It has been surprising to me that nothing has been mentioned anywhere in the coverage of the upheavals in Egypt about its parallels to similar upheavals in Turkey during the twentieth century. Commentators are fretting about a second military takeover in Egypt. Frequent military takeovers happened in Turkey for more than half a century. The country has been a democracy since the end of World War II. And only recently military takeovers have been brought to an end. There is no reason that the Turkish model for government could not be considered an important model for the Egyptian.
I spent some time in Turkey not so long ago. It is a country that is 99% Muslim—even more Muslim than Egypt. The call to the prayers are heard over loudspeakers all through Istanbul five times a day. Though some bow down to pray, others don’t. They are more secular. And they just go about their business.
What is so remarkable is how the government of Turkey keeps Radical Islam under control. Prior to 1909, the Sultans ruled Turkey. They were very wealthy, had harems and slaves, and each had their own region of rule. The priests from Islam advised them and could overrule them. Harsh Sharia law was the law of the land—stoning for adultery, the cutting off of a hand for robbery. There was a very severe tone of life in that country. Obedience and prayer were the keynotes. Women had limited rights. Their children went to religious schools and studied the Koran, which many radicals declare means death to nonbelievers.
In 1923, a Turkish general named Ataturk, after driving off an attempt by Greeks to conquer what was left of the Ottoman Empire, declared Turkish independence and became the country’s first President. He decided to create a new order in Turkey that would consist of a constitutional government. He declared himself President. He created a National Assembly. He decreed religion would be separate and allow for a free choice—not only Islam but any other religion welcome—and a westernized government of lawmakers who would rule the land. He also made many other changes. For starters, he himself threw off his traditional Muslim robes to appear in tie and jacket when in public. In 1924 he abolished the Sharia courts. In 1925 he passed what was known as the Hat Law. The fez was now illegal. With other laws he declared women to have equal rights, he dumped the Islamic calendar and brought in the Gregorian calendar. Most famously, he changed the written word. Everything would be written using the Latin alphabet. Things would no longer be written in Arabic. All the schoolbooks had to be rewritten. He did not pass a law requiring women to unveil themselves and abandon the Burka, but he said that now that they had their freedom they could dress as they wanted and would follow what the men did—which was now dress in western attire—and some did and some didn’t. He built state owned factories and railroads. He created an industrial prosperity. In sum, he brought Turkey into the modern era, swept away the antique and harsh Muslim rules and replaced them with kinder, gentler western ways.
Political parties were formed. But since, at first, most people wanted to follow the Islamic way, he made very strict rules about the behavior that political parties could follow. When they did not, and at first there were assassination attempts made on him, he brought in the military and had the religious parties disbanded and the leaders arrested.
Ataturk remained President until his death at age 58 in 1938. When my wife and I were in Turkey, we visited Ataturk’s tomb in Ankara, the capital of that country. The tomb is part of an assemblage of buildings that rival the Greek Acropolis in size and magnificence. Ataturk is considered the George Washington of Turkey for what he did. His framed photograph is on the wall in almost every business and household in that country.
After his death, his followers continued on with the western ways and they also continued to suppress radical Islam whenever it appeared in rival political parties by bringing in the military.
And here is where it got interesting. Almost all parties hoping for any chance to get elected had to appeal to the majority, who were all basically Muslim. Most followed what Ataturk had set down. But others, running for office and declaring they would adhere to the modern ways, did not. Sometimes those setting the country backward in this way were the new Prime Ministers themselves. When that happened, the military would step in and quietly kick them out. You could call it a coup. But soon, there would be new elections and new voting for parties that once again had to agree to a government that would be for all, not just for Islam. I think, from Ataturk’s death until just ten years ago, there were as many as three or four coups, where the military stepped in, reset the country on its prescribed course, and then once again handed the country back to the civilian government.
It was an odd thing to see from the outside. But there it was.
In 2003, Recep Erdogan, a very popular politician, was elected Prime Minister. Although he came from a party that outsiders perceive as Islamic fundamentalist, he soon proved that he could handle the job, stand up to the more radical citizens and made inroads into secularizing Turkey, though there are still numerous debates over how democratized the nation has become. He was watched carefully by the country and skeptical citizens for a long period of time, but he did earn their trust, at first.
Ten years in office is a long time. In 2009, Erdogan felt that he should rein the military in. It was no longer necessary to oversee the government. Indeed, in modern western democracies, it never does. It reports to the government. And so, going on the offensive, he charged many generals with improprieties and criminal behavior and had some of them put on trial. He was then able to take the reins of the country away from them. And it seems to be working quite well. Turkey, for example, is a supporter of the State of Israel, among other things.
I think this history is important, not only for Egypt, but for the rest of us, trying to understand what is going on in Egypt. What do you do when people who want to suppress the Coptic Christian minority get elected? You have a coup is what you do. From that perspective, the Egyptian military just did
the right thing.