Lessons from Turkey

Lessons from Turkey

Islamists in the region are again sweeping the polls. On Sunday Turkey”s Justice and Development Party (JDP) won 47 per cent of the vote in parliamentary elections, reigniting the debate on the popular appeal of Islamist parties, with Egypt”s Muslim Brotherhood particularly excited about a result they view as boosting their own project.

On Tuesday Mahdi Akef, the supreme guide of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, sent a message of congratulations to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in which he described the elections as “evidence” of the ability of Islamic parties to achieve “constitutional, political and economic development and social reform” when operating in a democratic, free and fair environment.

“I”ve been following the situation in Turkey and the elections closely,” leading Brotherhood member Essam El-Erian told Al-Ahram Weekly, “I find the [JDP”s] experience quite rich… In a healthy and free environment Islamists can achieve amazing results.”

In the 2005 parliamentary elections the MB won 88 seats in a vote which the opposition and independent groups said was marred by rigging, violence and intervention by the security apparatus. And following an announcement last January that the group was seeking to form a political party, security forces arrested hundreds of MB members.

El-Erian said the JDP”s success offered a number of lessons. It shows that “a political party does not have to be limited to Islamist members alone” he says. It also points to ways in which Islamists can reach accommodation with the West, while the JDP”s economic success and its dealings with other political parties and currents in Turkey should also be reflected upon.

Does that mean the Brotherhood is even more confident that if free and fair elections were held in Egypt they would sweep to power?

“We are not at all occupied with the thought of coming to power,” says El-Erian.

But doesn”t the MB contest every single election in Egypt?

“Yes, but we do that to be present and prove we exist. Our aim is to achieve political and constitutional reform.”

In the absence of meaningful political participation in Egypt, argues El-Erian, it is meaningless to discuss the transition of power. “But we are ready to accept a transitional period before we can really rely on the ballot box and see what Egyptians want.”

“The MB won 88 seats in parliament when we fielded 150 candidates. How many seats would we have won had we fielded more?” he asks.

He is not in the least surprised that Islamists are scoring well in elections. “The reasons are plenty and they are complex… they include credibility, seriousness, and services offered by Islamists. The failure of the others is also a reason.”

Abul-Ela Madi, a former MB member who left the group to form the moderate Wassat (Centre) Party, which was subsequently denied a licence by the authorities, believes the lesson Islamists should learn from the JDP” success is moderation. It”s wrong, he told the Weekly, to attribute the JDP”s victory to their Islamic roots. “They didn”t win simply because they have an Islamic background but because they present a moderate image of themselves and in practice have proved themselves worthy of the confidence of the Turkish voter.” The JDP fought corruption, has made some outstanding economic achievements and led a successful foreign policy “which made their comeback inevitable”.

A critic of the MB, Madi rejects the notion that should free elections take place in Egypt the Brotherhood would romp home. “Because of the limitations and constraints imposed on political groups in Egypt, the MB will remain the largest opposition organisation. But should the environment in Egypt change, the MB”s status will, because there will then be room for others to participate.”

The Wassat”s “problem”, said Madi, is that the authorities continue to deny it a licence despite repeated applications. Their first was in 1996 when the party”s moderate platform was first presented to the authorities. In many ways the Wassat and JDP platforms are similar. To Madi the difference is that in Egypt they are prevented from participating politically while in Turkey the political environment, even though it is constrained by staunch secularist rules, allows for the formation of political parties.

Madi admires the JDP”s “pragmatism” and the way they have focussed on their “objectives” without any religious grandstanding.

“In Islam there is something called fiqh al-maqasid (the higher objectives of Sharia). Alcohol is prohibited in Islam but it”s allowed when it”s the only thing that can keep a person alive for example. This philosophy is what enabled the JDP to maintain its Islamic roots without constraining the party. When they contested last week”s elections, they included women who do not wear the hijab on their slates. That”s because they want to represent Turkish society, not a strictly Islamic party.”

Egyptian secularists such as Cairo University law professor Hossam Eissa, who admires the JDP, agrees. “There”s a huge difference between the situation in Turkey and Egypt, and between the JDP and the Muslim Brotherhood. The JDP is closer to the Wassat Party which does not flaunt the [MB] slogan “Islam is the Solution” to win votes,” he told the Weekly. The problem with the MB, he said, is that they do not offer a platform that appeals to non-Islamists. “You are either with them or against them. You can never lead a nation with that philosophy.”

According to Eissa, the MB is not a monolithic entity and younger cadres are open to learning from the JDP. “If they follow its example they can boost their chances in the future.”

The “Turkish earthquake”, as many Arab commentators described the results of Sunday”s elections, contains messages for Arab secularists as well.

“It is well known that the secularist parties, whether nationalist or leftist, have been losing steam for years… and the only forces which appear uncompromising in their rejection of US hegemony have been Islamist,” says Cairo University political science professor Mustafa Kamel El-Sayed. To that must be added the reliance of most Arab regimes on the security forces in order to perpetuate their hold on power and their failure to establish viable political parties that can recruit supporters and provide channels for political participation.

It is no wonder, argues El-Sayed, that when Islamists are allowed to contest elections under reasonably fair and free conditions they succeed in gaining the support of a large number of voters, if not an absolute majority of votes. This was the case in Algeria in 1991 and Turkey in the previous elections and in Palestine. They have also succeeded in winning support in Morocco, Palestine, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Lebanon, Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

From Turkey”s “moderate” Islamists, to the growth of Iraq”s “extremist” Islamic groups, secularism in the region is clearly on the retreat.