Mummies and Models in the New Middle East
The article originally appeared on TomDispatch.com.
Three mummies were recently found in an underground temple in Luxor, Egypt. Translated hieroglyphs identified them as the Clash of Civilizations, the End of History and Islamophobia. They ruled in Western domains into the second decade of the twenty-first century before dying and being embalmed.
That much is settled. Without them, the Middle East is already a new world that must be understood in a new way. For one thing, Egypt, that previously moribund land of “stability” and bosom buddy of whoever was in power in Washington, has been hurled into the Middle East’s New Great Game. The question is: What will be its fate—and that of the millions of Egyptians who took to the streets in a staggering show of aggressive nonviolence in January and February?
It is, of course, impossible to say, especially since shadow play is the norm and the realities of rule are hard to discern. In a country where “politics” has for decades meant the army, it’s notable that the key actor supposedly coordinating the “transition to democracy” remains an appointee of Pharaoh Hosni Mubarak, Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi from the Supreme Army Council. At least, popular pressure has forced Tantawi’s military junta to appoint a new transitional Prime Minister, the Tahrir Square–friendly former transport minister Essam Sharaf.
Keep in mind that the hated emergency laws from the Mubarak era, part of what provoked the Egyptian uprising to begin with, are still in place and that the country’s intellectuals, its political parties, labor unions, and the media all fear a silent counterrevolution. At the same time, they almost uniformly insist that the Tahrir Square revolution will neither be hijacked nor rebranded by opportunists. As the ideological divide between liberalism, secularism, and Islamism disintegrated when the country’s psychological Wall of Fear came down, lawyers, doctors, textile workers—a range of the country’s civil society—remain clear on one thing: they will never settle for a theocracy or a military dictatorship. They want full democracy.
No wonder what that implies makes Western diplomatic circles tremble. An Egyptian army even remotely accountable to an elected civilian government will not, for instance, collaborate in the Israeli siege of Gaza’s Palestinians, or in CIA renditions of terror suspects to the country’s prisons, or blindly in that monstrous farce, the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process.”
Meanwhile, there are more pedestrian matters to deal with: How, for example, will the army-directed transition towards September elections make the economic numbers add up? In 2009, Egypt’s import bill was $56 billion, while the country’s exports only added up to $29 billion. Tourism, foreign aid, and borrowing helped fill the gap. The uprising sent tourism into a tailspin and who knows what kinds of aid and loans anyone will fork over in the months to come.
Meanwhile, the country will have to import no less than 10 million tons of wheat in 2011 at about $3.3 billion (if grain prices don’t continue to rise) to keep people at least half-fed. This is but a small part of Mubarak’s tawdry legacy, which includes 40 million Egyptians, almost half the population, living on less than $2 a day, and it’s not going to disappear overnight, if at all.
Hit by a rolling, largely peaceful revolution all across MENA (the newly popular acronym for the Middle East and Northern Africa), Washington and an aging Fortress Europe, filled with fear, wallow in a mire of perplexity. Even after the dust from those rebellious Northern African winds settles, it’s hardly a given that they will grasp just how all the cultural stereotypes used to explain the Middle East for decades also managed to vanish.
My favorite line of the Great Arab Revolt of 2011 is still Tunisian scholar Sarhan Dhouib’s: “These revolts are an answer to [George W.] Bush’s intent to democratize the Arab world with violence.” If “shock and awe” is now also an artifact of an ancient world, what’s next?
Models for Rent or Sale
On February 3, the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation published a poll conducted in seven Arab countries and Iran. No less than 66 percent of respondents considered Turkey, not Iran, the ideal model for the Middle East. A media scrum from Le Monde to the Financial Times now evidently concurs. After all, Turkey is a functional democracy in a Muslim-majority country where the separation of mosque and state prevails.
That stellar Islamic scholar at Oxford, Tariq Ramadan, the grandson of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna, also recently labeled the “Turkish way” as “a source of inspiration.” In late February, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu agreed, with a surfeit of modesty that barely covered the ambitions of the new Turkey, insisting that his country does not want to be a model for the region, “but we can be a source of inspiration.”
