Robert Tait* The Guardian
Supporters say Turkey's ruling AKP party's brand of political Islam could be role model for Muslim Brotherhood, but opponents warn of authoritarianism
According to conventional wisdom, Turkey has become the template of our times: a large Muslim-majority country that has moved from military domination to civilian rule in a few years, spearheaded by a popular democratically elected government trumpeting its EU membership ambitions.
If Egypt, in its current flux, is seeking a path to help it navigate the transition from authoritarianism to democracy, the argument runs, then Turkey surely provides it. The once all-powerful Turkish armed forces – which have toppled four civilian governments in the past 50 years – have been cut down to size by the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development party (AKP) as it has sought to transform the national political landscape.
Erdogan won praise from western diplomatic sources for a series of constitutional amendments – approved in a referendum last September – that allowed for trying previously untouchable army officers in civilian courts and lifted the legal immunity of military top brass implicated in a coup in 1980. The move was welcomed by the EU as removing an obstacle to Turkey joining the bloc, which forbids military interference in politics.
It also represented a huge drop in status for the army, which had jealously guarded its kingmaker role as guardian of Turkey's secular political order since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, himself a top army commander, established the modern republic in 1923.
Fuelling the AKP's rise, according to its advocates, has been the emergence of a new religious, conservative middle class from Turkey's Anatolian heartland, whose increasing affluence has undermined the economic power base of the army and other traditional secular pillars, such as the judiciary.
Supporters depict the AKP, a party rooted in political Islam, as a modernising role model for other Middle East Islamist movements, such as Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, to reinvent themselves as democratic parties.
"What we have in mind is the normalisation of political Islam, not the clichéed political Islam of the sharia state," said Cengiz Aktar, professor of EU studies at Bahcesehir University in Istanbul, said: "Political Islam has transformed in Turkey and accepted to function in a secular environment. The Turkish model can inspire Islamist movements in other countries to become Muslim democratic movements like the Christian Democrats in Europe."
That rosy view is challenged by opponents who believe the ruling party is driven by an authoritarianism that aims to subvert Turkey's traditional secular constitution. Erdogan – Turkey's prime minister – is a former radical Islamist who even in his supposedly new moderate incarnation has bitterly criticised Israel and fostered warm ties with Iran and its fiercely anti-western president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Some fear Turkey is turning its back on the west and looking eastward, thus boosting its prestige among Arab countries. The army, long a key component in Nato strategy, appears ever more defeated. Worse still are accusations that the assault on the armed forces has lurched into persecution. Hundreds of serving and retired officers have been arrested in connection with two separate but linked alleged plots to overthrow the AKP in military coups. The pro-secular judiciary has also come under sustained attack, as have media groups critical of Erdogan.
In the latest development, police at the weekend arrested 162 officers, including former army, navy and air force commanders, on charges of involvement in an alleged 2003 plot called Sledgehammer, which aimed to topple the government after sowing chaos by bombing mosques and provoking war with Greece. The army denies the charges and has said the plan was a wargame exercise.
Gareth Jenkins, an Istanbul-based specialist in Turkish security affairs, said Turkey provided no model for Egypt to emulate. "Turkey has been exchanging a military form of authoritarianism for civilian authoritarianism," he said.
"What we have seen in the last couple of years is blatant political persecution, suppression of the free press and people being thrown in jail without knowing what they are charged with. The police have been used as an organ of internal repression. Far from being a model, Turkey has been becoming more like Egypt."
*Robert Tait is a senior correspondent with RFE/RL and former Istanbul correspondent for the Guardian