Al-Ahram Weekly Online   17 - 23 November 2011
Issue No. 1072
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Islamist parties in Turkey

Some look to the Muslim Brotherhood to do for Egypt what ErdoganŐs party did for Turkey; yet the two are very different, in goals and means, writes Azmi Ashour*

It has become increasingly common to regard Islamist groups, and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular, as one of the moderate political forces that could reliably steer the transition to democracy in Arab societies in the event that circumstances catapulted them to fore as the alternative to dictatorial regimes. This trend began not just since the onset of the Arab Spring but nearly a decade ago and it was aided by numerous factors, not least of which was the former regime's systematic propaganda against the Muslim Brothers at a time when they were rapidly expanding their political and grassroots influence and developing into a formidable opposition force. The regime's campaign only added to the appeal of the officially banned Islamist organisation which succeeded in rallying beneath its banner large segments of disaffected educated youth who were keen to become socially and politically active but who found all legitimate avenues for political involvement blocked due to the restrictions on political party life and the corruption that prevailed in political processes in general. The Muslim Brotherhood demonstrated its growing presence tangibly in the 2005 parliamentary elections when its members (running as independents) won 20 per cent of the seats.

Scholars and politicians in the West took this unprecedented victory as a sign that the Muslim Brotherhood could leverage itself into a position of power through the democratic process which, in turn, generated widespread speculation as to whether a political faction with an Islamic frame-of-reference could lead the process of political reform and democratisation in Egypt. Opinions varied, but most came down in the Muslim Brotherhood's favour. The prohibition against it, the periodic clampdowns on its members and their activities, and the imprisonment of many of its leaders in the period preceding the 2010 elections won it considerable sympathy not only in Egypt but abroad. More and more it was viewed as a political faction that was forced to pay for its beliefs by prison sentences and other forms of self- sacrifice, regardless of whether or not the clampdowns were part of a subtle and long-standing game between the Muslim Brotherhood and the regime, and despite the fact that the Mubarak regime's campaign against the Muslim Brothers was not so much driven by the fear of them but by the desire to portray them in a way that inspired alarm in the public in Egypt and among Western powers. In an international climate dominated by the spectre of terrorism, the regime was keen to establish itself in the eyes of the US and the West as the only available bulwark against radical Islamism and, hence, as a regime that needed to be perpetuated. Perhaps because the ruse was so transparent it did more to enhance the image of the Muslim Brotherhood at home and abroad than it did to damage it.

When the revolution erupted and succeeded in toppling the regime, the organisation that had built its legitimacy on its opposition to that regime soon revealed its true nature. When it returned to the fray and suddenly found no one to oppose it, it was temporarily disoriented and its positions were often conflicting. Still, for the most part, it acted in ways consistent with its original ideology and long-range political aim, which is to establish an Islamic theocracy in Egypt. It is little wonder, therefore, that it struck common cause with the Salafis and Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya on many of the controversial issues that have arisen since the revolution. Nevertheless, because the Muslim Brotherhood is so frequently cited as the candidate for implementing the "Turkish model" in Egypt, it is important to consider whether its experience and outlook are really as similar to those of the Justice and Development Party (JDP) in Turkey as some claim.

The success of the JDP in Turkey stands not as an affirmation but as a refutation of the creed and ultimate aim of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is to come to power with the purpose of establishing "God's Law" as interpreted by them. The JDP came to power and exercises power in a secular climate and in accordance with a democratic system, in spite of its Islamic frame of reference. The modern foundations of the Turkish state that were laid 90 years ago were the soil that enabled the emergence of the JDP and its natural development in the framework of the institutions of the modern state. The party, therefore, saw no contradiction between its religious background and outlook and the secularist state, which continues to serve as the party's primary frame of reference. Islamist parties in Turkey did not acquire this modernist spirit overnight; it evolved over several phases as did the modern Turkish state itself, which experienced three military coups (in 1960, 1971 and 1981) aimed at rectifying the course of the state without direct involvement in government. In like manner, Islamist parties, which first appeared in Turkey in the 1980s, gradually readjusted and revised themselves in their attempts to accommodate to the institutional framework of the Turkish state, with the JDP eventually emerging as the party that proved most adept in the process of acclimatisation. Therefore, in the course of its struggle for power within the framework of the Turkish system, the JDP did not seem an anomaly. It may have had an Islamist outlook, but in essence it comported itself in every way as a normal modern political party, one that fully understood the rules of the democratic game, that appreciated the value of the Turkish secular state and, hence, made the preservation of this state and the promotion of its welfare among its foremost priorities.

The modernist consciousness of the JDP can not be viewed in isolation from the socio-cultural capital that was inaugurated by Ataturk and subsequently developed in Kemalist Turkey, which in the course of 90 years ultimately generated a new Turkish personality that differed markedly from the Ottoman one, at least with respect to its attitude towards modernist values. Since the JDP is very much a native product of this legacy, it has no less a faith in and commitment to democracy than any of its political party peers that arose from the same secularist soil and cultural consciousness.

In contrast, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood developed, especially during the last 60 years, in a totally different climate and socio-cultural framework. It emerged from an exclusionist autocratic context both in terms of its own outlook and that of the regime that fixed it in its crosshairs, and it has yet to shed itself of the attendant ills and weaknesses that are inherent in that type of consciousness and that were reinforced by the confrontation with a dictatorial order. The duality between the regime and the Muslim Brotherhood worked to reproduce the type of individuals who believe solely in their own views and who can entertain no opposing opinions. Indeed, this exclusionist culture has long been the chief flaw in the mentality of the Muslim Brotherhood elite who not only identified the ruling regime as their enemy but also everyone else who did not stand squarely on their side.

This is the chief weakness that was glaringly exposed in the wake of 25 January when the Muslim Brotherhood lost the antagonist that aided their rise to prominence. This weakness now presents them with their most critical test. Will they merely fall back old habits and create another enemy to replace the old? Or will they bow to new realities and act in accordance with laws that stipulate that they are one of many differing political forces who are bound by a set of rights and obligations within the framework of a legal and institutional order in which the prevailing frame of reference is not that of the Muslim Brotherhood or any other such ideological group but rather that of the modern Egyptian civil state which has been evolving over the past 200 years? If the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamist parties are to meet this challenge, they will first need to shed the dictatorial exclusionist mind-set in which they were bred and take genuine strides towards the principles of freedom, plurality, tolerance and acceptance of the other.

* The writer is managing editor of the quarterly journal Al-Demoqrateya published by Al-Ahram.

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