The Egyptian Marxist economist Samir Amin—widely respected across the developing world—suspects that, whatever the hopes of the Turks and others, including so many Egyptians, Washington has quite different ideas about Egypt’s destiny. It wants, he believes, not a Turkish model but a Pakistani one for that country: that is, the mix of an “Islamic power” with a military dictatorship. It won’t fly, Amin is convinced, because “the Egyptian people are now highly politicized.”
The process of true democratization that began back in the distant 1950s in Turkey proved to be a long road. Nonetheless, despite periodic military coups and the continuing political power of the Turkish army, elections were, and remain, free. The Justice and Development Party, or AKP, now at the Turkish helm, was founded in August 2001 by former members of the Refah Party, a much more conservative Islamic group with an ideology similar to that of today’s Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
As the AKP mellowed out, however, the pro-business, pro-European Union wing of the country’s Islamists mixed with various center-right politicians and, in 2002, the AKP finally took power in Ankara. Only then could they begin to slowly undermine the stranglehold of the traditional Istanbul-based secular Turkish elite and the military that had held power since the 1920s.
Yet the AKP did not dream of dismantling the secular system first installed by Turkey’s founding father Mustapha Kemal Ataturk in 1924. The Turkish civil code he instituted was inspired by Switzerland with citizenship based on secular law. While the country is predominantly Muslim, of course, its people simply would not welcome a system, as in Khomeinist Iran, that is guided by religion.
The AKP should be viewed as the equivalent of the Christian Democrats in Europe after the 1950s—dynamic, business-oriented conservatives with religious roots. In Egypt, the moderate wing of the Muslim Brotherhood has many similarities to the AKP and looks to it for inspiration. In the new Egypt, it will finally be a legitimate political party and most experts believe that it could garner 25 percent to 30 percent of the vote in the first election of the new era.
All Roads Lead to Tahrir
Turkish critics—usually from the Western-oriented technical and managerial caste—regularly accuse the democracy-meets-Islam Turkish model of being little more than a successful marketing ploy, or worse, a Middle Eastern version of Russia. After all, the army still wields disproportionate behind-the-scenes power as guarantor of the state’s secular framework. And the country’s Kurdish minority is not really integrated into the system (although in September 2010 Turkish voters approved constitutional changes that give greater rights to Christians and Kurds).
With its glorious Ottoman past, notes Orhan Pamuk, the 2006 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Turkey was never colonized by a world power, and thus “ ‘veneration of Europe’ or ‘imitation of the West’ never had the humiliating connotations” described by Frantz Fanon or Edward Said for much of the rest of the Middle East and North Africa.
There are stark differences between Turkey’s road to a military-free democracy in 2002 and the littered path ahead for Egypt’s young demonstrators and nascent political parties. In Turkey the key actors were pro-business Islamists, conservatives, neo-liberals and right-wing nationalists. In Egypt they are pro-labor Islamists, leftists, liberals and left-wing nationalists.
The Tahrir Square revolution was essentially unleashed by two youth groups: the April 6 Youth Movement (which was geared towards solidarity with workers on strike), and We Are All Khaled Said (which mobilized against police brutality). Later, they would be joined by Muslim Brotherhood activists and—crucially—organized labor, the masses of workers (and the unemployed) who had suffered from years of the International Monetary Fund’s “structural adjustment” poison. (As late as April 2010, an IMF delegation visited Cairo and praised Mubarak’s “progress.”)
The revolution in Tahrir Square made the necessary connections in a deeply comprehensible way. It managed to go to the heart of the matter, linking miserable wages, mass unemployment and increasing poverty to the ways in which Mubarak’s cronies (and also the military establishment) enriched themselves. Sooner or later, in any showdown to come, the way the military controls so much of the economy will be an unavoidable topic—the way, for instance, army-owned companies continue to make a killing in the water, olive oil, cement, construction, hotel and oil industries, or the way the military has come to own significant tracts of land in the Nile Delta and on the Red Sea, “gifts” for guaranteeing regime stability.
