• July 30, 2007

Arabs jealous of Turkish elections

Arabs jealous of Turkish elections

Arabs have been fascinated by the elections in Turkey, convincingly won by the moderate Islamist AKP after calling early elections in response to the secularist military”s antipathy to the party”s Presidential candidate. Al-Jazeera covered the elections as heavily as it does any Arab election (which means, quite heavily), while a wide range of columnists have written about it. The AKP”s victory is being welcomed virtually across the board, but the lessons being drawn vary sharply – in line with the intense political battles over Islamism which currently dominate the Arab political agenda (Hamas in Gaza and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt being the most widely invoked points of reference).

In general, moderate Islamists have leaped on the results to argue that the Turkish elections demonstrate both that an Islamist party can be trusted to work within a democracy and that Islamist parties have an incentive to do so. Essam el-Erian of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood describes it as a fully successful experience, which offers encouragement for moderate Islamists everywhere. Many other Islamists – such as Mahmoud al-Zahar of Hamas – see it as clear evidence of the continuing growth of the Islamist trend across the Muslim world, and the decreasing appeal of “extremist secularists”. Abd al-Wahhab al-Effendi similarly takes it as evidence of the continuing success of those moderate Islamist parties who can credibly commit to the democratic process – while also pointing out that beneath the secularist-Islamist conflict which grabbed headlines lay the secularists” fierce, repressive approach to Turkey”s Kurds, which placed the Islamists on the side of societal reconciliation and non-violence in the minds of many voters. Fahmy Howeydi begins with the stark contrast between honest elections (Turkey) and the fixed, dishonest elections in Arab countries like Egypt (a point also made by judge Noha al-Zayni in al-Mesryoon), and the high levels of popular participation in and enthusiasm for the electoral process. Like many others, Howeydi claims that the Turkish experience shows both that fears of Islamist electoral victories are overblown, while urging Islamists to learn the lesson that democracy and Islamism must go hand in hand.

Those writers and politicians who are currently hostile to Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood (you know, the Axis of Pro-American Dictators Moderates crowd) seem to be at pains to focus on the distinctiveness of the Turkish case in order to show why what works there couldn”t possibly work in, say, Egypt or Jordan (or else their editorialists just ignore it). One common move is to compare the AKP favorably to Hamas, contrasting the Turkish party”s responsible behavior to the Palestinian party”s actions in Gaza. Abdullah al-Iskander, writing in al-Hayat, argues that Arab Islamist parties can”t really be compared to the AKP because unlike the Turkish party they continue to cling to outdated ideological concepts and historical narratives. Noting that the AKP never deviated for even a minute from the law or the Constitution, despite their strong popular support, Iskander seems skeptical that Arab Islamist parties would show such restraint. Tareq al-Homayed, editor of al-Sharq al-Awsat, argues that for the AKP to live up to its pretensions to be the “first rational Islamist party” it has to, well, not do anything Islamist because that would provoke a military response and prove that the AKP is no better than Hamas (for Homayed it would necessarily be the AKP”s fault if it “forces” the Turkish military to step in and abolish democracy – she was asking for it, after all; as always it”s a rib-tickling delight to see a Saudi editor warning against Islamists in government!). The Jordanian Saleh al-Qullab, writing in al-Rai, suggests that the AKP offers a model of Islam as moderate, enlightened, and rational whose success should be welcomed, while Arab Islamism is represented by bin Laden and Zawahiri – thereby erasing the mainstream Muslim Brotherhood from the picture entirely.

The Turkish election and its aftermath will continue to reverberate in Arab political discourse for a while. It”s a good chance for the US and the West to try to show that it isn”t comprehensively hostile to Islamist parties – an uphill battle after it ignored the Egyptian government”s repression of the Muslim Brotherhood after it performed well in the Egyptian elections, and boycotted and worked to undermine the Hamas government after it won the Palestinian elections. I”ve no doubt that the Arab and Islamist arguments over how to interpret these elections have only just begun, and will bear following.