Turkey needs to try and avoid giving the impression that it is focusing solely on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Even if this is not correct, we should not lose sight of the fact that allowing aperception of this sort to be formed about Turkey is something which will create hesitation in liberal and secular sections of Egyptian opinion, which see themselves as the rivals of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Two years have now passed since the overthrow of former President Hosni Mubarak. But Egypt has not yetfullyreturned to calm. On the contrary, instability and uncertainty are to be found all across the country. The basic problems that were to be seen in government institutions before the revolutions and the difficulties experienced in administering the countrycontinue.A very large section of society is dominated by the hopelessness and pessimism created by poverty and even hunger and other economic difficulties. The measures that the government ought to be taking at this critical time have the potential to affect the future, not just of Egypt, but also of the Arab revolutions and the whole of the Middle East. The recent intensification of the polarization between the ruling Muslim Brotherhood and the opposition, and the consequent increasing tendency to try and influence the basic departments of the government, the army, judiciary, and the bureaucracy appears very dangerous at a time when the country is confronted by a large number of problems.
Growing political polarization
Both the government and the opposition have made serious mistakes and these have led to the polarization whichhas flared up in Egypt over the last three months. It is clear that President Morsi miscalculated and did various things without fully foreseeing their consequences, and this caused him to have to take a step back later. Accusations have been frequently expressed that the president only consulted the Ikhwan, (the party of the Muslim Brotherhood) and that he did things which excluded the opposition and belittled it. The cabinet appointments he announced after the debate on the constitution partially confirm this diagnosis. But it is still debatable whether or not the Muslim Brotherhood does actually have the electoral support required to impose its policies unilaterally. Furthermore, it is certainly the case that the Brotherhood does not have the resources needed to govern the country on its own, whether one looks at capital, the media, or its cadres. In that sense the government should behave in a more inclusive fashion and take account of the ideas and interests of different groups.
It is also clear that the opposition has clearly been in the wrong on some issues. Egypt’s opposition is internally divided and manifestly lost a serious amount of credit during the process of preparing the constitution by obstructing the government’s calls for dialogue, thus dragging the debate downward. The opposition has now announced that it will enter the next elections by uniting to form a front to be known as the “National Salvation Front.” But some important opposition figures are permanently tarred by accusations of being hangovers from the old regime. This is a situation which puts both the opposition and the future of therevolution in danger. What is more, one must accept that there is a serious possibility that the opposition, composed of such dissimilar elements, will break up at some point. It is therefore important for the opposition and the government to enter into dialogue. Otherwise, the Ikhwan will be forced into a corner and are likely to align with the Salafi groups, something which might lead to an even greater danger of social polarization.
Those who follow the Egyptian media closely maintain that it plays an important role in inciting political polarization. While social polarization grows in the media, the Egyptian people are facing difficulties as great as at any time during the Mubarak era – hunger, poverty, and unemployment. In addition this new constitution, which increases the powers of the president and increases the role of Sharia law, got 66% percent of the vote in the referendum held in December with a turn out of 33%. This sharpens the element of confrontation in the country. The fact that two-thirds of potential voters did not participate in the constitutional referendum strikingly reveals the distrust that ordinary people feel for the political process. In this sense, polarization not only makes ordinary people even less interested in the political process, it also delays the search for solutions to the problems confronting society. The country’s security problems, exacerbated by the debates over the constitution, have reached a level where human lives are being lost in armed clashes. Corruption and low productivity, which have dominated the state’s institutions for decades, are also high on the list of factors making the lives of Egyptians almost unendurable.
Relations between Turkey and Egypt
At this time when so many critical developments are looming in Egypt, Turkey’s policy toward that country has considerable importance within the context of its overall policy toward the Middle East. In the post-Mubarak period, Turkey has extended substantial political and economic assistance to Egypt. Any warning signs now that Egypt might revert to an authoritarian regime would cause serious anxiety about the future of not just Egypt but also the Arab revolutions. These adverse events are particularly worrying for Turkey. Ever since the first free elections brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power, Turkey has had close relations with its government. Both before the revolution and after it, Turkey’s approach has been met with the warm approval of the great majority of Egyptians, but it now needs to avoid giving the impression that it is conscious only of the Muslim Brotherhood. Even if this is not the case, if such an impression were to arise, Turkey would cause doubts about itself in the minds of Egypt’s liberals and secularists who are the rivals of the Muslim Brotherhood. That would undermine the notion that Turkey has a moderating influence on radical groups in the region. If Turkey pursues policies in Egypt which take account of the sensitivities and balance of power inside the country in circumstances of growing political polarization, this could be of powerful assistance in helping reduce the country’s instability. But if it does not do this, the risk will grow that a substantial portion of the Egyptian people will feel alienated from Turkey.
The hostile reaction which followed the constitutional referendum has called into question earlier forecasts that the general elections due to be held this month amid an atmosphere of such heightened polarization will result in a clear victory for the Muslim Brotherhood. Consequently, the performance of the Muslim Brotherhood in government will play a decisive role for the future not just of Egypt but of the whole region.
The role of the new middle class
There is one aspect that should not be forgotten, no matter what. The events taking place in the Arab world over the last two years show us that a new Middle East is being born and that a new middle class there is being shaped by the process. As American social scientist of Iranian origin Eli Nasr says, this new middle class is more conservative and more pious, but at the same time wants more freedom, more trade, and more prosperity. It does not shrink from conflict to get what it wants. As it engages in commerce, its prosperity grows and this has a transformative effect on its relations with the state and limits the powers of the state. The great majority of the Egyptian masses, whether secularist or pious, or highly educated but destitute, are candidates for inclusion in this new class. At the stage the Arab revolutions have currently reached, the main thing that could forestall a reversion to despotic government will be the resistance from this new class. Its struggle will certainly be drawn out and have its ups and downs, and be harsh, but it does form a process which is irreversible. Democracy is not going to come into being, whether in Egypt or other countries of the Middle East, by just holding free elections. Egypt and the entire region may perhaps go through dark and painful days and even difficult years. But if the masses who make up the new middle class and who are demanding greater economic rights become stronger and expand, that will lead to demands for greater freedom, more reforms, and more transparency. More or less from the very first days of the revolution in Egypt, Turkey has given priority to economic assistance together with its political support, something which is now of valuable significance. This policy,i.e. the idea that democracy can only be constructed on sound economic foundations, is one which is derived from Turkey’s own experience, despite all its shortcomings,over the last thirty years.
*This piece was initially published in Analist Journal issued in February 2013.