It’s not surprising that key sectors in the West are pushing for a “safe” Turkish model for Egypt. Yet, given the country’s immiseration, it’s unlikely that young protesters and their working-class supporters will be appeased even by the possibility of a Turkish-style, neoliberal, Islamo-democratic system. What this leftist/liberal/Islamist coalition is fighting for is a labor-friendly, independent, truly sovereign democracy. It doesn’t take a PhD from the London School of Economics, like the one bought by Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi, to see how cataclysmic this newly independent outlook could be for the current status quo.
Mirror, Mirror on the Wall
Don’t misunderstand: whether the Tahrir Square activists want to reproduce the Turkish system in Egypt or not, Turkey itself is immensely popular there, as it increasingly is in the wider Arab world. That offers Ankara’s politicians the perfect scenario for consolidating the country’s regional leadership role, distinctly on the rise since, in 2003, its leaders established their independence by rebuffing George W. Bush’s desire to use Turkish territory in his invasion of Iraq.
That popularity was only heightened after eight of the nine victims shot by Israeli commandos in the Gaza freedom flotilla fiasco turned out to be Turks. When Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan vociferously condemned Israel for its “bloody massacre,” he instantly became the “King of Gaza.” When Mubarak finally responded to the Tahrir Square demonstrations by announcing that he would not run again for president in 2011, President Obama didn’t say much, and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair urged Egypt not to “rush towards elections.” As for Erdogan, he virtually ordered Mubarak to step down, live on Al Jazeera for the whole Muslim world to see.
While Washington fiddled with embracing the wrong side of history, however reluctantly and chaotically, in the company of those staunch Mubarak defenders Israel and Saudi Arabia, Erdogan—with a canny assessment of regional politics—preferred to back Egyptians attempting to chart their own destiny. And it paid off.
The point is not that America is now “losing” Turkey, nor that, as some critics have charged, Erdogan is dreaming of becoming a neo-Ottoman caliph (whatever that might mean). What must be understood here is a new Turkish concept: strategic depth. For that we need to turn to a book, Stratejik Derinlik: Turkiye’nin Uluslararasi Konumu (Strategic Depth: Turkey’s International Position), published in Istanbul in 2001 by Ahmet Davutoglu, then a professor of international relations at the University of Marmara, now Turkey’s Foreign Minister.
In that book, Davutoglu looked into a future that seems ever closer to now and placed Turkey at the center of three concentric circles: (1) the Balkans, the Black Sea basin and the Caucasus; (2) the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean; (3) the Persian Gulf, Africa and Central Asia. When it came to future areas of influence, even in 2001 he believed that Turkey could potentially claim no less than eight: the Balkans, the Black Sea, the Caucasus, the Caspian, Turkic Central Asia, the Persian Gulf, the Middle East and the Mediterranean. Today, he is a key player, and in many of those same areas of potential influence, people are indeed looking to Turkey. It’s a remarkable moment for Davutoglu, who remains convinced that Ankara will be a force to reckon with in the Middle East. As he puts it, simply enough, “This is our home.”
Take the idea of Turkey’s “strategic depth” and combine it with the Great Arab Revolt of 2011 and you understand why Erdogan has launched a bid not just to make the Turkish model the Egyptian one or even the Middle Eastern one but to upstage Egypt as the future mediator between the region and the West. That Erdogan and Davutoglu were heading in this direction has been clear enough from the way, in the past few years, they have tried to insert themselves as mediators between Syria and Israel and have launched a complex political, diplomatic and economic opening towards Iran.
And speaking of historical ironies, just as Iran’s fundamentalist leaders were watching an Egyptian regime deeply hostile to them go down, protests by the Iranian Green Movement suddenly began to rock Tehran again—during a visit by none other than Turkish President Abdullah Gul. The protests were handled with what amounted to a velvet glove (by Tehran’s standards) because the military dictatorship of the mullahtariat found itself in a potentially losing competition with its Turkish ally to become the number-one inspirational source for Arab mass movements.
