth of liberal democracy across the region. The close cooperation between Christianity and authoritarian regimes in early 19th century Europe played a similar role to Islam now in restricting liberal democracy. Moreover, political commentators have suggested that Islam now plays a role similar to that of nationalism in Europe in providing a sense of identity, particularly because of Islam’s close connection with the state.

Therefore, the Arab Uprising clearly did not result in the spontaneous creation of democratic states in the Middle East, with the region facing obstacles in many ways greater than those faced by a democratizing Europe, namely no prior experience to democracy, the external support given to authoritarian regimes and a resurgent political Islam. Although, the recipe for a democratic state remains with an increasingly educated middle class willing to support a democratic movement and some obstacles possibly being reaction to the movement towards democracy, the Middle East in many circumstances currently resides as illiberal democratic states at best, most clearly exemplified by the seeming reverse of Turkey. It remains uncertain as to whether this is simply part of the transition towards a more liberal democratic or a firm reversal away from the hope of many during the Arab Uprising.


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