The Bear's Lair

With the final results from Egypt’s six week parliamentary elections tricking in, all talk is about the strong election performance of the two main Islamic parties. With 43.7% of the vote, the Freedom and Justice Party (the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood) was the clear winner, although the ultra-conservative Nour party surprised many by taking home 22%.

As the gains of the Islamic parties became evident over the past few weeks, more and more Western analysts and policy makers have started to become anxious. How exactly will these parties perform in government? Many hope that they will try to follow Turkey’s model, which is seen as the first real successful marriage of an Islamic society and secular democracy. Despite its critics, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is credited by many in the West, and the East, with clean electoral victories, sound economic management and legal reform.

However in a recent article, Sebnem Gumuscu argues against a simple assumption that Egypt will be able to embrace Turkey’s model. As he explains, in Turkey’s case, the AKP has flourished because it has embraced the secular-democratic framework of the Turkish state. Gumuscu argues that the main reason for this was the neo-liberal transformation that Turkey began in the 1980s. This transformation led to the flourishing of a new group of devout businessmen who argued in favour of ideological moderation, stronger relations with the EU and political pragmatism. Together these moderate Islamists formed the AKP.

Gumuscu argues that Islamism and democracy have become compatible in Turkey, under neo-liberalism. The result has been a downsized state, greater economic and political stability and better relations with neighbouring countries. The AKP has been rewarded with greater support from secular business folk and the middle classes. For Gumuscu, the embrace of neo-liberalism was the main cause of the transformation, rather than Turkey’s culture of secularism, its relations with the EU or pressures from the military, all of which had been resisted for decades by organized political Islam in Turkey.

The comparison with Egypt is striking. As Gumuscu explains, neoliberalism in Egypt has largely benefited cronies of Mubarak’s regime and no Turkish-style business class has emerged within Egypt’s main Islamic parties. Rather these parties are made up of individuals from the professional sectors who prefer a strong and expansive state. It is this large state presence which was picked up on by The Economist as Egypt’s main economic challenge.

According to Gumuscu, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) supports private enterprise but its desired economic system is closer to Corporatism, with the promotion of import substitution and exports, rather than a small state and free trade.

Gumuscu is also dubious about the ability of economic reform in Egypt to develop the sort of pragmatism that Turkish-model advocates are seeking. If a new Islamist class wishes to emulate the success of the AKP then they will first have to become fully-fledged political parties. At present however, the Muslim Brotherhood remains primarily a religious society, with political, economic and cultural objectives being secondary.

The FJP relies on the brotherhood rank and file for support in elections and thus the botherhood casts a large shadow over the party. According to Gumuscu the decision of the brotherhood not to nominate a Presidential candidate under the FJP already shows that political objectives are being superseded by religious ones.

As Gumuscu summarises, there is no Turkish model. Rather there are Muslims in a secular-democratic state working within a neo-liberal framework. Gumuscu feels that the first task of Egypt’s Islamic movements is to separate their political and religious functions. Then they must also shed deeply ingrained habits of hierarchy and proselytization to build a democratic system with unique institutions.

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