Java: Democracy with Your Coffee?
If Egyptians want lessons in the establishment of democracy, Turkey is hardly the only place to turn to for inspiration. They could, for example, look to Latin America. For the first time in over 500 years, South America is fully democratic. As in Egypt, so in many Latin American countries in the cold war era, dictatorships were the order of the day and militaries ruled. In Brazil, for instance, the “slow, gradual and secure” political opening that left a military dictatorship behind took practically a decade.
That implies a lot of patience. The same applies to another model: Indonesia. There, in 1998, Suharto, an aging US-backed dictator thirty-two years in power, finally resigned only a few days after returning from a visit to, of all places, Cairo. Indonesia then looked a lot like Egypt in February 2011: a Western-friendly, predominantly Muslim nation, impoverished and fed up with a mega-corrupt military dictator who crushed leftist intellectuals as well as political Islam.
Thirteen years later, Indonesia is the world’s third-largest democracy and the freest in Southeast Asia, with a secular government, a booming economy and the military out of politics.
I still have vivid memories of riding a bike one day in May 1998 across the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, while it was literally on fire, rage exploding in endless columns of smoke. Washington did not intervene then, nor did China, nor the ten-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Indonesians did it for themselves. The transition followed an existing, if previously largely ignored, constitution. (In Egypt, the constitution now must be amended via a referendum.)
True, Indonesians had to live for a while with Suharto’s handpicked vice president, the affable B.J. Habibie (so unlike Mubarak’s handpicked successor, the sinister Omar “Sheikh al-Torture” Suleiman). It took a year to organize new elections, amend electoral laws and get rid of appointed seats in Parliament. It took six years for the first direct presidential election. And yes, corruption is still a huge problem, and wealth and the right connections go a long way (as is true, some would say, in the United States). But today, the rule of law prevails.
An “Islamic state” never had a chance. Today, only 25 percent of Indonesians vote for Islamic parties, while the well-organized Prosperous Justice Party, an ideological descendant of the Muslim Brotherhood, but now officially open to non-Muslims, holds only four out of thirty-seven seats in the cabinet of President Yudhoyono, and expects to win no more than 10 percent of the vote in the 2014 elections.
While Indonesia remains close to the United States and is heavily courted by Washington as a counterweight to China, Brazil under the presidency of immensely popular Luis Ignacio “Lula” da Silva charted a far more independent path for itself and, by example, much of Latin America. This process took almost a decade and future historians may see it as at least as significant as the fall of the Berlin Wall.
In Eastern Europe, 1989, could be seen, in part, as a chain of rebellions by people yearning to get access to the global market. The Great Arab Revolt, on the other hand, has been an uprising in significant part against the dictatorship of that same market. Protesters from Tunisia to Bahrain are striking out in favor of social inclusion and new, better social and economic contracts. No wonder this staggering, ongoing upheaval is regarded across Latin America with tremendous empathy and with the feeling that “We did it, and now they’re doing it.”
The future is, of course, unknown, but perhaps a decade or two from now, we’ll be able to say that the Egyptians and other Arab peoples struck out not on the Turkish model, nor even the Brazilian or Indonesian ones, but onto a set of new paths. Perhaps the future from Cairo to Tunis, Benghazi to Manama, Algiers to (Allah willing) a post–House of Saud Saudi Arabia will involve inventing a new political culture and the new economic contracts that would go with it, ones that will be indigenous and, hopefully, democratic in new and surprising ways.
Which brings us back to Turkey. It’s perfectly feasible that Islam will be one of the building blocks of something entirely new, something no one today has a clue about, something that will resemble what was, in Europe, the separation between politics and religion. In the spirit of May 1968, perhaps we can even picture an Arab Banksy plastering a stencil across all Arab capitals: Imagination in Power!