Egypt, Turkey, and the Future of Middle East Democracy

First published July 25, 2013

Aside from the fact that religious fundamentalism and the democratic ideal are polar opposites, Islamist leaders like Morsi and Erdogan, who have professed to be democrats, just can’t help it. When backed into a corner politically, they are forced to reveal their true disdain for popular opinion, which is the very basis of democracy. Fairness and equality are not factors in their calculus.

Religious fundamentalism is absolutist. Democracy is populist. Reconciliation of these does not seem a logical possibility. The idea of fundamentalist Islamic democracies is the world’s latest political version of a “good used car.” It looks nice on the lot. The salesman does a good job describing its virtues. But it just doesn’t run very well, and it is likely to leave you stranded some place you don’t want to be.

But this idea that a democracy has been undone is precisely the starting premise of the Western liberal media and political establishment and the cause of so much principled handwringing: An Egyptian Islamic democracy has been killed in the cradle. How tragic! No, actually, it was stillborn. Because a democracy born of religious fundamentalism is the offspring of an unnatural union.

What we have in the Middle East today, especially in Turkey and Egypt, is a clash of two temporal cultures. One looking anxiously to its past failures and another to the possibility of a more prosperous and liberal future. Turkey is the most successful Muslim country in the world for the same reason that America is the world’s most successful Christian majority state. It is a fact rife with historical irony, and one that illuminates the way forward to the development of true Islamic democracies: That the success of Turkey has in large measure been due to its historic, constitutional separation of religion and the political state.

One need not look far to see what the future of Egypt would have looked like under Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. For Islamists like these, the ruse of democratic elections is a means to an end. In Turkey, the people talk of Erdogan “pulling a Putin,” that is, of changing the constitution to perpetuate his own hold on power by allowing himself to become president.

Turkey has more journalists in jail than any other country on Earth, including China and Russia, and twice as many journalists in jail as Syria! College and high school students who protested in the streets have been arrested in government raids, held without legal counsel, and are being indicted on “terrorism” charges. Seriously. Soon, many of Turkey’s former top military officers, who were imprisoned years ago on bogus conspiracy charges fabricated by the AKP, will be put on trial as traitors.

Freedom is being slowly, systematically crushed in Turkey by an Islamist regime that cares nothing for democratic ideals. With each passing day, Turkey becomes more and more like Iran. Where is the Western outrage? What about Turkish democracy?

In Egypt, the Islamists have murdered Christians, blamed women for their own gang rapes, and repeatedly violated the Egyptian constitution and judicial injunctions, even while attempting to replace judges who did not please them, in order to ramrod through a constitution hostile to the most fundamental principles of democracy, like respect for women’s and minority rights. In stark contrast, when the opposition group Tamarod called for more demonstrations a couple of weeks ago, only a few hundred people showed up. The opposition protests that ousted Morsi were comparatively peaceful. It is the Muslim Brotherhood that has repeatedly called for violent, massive public demonstrations. It is the Islamists who have refused abatement.

Western critics of the Egyptian military’s actions betray their ignorance of the fact that there is an enormous difference between having a democratically elected leader–which is itself debatable in Egypt’s case–and having a democratic government. It’s disappointing that so many Americans don’t seem to know the difference. As I told a friend of mine in Egypt today, Thomas Jefferson believed that when any government demonstrates an open hostility to the will of the people that it is the right of the people to institute new government. It is the ideal of an Egyptian democracy that our American critics have romanticized in their high-minded protestations, while the fact that the Egyptian people were faced with the prospect of living under a repressive Islamist dictatorship does not seem to have concerned them. Democracy is not just about form; it is also about content.