Over the past several years Turkey has emerged as the darling of the Arab world with its direct confrontation of Israel killing its civilians and it’s tough stance on Syria.  The government of Turkey attempted to broker an agreement between IAEA and Tehran regarding its nuclear program and stood up for Palestinian rights with Erdogan confronting Peres about the Gaza massacre during the World Economic Forum.  Most importantly, unlike false bravado we have seen in the rest of the Arab region, this is reinforced by strong economic growth (not just at macro level GDP figures but with wealth increasing across most levels of society), domestic stability and increased political openness.  I believe this is the result of increasing civilian control of government and, through understanding how Turkey got to this point, we can learn from their experience and avoid their mistakes.

Kamel Ataturk formed the modern Turkish republic following the fall of the Ottoman Empire and, although he was a military officer himself, he actively endeavored to limit the military’s role in politics – most explicitly by a decree in 1930 that prohibited active officers from holding political positions.  After the coups d'état in 1960, the National Unity Committee established the Inner Service Act of the Turkish Armed Forces in 1961 to legitimize military interventions in politics – thus placing it in a similar position to what Egypt was in post-1952.  However, the countries have diverged over the past decade.  Much like Mubarak’s Egypt, Turkey tended to blindly support Western programs and concede to Western requests and while Egypt was under the tutelage of the US, Turkey’s drive was a mad desire – particularly on the part of the military – to join the EU.  While I will not go into why this shift occurred per se, two key factors are the hurt dignity of the Turkish people being repeatedly rebuffed by the EU and the relatively weak economic growth both resulting from lack of accountability at top levels. In 2002, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) under the leadership of Erdogan took nearly 2/3rds of parliament seats and over the past decade has cemented its control on government and wrestled power away from the generals.  A few telling harbingers are that the new defense minister and deputy defense minister are former AKP party members, Turkish withdrawal of its ambassador from and severing of military ties with Israel and, most spectacularly, the arrest of over 40 generals who were allegedly plotting a coup to remove Erdogan from power.  Moreover, the AKP’s rise has been accomplished not through force, backroom deals, cronyism but rather through full transparency and enabling the populace to trust, and have faith in, their government.

The beneficial results of ceding power from the military are numerous.  Most importantly, the people in control are now fully accountable to their populace – previously the military (through constitutional dictate that they imposed after some of the four coups in the past 30 years) was allowed to intervene in Turkish politics to preserve the secular nature of government – specifically stating that "the Turkish Armed Forces maintain their sound determination to carry out their duties stemming from laws to protect the unchangeable characteristics of the Republic of Turkey”.   In reality what this meant was the military was able to consistently secure its own privileges – threatening any civilian government who attempted to advance the country in face of military interests with immediate removal manifested most recently in 1997 with the removal of elected prime minister Necmettin Erbakan (they executed Turkey’s first democratically elected prime minister, Adnan Menderes, in 1960).  While the reasons why this is not a sustainable system are numerous, I believe the key point is the lack of accountability.

Accountability is defined as having to face consequences as a result of your actions – without this it is hard to correct the path one is on and ensure consistent re-guidance.  Rather, the absence of accountability (i.e. no elections) enables one to perpetuate incorrect action – moreover, when this lack of accountability is extended to criticism too (i.e. media restrictions) then not only are leaders not self correcting but they tend to be unaware of their failures.  Unfortunately, politics globally has taught us that political parties tend to desire perpetuation of their control/rule and – barring some reworking of human nature – we cannot change that.  However, what we can change is the incentive structure.  The merits of democracies are that, in order to perpetuate power, a party has to deliver results to its citizens or else next election cycle the opponents will capitalize on that failure and potentially win office.  In the systems  setup in Egypt, there was little correlation between delivering results to citizens and staying in power.  The NDP just had to ensure that its party members would remain loyal and that they did not step on the toes of the military; as long as they kept both those groups happy there was little fear of them being shaken. In fact some political observers argue that, in reality, it was Gamal Mubarak’s encroachment on the military's economic benefits that was the crucial factor in the Mubarak’s and NDP’s downfall.

One may argue that the Turkish model served the country well for many decades and set the stage for the current transition they are undergoing today – however, there are three key differences in Egypt’s case.

First of all, practically speaking, the Egyptian military has many differences with the Turkish that would make the lead-up to transition much rougher.  From the onset, the Turkish military showed a progressive outlook for the underlying vision of their nation. The Egyptian military, while not evil, lacks that driving force and - as a result - is more so driven by selfish motivations to maintain their hold on power/finances. In essence, the army is willing to give power to civilians only as long as the army is assured its economic interests; as such, the initial discord with the NDP arose - not due to underlying allegiance to citizen/nation - but rather because of Gamal's aggressive economic agenda (e.g. privatization of banks) that wrested some of the military's economic control.  In reality, the officers seem only interested in stability, maintaining their economic interests, and preserving the legitimacy of the armed forces despite having been the backbone of a thoroughly discredited regime for 60 years. As a result, the SCAF seems to be willing to hand over power to anyone who can guarantee those three interests.

Second, philosophically speaking, there is no reason to believe that Turkey could not have achieved this same result several decades ago had the people stood up to the military and on the side of civilian government – despite potential disagreements with some details of various political groups, the people (Egyptian or Turkish) need to support the independence of a civilian government.  Moreover, given SCAF’s conditions for civilian control, allowing them to perpetuate control and limit civilian government to their liking would be disastrous and lead us to a Mubarak 2.0 (not forgetting that they supported v1.0 for decades).

Finally, most commentators believe it is EU demands on Turkey that led to the gradual transition to civilian power – a constraint that the Egyptian military does not face.  Turkey’s democratic changes, which remain far from complete, happened despite the military, not because of it.  This is most evident in the effect EU demands have had on the MGK (Milli Güvenlik Kurulu, considered the institutionalization of the Turkish military’s influence over politics) a body that can be considered very similar to today’s SCAF.  Based on the Copenhagen criteria – requirements for Turkey to enter EU negotiations – the Turkish parliament passed a number of reforms, most recently in 2003 with the “seventh reform package” which most importantly made it possible to appoint a civilian head to the MKG, limited their control of media (radio and TV) and disbanded its Public Relations Command which covertly influenced public opinion by issuing public statements on political developments and government actions.

Let us realize the benefits Turkey is enjoying and, through understanding the reasons why, be more driven to demanding accountability of our government.  In most democratic nations military budgets are in the public domain, national security issues are subject to parliamentary oversight, and, they key difference: the military executes, rather than makes, national security policy – therefore, having foreign policy under the purview of the public.  

After 8 Turks were killed by Israeli Defense Forces during the Gaza flotilla incident, the embassy in Ankara was not stormed.  While there were "dozens" of stone throwing individuals - there was not wholesale craze as we witnessed on 9/9/2011 because the Turkish people knew their government would stand up for their citizens blood - in Egypt citizens felt they needed to make sure Israel heard Egyptian complaints since they had no faith that the SCAF would do so.
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