From Taksim to Tahrir

History ordinarily moves at a slow pace but as nations reach the point when change is overdue, this slow march can turn into a gallop. Situations evolve gradually till they reach the point of implosion but still need a trigger. Erdogan’s eleven-year-old regime provided the trigger by announcing the ambitious redevelopment of a corner of the gigantic Taksim Square. When all hell broke loose, Erdogan blamed terrorists and looters for disturbing Turkey’s peace.
In reality, the secularists had started to regroup in Turkey as a reaction to the ruling party’s plans to strengthen its hold on the country for another decade. Democracy can become suffocating when it is seen to function only in one party’s favour. There are ways to stay relevant by changing the party leader, something that happens in Japan frequently or in Britain.
The Ayatollahs acknowledged the need for change by limiting the presidential term to two. Erdogan also faces restriction on a third term as prime minister and would like to move to the presidency next year. However, he is so used to exercising authority that a constitutional amendment is on the cards to give greater power to the president.
In an appraisal of the developments in Turkey a month ago, I had tried to explain the link between Kemalism and the new Islamist model in Turkey with non-Arab Islamic countries like Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. I had, however, refrained from commenting on how the Turkish model had influenced societies and nations in the Arab world. What has happened in Egypt over the last few days is a reminder that the rise of secularism followed by that of an Islamist system in Turkey has probably influenced the Arab world even more profoundly. Indeed, when the Arab uprisings were reaching their crescendo, some were quick to point out that the nominally secular oligarchies of the affected Arab countries were ready for rule by the Islamists through a democratic process a la Turkey.
The evolution, or rather degeneration, of political systems in the countries of the Arab spring reminds us that while it is tempting to generalise, especially in a matter like ‘political Islam’, each society and each country has special characteristics of its own. More so in the case of Egypt, which is a legitimate claimant to leadership in the Arab world. One can only speculate about possible links between the tour de force by the secular forces in Istanbul and the much larger protest in Tahrir Square a month later, ending in the ouster of a year-old Islamist regime in Cairo.
Four days of effervescence in Tahrir, millions chanting for the departure of a democratically elected president who, in turn, vowed not to give in, the generals seeing it fit to ‘save’ the nation — and voila, the game is over. The Egyptians have introduced to the world a fast track to shuffling their leadership. Only if life were that simple. In effect, Egypt has embarked on a new journey to figure out how to run a middle-income heterogeneous country of 80 million, after overthrowing a military-backed oligarchy that ruled one of the most cerebral and peaceful people with an iron fist for three decades.
Viewed from Islamabad, the timing of the upheaval in Cairo has a familiar ring because the beginning of July marked the 36th anniversary of the 1977 military coup in Pakistan. The difference this year being that Ijazul Haq decided to remind people of the leadership qualities and wisdom of his late father. There are many in this country who will strongly challenge Ijaz’s thesis. But the reference to the July 1977 coup has other relevance to the developments in Egypt. The generals took their momentous decisions in the belief that the country was heading towards civil strife between the government’s supporters and its opponents.
It can be argued that both Turkey and Egypt are split in the middle. The disquiet in Turkey is caused by creeping Islamisation, which took many years to grow and finally manifested itself in a clear manner only this year. Egypt, on the other hand, took a short time to move from the euphoria of overthrowing a decades-old repressive regime, to the ecstasy of open election, to deep disillusionment on economic and ideological front. An observer of developments in the two important Muslim countries says that Morsi and his Brotherhood mentors are responsible for causing the schism in Egypt by forcing the pace of Islamisation.
Enter Mohamed ElBaradei, the dark horse of Egyptian politics since his retirement from the International Atomic Energy Agency. He is favoured by the west as a safe bet to try to steer Egypt out of the extremely complex situation resulting from the army resuming its role of the principal arbiter of power in the country. We should not ignore his publicly stated assessment in line with that of the army chief General Al Sisi that the country was heading towards a civil war, necessitating the army’s intervention. Sounds familiar.
Ziaul Haq had similar premonitions in 1977, as did Kenan Evren in Turkey in 1981. Whether the three generals were justified in reaching those assessments is less important than the fact that they acted on them. One important difference should, however, be noted that while Evren and Al Sisi have acted in favour of the secularists, Zia moved in favour of the Islamists.
We may have to wait to see the longer-term effects of the latest army intervention in Egypt. But the record of the coups in Pakistan in 1977 and Turkey in 1981, with Iran embarking on its Islamic revolution in 1979, is already part of history. After protracted resistance by the secularist army, the Islamist forces finally captured power in 2002 through the democratic process. Not as much because of the corruption of the mainstream political parties, says the Middle-East observer, but because after decades of remaining in power they were simply unable to deliver.
In Pakistan, Ziaul Haq succeeded in imposing his own vision of an Islamic system, as a halfway house to the theocracy in Iran and the secular democracy of Turkey. He is widely reviled but his vision has stuck nonetheless. Islamisation has become a one-way process. There is hardly any discussion to make amends. The ruling parties in the centre and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa can be described as Islamist in their outlook.
Watch out ElBaradei and Al Sisi. There is no guarantee that your venture will have greater success than the one attempted across the Mediterranean in Turkey.