Friday,27 April, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1342, (27 April - 3 May 2017)
Friday,27 April, 2018
Issue 1342, (27 April - 3 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Neo-Ottoman question

To read most of the analyses and commentaries that preceded and followed the recent referendum in Turkey one would think that the problem is that Recep Tayyip Erdogan has led Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential system. But that is not necessarily the real problem. Even before the referendum, he was effectively exercising the powers of a president in a presidential system and perhaps more due to the populist context in which he ruled and his claim to a “mandate” given to him by a majority vote in the last presidential elections. Therefore, the referendum will not add much to his de facto powers, although, as we will see, it will give him more of the legal mechanisms to expand them.

Unfortunately, as is the case with many concepts, our perception of the presidential system is often inaccurate. Just as “federalism”, for example, is often understood in the Arab world as an instrument to fragment a state and destroy centralised authority, to which the Kurdish experiences in Iraq and Syria are illustrative, so too is the “presidential system” understood in light of our bitter experiences with our undemocratic systems. This is why we tend to see it as a dictatorial system in which the powers of the president overwhelm those of all other governmental authorities. In fact, in proper democratic societies, while it is true that executive authorities rest in the hands of the president, there are constitutional provisions to restrict these authorities and ensure that they are checked and balanced by the legislative and judicial authorities. These checks are what make the system democratic.

We recently saw an example of how these checks worked in the US where Supreme Court judges successfully halted Trump’s excesses regarding a ban on citizens from a number of Islamic countries from entering the US and where Congress (in which his Republican Party holds a majority) overrode his attempt to ban Obamacare.

Here in Egypt, there were quite a few proponents of the presidential system, in its proper democratic sense, during the discussions in the Constituent Assembly that drafted the current constitution. They pointed to the deficiencies in the Egyptian political party structure which, they maintained, held little promise for stability under a pure parliamentary system. They also argued that the presidential system they propounded had nothing in common with the system that existed under Hosni Mubarak, for example, in which too many unchecked powers were concentrated in the president’s hands rendering it more in the nature of a dictatorial or totalitarian regime. However, the painful experiences of the recent past rendered it impossible to adopt the presidential system in the current constitution.

The problem with Erdogan and his amendments, which passed by the narrowest possible margin in a process, moreover, that has led many to question its fairness, transparency and integrity, is not so much that it shifted Turkey to a presidential system but that it introduced a hybrid system that will enable him to strengthen and prolong his authorities. Under the amended constitution, he (as well as parliament) has the power to call for early presidential and parliamentary elections, which is something totally alien to the presidential system. Because of the way the relevant provisions are worded, this will enable him to turn the “presidential terms meter” back to zero. With this, he will comfortably gain admission into that exclusive club to which former Yemeni president Abdullah Ali Saleh, for example, belonged. Initially there were no limits to Saleh’s terms in power. Then the constitution was amended to limit them to two terms, but longer ones (seven years). With that amendment the presidential terms meter was reset to zero. Then, before they ended, in response to demands for more democracy, the constitution was amended again to reduce the terms to five years each. Once again, the counting began at zero. Saleh thus managed to stay in power for 34 years until the Yemeni revolution.

In like manner, Erdogan’s term comes to an end in 2019, at which point the meter will be turned back to zero and he will be entitled to two terms that could keep him in power until 2029. However, under the amended constitution, he can call for early elections in the third year of his second term, for example, on the grounds that he needs a new popular mandate, and thereby win himself a new term. Thus, there will be no end to the game of perpetuating his power through mechanisms that he and his party claim to be democratic.

Under the new amendments, he will also have the power to choose whoever he wishes as vice president. This, too, is alien to the concept of a presidential system in a democracy where the vice presidential candidate appears on the same electoral ticket as the president and the people have the right to elect or reject him. The Turkish president, under the amended constitution, will have the power to appoint judges to the Supreme Court. “What harm is there in that as long as he has such popular backing?” some may ask. The problem is that rotation of authority is a fundamental component of democracy and the prevailing populist climate in Turkey is not reassuring. Recall that before the amendments, in the course of the post-15 July purges, Erdogan had 130,000 civil servants suspended, 40,000 teachers expelled, 4,000 judges removed, 8,000 army officers and another 8,000 police officers arrested, and more than 120 journalists thrown into jail.

Erdogan presses forward, ever confident in his popular support, in spite of the opposition of half the Turkish population and the many domestic and international problems his country faces. He is also under the thrall of his Ottoman irredentist fantasies, as was illustrated by his visits to the tombs of Mehmet the Conqueror and Selim I only hours after the referendum results were announced.

The message is clear and it is not addressed to the Turkish people alone. It concerns us here in Egypt as well as elsewhere in the Arab world. Erdogan has embraced “political Islam” and offered it a safe refuge in Turkey in spite of its destabilising policies and effects throughout the Arab region. Erdogan has also persistently intervened in the domestic affairs of numerous Arab countries, flagrantly so in the cases of Iraq and Syria. He has made no secret of his ambition to assert his influence and hegemony over this region and, indeed, has hinted at territorial ambitions. Such considerations should give us cause for great concern over what is unfolding today in Turkey and the repercussions this will have on us and the future of our region. We should therefore begin to turn our attention to the nature of our relationship with Turkey in its new guise.

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