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Egyptians can turn the tide, Turkish style

Ceylan Ozbudak

Published: Updated:

When calamity visits a nation, racial distinctions evaporate, religious disputations fade in significance, and there is only one language - the sounds of lamentation and grief.

No matter where we live, or what creed we profess, the sound of machine gun fire in the streets is a horror to all of us. Every one of us has someone we love, and as we look upon these incomprehensible horrors, we all know deep down: “This could have been my mother; my father; my brother; my sister, my husband, my son.” Every death is a loss which can never be comprehended and never undone.

The crackdown in Egypt is ongoing as I write these words. This massacre is a sword piercing the heart of the world. The losses are so grievous and so numerous that even those who don't see eye to eye with the Muslim Brotherhood are appalled at the actions of the government junta towards the Egyptian people. In response to this horror, ten cities in Turkey have seen spontaneous rallies to condemn the army’s actions, and funerals have been held for those who have passed away in Egypt. Turkish diplomats, politicians and journalists of every stripe have been quick to condemn these attacks.

Condemning the Egyptian coup

Even the rival CHP and AK parties (who can't agree even on the Syrian crisis), are on the same page by condemning the Egyptian coup in strikingly similar nomenclature, which is a rare phenomena since the 1960s. Prime Minister Erdogan, of course, has been standing like a stone wall against the coup since day one, not bothering to check the political winds and rejecting this faux Egyptian army government on democratic principles alone. What is remarkable is that CHP leader Kilicdaroglu, who is known for his support of Muslim Brotherhood dissidents said: “We supported the protests of people wanting the Muslim Brotherhood to leave. However, as soon as the military staged a coup, that brought an end to democracy in Egypt. We never wanted or asked for a military coup.”

What I need to remind my fellow Middle Eastern people is that the Turkish model is not just a political and religious model for the region, but also a military model.

Ceylan Ozbudak

From the outset, the U.S. government seems to have lost its dictionary, being unable to determine for certain whether a sudden unilateral military action to overthrow a democratically elected government constitutes a coup d’etat, and the E.U. has been dithering around the issue also. However the latest attack forced even the western powers to issue statements of condemnation. Obviously, whether belated statements criticizing the army for going too far is of any help to people being shot in the streets is an open question; but the point remains that not even the E.U. and the U.S. are able to look away from these killing fields.

All these events proved Turkey’s moral and political stance to be more than right, and justified from the beginning. Although no one wanted events to dissolve into horror, the unfolding events have put Turkey in a position to be giving a lesson in political morality and democracy to both the E.U. and to the U.S.

The role of moral conscience to the West is not new for Turkey, nor did it begin with these current events in Egypt. Turkey’s appeal to morality as the touchstone of our foreign relations began in 2003, with the American occupation of Iraq. Turkey’s approach has always been costly in the short term. We have heard stern criticism from Iranian Press TV, which calls Turkey “the new lonely man of the Middle East.” Being on the side of the right doesn’t always buy friends. Meanwhile, Turkey is not the only “lonely man” in the Middle East - so is Iran. The difference is that while Iran is isolated as a pariah state, Turkey is becoming overwhelmingly respected among the Middle Eastern people.

What I need to remind my fellow Middle Eastern people is that the Turkish model is not just a political and religious model for the region, but also a military model for our neighboring countries.

Turkey’s military model

It’s easy for a Turk like me to sympathize with the sentiments of the Egyptian people. The military in Egypt is not an alien force, but an admired part of Egyptian society. Most people in Egypt have at least one relative in the military service, and Egyptian military personnel have a payroll, which would make many government officials envious. Likewise, Turkish soldiers are highly respected in our society. With at least a million active soldiers, every family has at least a few people in the military that are high or low ranking officials. With about one in every seven Turkish citizens engaged in military service at any given time, our demographics are quite similar to the Egyptian populace, and our soldiers are held in high esteem.

There came a day in Turkish national life in which we demoted our defenders from their position as the governors of the Turkish people to a place of subordination to our elected civilian government. Turkey did not achieve the ideals of a republican democracy in one day, and we are still far from perfect. Nevertheless, the steps were there; we found them, and they are there for Egypt too. The most necessary step in the achievement of real change is to accept responsibility for one’s situation. There was never any real transition of power from Mubarak to Mursi. The only transition of power we have seen since 2001 was the transition between Mubarak and General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Get rid of Sisi in four steps

There is a way to turn this tide, as we did in Turkey. The first step is for political factions to unite in opposition to military rule, and agree that political power flows from the people, not from the barrel of a gun. In the Turkish experience, the parties mainly in the center right and right united to weaken the hand of military in the public domain. This in time formed an unbreakable alliance in the Turkish center right, which in return made many silent revolutions possible in the longer term.

Remember the Second World War and the alliances formed at the time. Many countries couldn’t get on well with each other but they united against a common group. We don’t cheer for conflicts, yet they often bring people closer. Egyptian people were strong enough to defy Mubarak’s regime because they stood together against him. They could defy the military regime which followed Mubarak and forced them to have elections because they stood as one body. This brings me to my second step.

The world has already seen the raw political will of the Egyptian people to force the military to elections. The second step is to keep pushing after they have fair and free elections and to refuse to keep the military on standby just in case the civilian government is not successful in delivering utopia the first time out of the corral.

The third step is to establish a transparent budget for the Egyptian army. The idea of an army having the power of the purse is absolutely inimical to the concept of civilian power. The idea that the army should control 60% of a country’s riches with a shadow budget undisclosed to anyone is an invitation to rule by thugs. In Egypt: The military owns houses, businesses; it has cash in the bank; well - it owns the banks themselves! The military cannot be a corporation. The military is a branch of government service, subordinate to the people. This is very basic stuff, and any country that affords military officers the perquisites given to rock stars is asking to be enslaved.

The fourth and maybe the most important step is participation. Democracy is not only about rules and regulations but about participation. Egypt was unwise to try a presidential system in their first shot at democracy because a presidential system itself leaves very little space for people to participate. In a presidential system there is a safe way to change the president before the appointed end of his term, but in practice, it is nearly impossible to do so. The parliamentary form of government is more responsive to the public will, because the executive (council of ministers) is accountable to the legislature (Parliament). America is the only example of a healthy working presidential system in the world and even that is in doubt: American political life is paralyzed with division and inaction, and many Americans feel that the people have lost control of what goes on in Washington DC.

A parliamentarian system is much more flexible, responsive, and more conducive to an embryonic democracy. The option to change the cabinet every few years gives people much more of a hands-on feel than a presidential system, in which the same person is both head of state and the head of the government and is elected for a fixed amount of time! In this manner, the people are able to keep their leadership under a much shorter leash, and popular sovereignty has a fighting chance.

And there is another point in the participation step, which is participation through constructive ways, not destructive. Egypt has a tradition of protesting and forcefully changing its leader. Just in the last century they had 14 forceful changes in leadership. We cannot talk about participation if everyone is out on the streets protesting in a democracy. Build your political alliances, rebuild your country, build your networks and let your government work.

The blessings of liberty are inalienable gifts of God, and the people of Egypt have every opportunity to use this terrible trial to hit the reset button and try again.

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Ceylan Ozbudak is a Turkish political analyst, television presenter, and executive director of Building Bridges, an Istanbul-based NGO. She can be followed on Twitter via @ceylanozbudak


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