Cairo, August 2013
The world media have been reporting on persistent street protests challenging elected governments’ actions and policies from a number of countries. In Egypt, President Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood — chosen by popular vote barely a year ago to succeed the long despotic rule of Hosni Mubarak — has been overthrown by military leaders with the overt support of much of the political opposition, religious authorities and a large chunk of the populace. As a military-backed new government takes shape, demonstrations by both supporters and opponents of the ousted Mursi continue.
In Turkey, the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan miscalculated the popular mood over a proposed beautification project in central Istanbul and turned what could have been at worst an environmentalists’ grumble into a national crisis by using disproportionate force against the protesters. This has had the effect of bringing disparate elements, unhappy with the government for one reason or another, on to a common anti-government platform. The protests are now showing signs of tapering off, but the very fact that they have happened comes as a jolt to official and political circles long used to strongman Erdogan’s absolute sway.
The two cases have differences and similarities. Unlike in Egypt, there has not been a military coup in Turkey. Besides, Erdogan, credited with a keen political instinct, may yet turn the situation to his advantage.
But similarities can be found in the underlying causes of the crises. Mursi and Erdogan reached the pinnacle of personal power by the democratic route, but once there, betrayed an arrogance in their intolerant style of functioning. Large numbers of people in these Muslim-majority but temperamentally secular countries were also apprehensive that their rulers, in seeking to impose their own conservative and religious views on society, were moving towards creating an Islamic State.
The ascent of the parties Mursi and Erdogan headed had marked a shift of political power away from the traditional and largely secular elite. Throughout its chequered history, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood has evoked extreme suspicion and distrust among large sections of the Egyptian people. But post-Tahrir Square revolution, its superior organization and leadership skills thrust it to the front in winning the 2012 presidential elections. In Turkey, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, descendant of past religious parties, rose to power when the political centre of gravity moved from the big cities and established power brokers to the small towns and villages of conservative and ‘pious’ people of the Anatolian heartland.
There was again a similarity in the choice of physical force as the means to settle arguments. If it was the military in Egypt, it was the police in Turkey. The result has been a stark polarization of society. The coup in Egypt received enthusiastic support from the political opposition when it should have been mourning the loss of democracy. In Turkey, when Erdogan, angry with the protesters wanting him to quit, pointed out that no less than 50 per cent of the people had voted him to power, he drew the taunt from demonstrators that they were the ‘other 50 per cent’.
Erdogan claims he is the victim of an anti-democratic conspiracy. Ironically, it is democracy itself that has created the conditions that Mursi and Erdogan would find so difficult to handle. The heady Arab Spring of Tahrir Square and Erdogan’s ‘reforms’ (though many of them were made strictly in self-interest) raised the expectations of the civil society, which reacted strongly when its leaders were thought to have abandoned the promised inclusive policies.
I was in Turkey in 1980 and in Algeria in 1991, when military leaders aborted democracy there. The justification for intervention was serious political and social disorder. Turkey of the late 1970s was a difficult place. Plagued by chronic political instability, the country was caught in a raging ideological warfare between right-wing ultra-nationalists and left-wing opponents that left its society and politics bitterly divided. Political assassinations were almost a daily occurrence and before the military coup of 1980 put an end to the ‘low-level war’, some 5,000 lives were estimated to have been lost.
Algeria in December 1991 was in the middle of holding its first multi-party elections since independence. After the first round, it became obvious that the challenger, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), would rout the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN), and secure two-thirds majority in parliament, gaining the power to change the constitution to form an Islamic State, quite democratically. FLN and the military leaders decided that that would be an unacceptable outcome. The elections were cancelled and FIS was banned.
Algeria paid a heavy price for this misadventure. The civil war that the cancellation of the elections unleashed lasted over 10 years, with huge losses of lives. Violence engulfed the country, cutting across regions, social groups, families. The Algerian leader, Mohamed Boudiaf, was assassinated.
In comparison, Turkey got off lightly. The coup leaders went through the customary drill of bans, arrests, and some executions, but they restored democracy after three years. The present events in Egypt, for me, bring back memories of Algeria of 1991. For the polarization seen in Turkey today, the social rupture of the late 1970s can be a useful reference.
In case the extra-democratic interventions had not happened, in Turkey, one of the two warring groups would have prevailed over the other, giving the country’s politics a specific ideological orientation, or as likely, both would have grown tired of their constant bickering and found some sort of modus vivendi to be able to co-exist. In Algeria, FIS would have received the popular mandate to introduce sharia-based rule that most analysts argued would have effectively smothered the country’s rudimentary democracy. Desirable or otherwise, such outcomes would have been in the natural flow of the practice of democracy. So what the interventionists did was to make value judgments about the merits of possible outcomes, and take action, as they saw it, to save democracy from itself.
That brings up the question: can democracy be trusted to have a free run irrespective of consequences? What if in doing so, it produces structural changes that may be irreversible at a future date? Democracy is imperfect and complex, it is not numbers alone. The ‘tyranny of the majority’ is a reality. Though an ‘inclusive society’ has become a cliché, there is something to it. In Turkey and Egypt, as we are now seeing a tussle, on one plane, between religious and secular forces, it would be pertinent to remember that each could legitimately feel oppressed by the other.
Is an arbitration arrangement available, or even desirable, in case the people are divided on fundamental political or ideological issues? Is recourse to force the way to sort out democratic differences? Or should we leave it to masses of agitators in the streets to fight it out? We seem to have only questions, but no ready answers to them.