Turkey: The New Ottomans

The second episode of Turkey: The New Ottomans was called “North Africa and the Middle East” and was actually mostly a compare & contrast of the political situation in Turkey and in Egypt. Allan Little’s thesis was that the two are interesting to look at side by side because in Turkey an elected Islamist government has spent the last decade or so acting within a secular democratic constitution, whereas in Egypt the elected Islamists moved to reject any secular governmental practices & policies in favour of religious ones. As with the first episode, he had clearly had the idea for & written this programme before events caught up with him – so there were inserted references to the not-a-coup-honest in Egypt at the end of June, but the overall narrative of the programme was based on the Muslim Brotherhood being in power.

It felt a little odd having Turkey held up as an example of a functional system given the protests against their government & the authoritarian leanings (and human rights issues) of that government, but in terms of what Little was looking at this was the case. And when the first Egyptian revolution in 2011 overthrew Mubarak the hope (both internally for a lot of the protestors & externally from the West & Turkey in particular) was that Egypt would follow Turkey’s lead in marrying Islamist politics with secular politics.

One of the key differences between Turkey & Egypt in this context is the position of the military in the two countries over the last several decades. Little compared the legacy of Attaturk (who took power in Turkey after the Ottoman Empire fell, and is seen as the founder of the Turkish Republic) to that of Nasser (who took power in Egypt after the Second World War and can be seen as the founder of the modern Egyptian state). Attaturk is still remembered as a national hero in Turkey today, and the military were the power behind the throne since his time. Nasser however is less fondly remembered, and this is the result of his disastrous war against Israel (the 6 Days War). This war also humiliated the military in the eyes of the people. So Little was saying that in Turkey the military were a presence that would enforce the secular state constitution, and so the Islamists in Turkey are operating in a framework where that is seen as “the way things work”. However in Egypt the way the state was run was what Mubarak said, so once the Muslim Brotherhood took power they saw themselves as free to set up the country the way they wanted.

Another difference between the two situations is that the AKP when they took power at the state level had already a lot of experience at the municipal level – for instance the current Prime Minister of Turkey, Erdo─čan, used to be Mayor of Istanbul and Little was saying he’d done a good job in the role. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt had been in prison or exile before taking power.

Of course the events since the programme was initially conceived meant that Little’s point was undercut a bit. The overthrow of Morsi by a popular protest then military intervention might be Egypt getting itself on track for a more secular solution to government. Or perhaps not.