Egypt’s elevated new step towards a political transition which hopes to steer away from autocratic rule has come with a plethora of enigmatic caveats and worrying “what ifs?”
The country’s revolutionary road has charged at democracy to ouster the old and install the new, in the shape of Mohammed Mursi, Egypt’s first freely elected civilian president. But the overwhelming presence of the country’s military power has hanged over the country’s transitional phase, like a dark cloud that has not yet lost, or relinquished, its target.
The recent military interference in Egypt’s political progressions has been likened to that of Turkey during the 1980s and 1990s, a period of embroiled tension between the government, the opposition and the Turkish military.
Turkey’s past tells a story of heightened military intervention in an effort to banish political squabbling, economic stagnation and a fear of left wing and Islamic extremism, all being the glass shards which had dug into public order.
“In 1980, the Turkish military set the rules of the game, set up a constitution allowing them to veto any issues regarding national security, domestic or foreign politics or anything to undermine the military or their ideology,” says Dr. Omar Ashour, Director of Middle East Studies at the University of Exeter and visiting fellow at the Brookings think tank in Doha.
And the alarm bells are now sounding that post-revolution Egypt has followed a similar path. The Egyptian military intervention into the country’s political affairs began when the generals ordered an Arabic translation of Turkey’s 1982 constitution, Middle East expert Steven Cook of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations told the Associated Press. It was this document that empowered Turkey’s military to police the political arena.
What followed in Egypt accounted for several episodes of clashes between protesters and army forces, taking a violent turn as activists began to adamantly call for the army to transfer all powers to civilian rulers, blaming the military council for ushering a sluggish transition to a more democratic system.
The military’s ‘reset button’
Hostility between the opposition and the military reached one of its peaks when a government decree earlier this month empowered the military intelligence forces and police personnel to “arrest civilians on charges as minor as traffic disruption and insulting the head of state,” says Dr. Ashour.
Luckily for opposition activists and Tahrir Square’s unremitting protesters, the decree was later overturned by the Egyptian Supreme Court, for its alarming resemblance to the Emergency Law, which was a permanent fixture of Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule and expired on May 31. But it did not stop wary activists noticing the military’s soft coup attempt.
It looked “like an undeclared coup, lacking communiqué no. 1 and with legal framing from constitutional court judges,” says Ashour.
And as Egypt’s new president prepares to take to the global stage, there are signs that Mursi now wants to accommodate the generals. Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, 76, who served as Mubarak’s defense minister for two decades, will keep that post in Mursi’s future cabinet, an army council member said late Wednesday.
But the question remains over whether the military council will want a unique status in the Egypt’s political arena, after all, Ashour says, a government decision earlier this month to dissolve the [Islamist-majority] parliament, preventing MPs from entering it, “formed a constitutional declaration making the military a state within a state,” he adds.
“In Egypt, the military has their finger on the reset button. The constitutional declaration has given them the right to form a new constitutional, assembly which they want to form to control politics strongly.
“Through constitutional politics, they want to have ultimate say in controlling Egypt’s political landscape, this is parallel to 1980 Turkey,” says Ashour.
And through equally strong high politics aims, “the military is trying to protect their economic empire [their economic sector which garnered $198 million in revenues in 2011 despite budget shortages], their legal and their constitutional immunity,” to preserve a unique status, says Ashour.
A Turkish success story?
But how can Egyptian government move forward Turkey-style and deal with an amplified military presence?
“Turkey moved forward with a serious struggle. Up until 2002, things hadn’t changed much. Politicians who attempted to undermine the military were jailed.
“But as an offshoot of this, the AKP (the Turkish Justice and Development Party) played a different game, which looked towards the European Union,” says Ashour.
After attempting to join the EU, Turkey increasingly began to gain leverage internationally, says Ashour, “and with international influence and mobilization on the ground, [the government] was able to put military back in the box,” he added.
“It took long though, 28 years. I’d say it call actually changed in 2008 or 2009,” Ashour says, adding that Egypt can now do this in less time as it has witnessed how events in Turkey, and similarly Algeria (which went through a comparable phase) unraveled.
But others believe that the comparison between Turkey and Egypt is not the best to make.
“I don’t think it would be precise to compare Turkey to Egypt the countries are different, the social and economic structures are different,” says Eyad Abu Shakra, political commentator based in London.
The facts and figures say Egypt economically faces bigger problems than Turkey, while the religious composition of Egypt indicates that only 10 percent of the population is non-Muslim.
Turkey is a secular state, although the Muslim population nears 99 percent. It appears that embracing secularism has run parallel to constructive moves towards democracy.
Despite Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s own background being Islamist, he does not interfere in such topics such as tourism, a main point that has been discussed in Egypt from fears that an Islamist presidency would place restrictions on tourist freedoms, in line with Islamic law, notes Shakra.
“The Islamists in Turkey developed pragmatism,” says Shakra. “They stopped talking too much about theology and ideology and started to talk about building solutions for the country.”
“It’s not enough for someone to complain [to a politician] and say ‘I am hungry,’ and is replied to with: ‘Go read the Quran,” Shakra added.
Another main difference between Egypt and Turkey is to look at where democratic political and societal efforts have prevailed.
“In Egypt, in spite of all the democracy attempts, it was all only on the surface. It has never permeated in Egyptian society. Since 1952, Egypt’s four presidents have had a military background and now, even after the election of Dr. Mursi, the military have been able to gain power,” says Shakra.
Nevertheless, there are common denominators, between Egypt and Turkey’s political past, namely the civil societies and the army interventions.
Accommodating the military
But for Egypt to follow through what can be described as Turkey’s “success story” — “a military restricted to the defense of the nation and a government enjoying a strong popular base,” as described by the Associated Press, — what will Mursi’s government have to do?
“Mursi will have to make some quick achievements on Egypt’s economic and security levels, while aiming to gain some serious support from the international community,” says Shakra.
At present, the Islamist presidency is portraying “Egypt as guarantor of human rights of minorities,” Shakra notes, adding that Mursi will need to develop the pragmatism once developed by Turkish Islamist politicians.
“We’ve already seen signs of pragmatism in Mursi, he’s accepted that the military should remain and hold ministries of real power,” alongside stating that he does not plan to impose Islamic Shariah law.
“Another sign of pragmatism will be who Mursi appoints as vice president, whether it could be a Copt or a woman, even. The Muslim Brotherhood should realize they don’t have free reign. In the presidential elections, millions of votes went to leftists and revolutionaries also,” Shakra adds.
Mursi has already announced plans for such a move to appoint a mixed-bag cabinet, but no details have been made public.
Meanwhile, the formation a domestic coalition of Islamists and non Islamists, liberals, leftists, revolutionaries and other societal and political groups could lead to a more robust leadership, says Ashour.
“A wide coalition would strengthen [the government’s] national and international legitimacy and sustain mobilization on the street,” he adds. “This is what Mursi needs.”