As Tunisia and Egypt plan to hold elections sometime this year in the hopes of transitioning their societies from state-dominated repression to something more like a constitutional democracy, there is much concern about what a future government will look like in these countries. For one thing, a country cannot go from dictatorship to democracy overnight. Moreover, traditional Islamic values and the significant presence of illiteracy and poverty in many Arab nations may further impede their political evolution.
However, two dynamic modern Islamic nations – Turkey and Indonesia – may serve as a kind of “role models” for the Arab countries to pattern themselves after.
International Business Times spoke to Dilshod A. Achilov, a professor of political science at East Tennessee State University, in Johnson City, and an expert on the Middle East and Islam about the feasibility of Arab nations emulating the models found in Turkey and Indonesia. Here is part 2 of the interview: (part 1 can be accessed here).
IBTIMES: What about the military in these countries? Do they remain a powerful presence, or has their influence waned in recent years?
ACHILOV: In Turkey, the military has always been highly powerful. But this has significantly changed within last six years. The Turkish military does not have much leverage today as it had ten years ago. Armed with popular support, the AKP ruling party has sponsored a number of bills that has reduced the influence of the military on politics.
The current Turkish Constitution was adopted in 1981 right after military coup. The national referendum of September 2010 approved new amendments to the Turkish Constitution which lifted immunity from the military generals who organized the coups in the past.
Furthermore, with new amendments in effect, Turkish military officers can now be prosecuted in civil courts -- which was impossible to even do before (only military courts could prosecute active service members). Today, a number of retired generals and active senior officers are being tried in civil courts in part of ongoing “Ergenekon” case (conspiracy to overthrow the democratically elected AKP government). Ten years ago, it would be impossible to even “think” or “imagine” senior Turkish military officers (retired and active-duty) standing trial to face the charges of this scale in civil courts. But it is happening today.
IBTIMES: Indonesia also had a dominant military.
ACHILOV: After the fall of President Suharto in 1998, the Indonesian military has gone through major changes. There is little doubt that the fundamental changes have occurred in the military (e.g., doctrinal shift) with its rising support for a stronger, civil democratic state. In general, the Indonesian military has shown support for gradual changes towards building more open, democratic system of governance. Despite instabilities and turbulence in the post-Suharto political environment (e.g., separatism, dangers of territorial disintegration, etc), the military has managed to stay united to show its commitment to democratic reforms by supporting the newly formed civil government.
IBTIMES: Do you think the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt presents any threat to potential democracy in that country?
ACHILOV: Not really. For the sake of democracy, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) needs to be integrated into the mainstream political system in Egypt. We know that the MB has fought for more than 80 years to have a political voice in Egyptian politics. Today, the MB is promising to build a civil, democratic state which guarantees freedom of speech, civil liberties and political rights. Given the fact that we have never seen the MB in government (e.g., government leadership), it would be unfair, if not inaccurate, to pre-judge the MB as a threat to democracy. We can’t draw conclusions about new products without testing them in laboratories. Likewise, it would be premature to categorize the MB as a threat to democracy without letting them to show themselves in legitimate political actions.
Nonetheless, based on current trends and the vision of MB, I would not expect MB to be a potential threat or a roadblock to Egyptian democracy. Nevertheless, one thing is clear: the MB will be under serious “pressure” to deliver what they are promising today. They promise a free, civil state (not theocratic) with a high level of civil liberties and political rights in which Islam will coexist with democratic institutions.
In fact, according to Issam al-Aryan who represent the Muslim Brotherhood Guidance Bureau: We want a civil state, based on Islamic principles - a democratic state, with a parliamentary system, with freedom to form parties, press freedom, and an independent and fair judiciary.”
If the MB can deliver their promises (like the AKP did in Turkey), our suspicions and doubts regarding MB will dissipate. On the other hand, if the MB fails to deliver, then our fears/suspicions will be substantiated. In any case, we will have to assess, judge and show our reactions after the fact the MB has shown itself in action within a reasonable amount of time.
IBTIMES: Turkey’s economic growth has been miraculous. How have they accomplished it given that they have no oil reserves and (I think) few natural resources?
ACHILOV: It has been a combination of robust economic reforms geared towards boosting the small business environment, attracting foreign direct investment, curtailing the corruption (which has cost Turkey billions in the past), innovative government investment packages and pragmatic fiscal policies. Dynamism of the small business sector is one of the key engines of Turkish economic success.
IBTIMES: Realistically, what is your long-term prediction for the political state of Egypt?
ACHILOV: The recent revolution holds many bright promises for Egypt’s future. But the process of building consolidated democratic state will take time. Fifty percent of Egypt’s population is under the age of 25. We have a new generation of Arab youth who do not think like older generation. A new, young generation of Arabs will dominate the future political landscape of Egypt.
The revolutions do not always warrant “guaranteed positive outcomes/changes.” The Egyptian people won the major battle against long-term political oppression. But the war itself against authoritarianism is far from over. I would like to use an analogy to illustrate this reality:
To treat bacterial infections, our doctors always tell us to finish all anti-biotic pills as prescribed. This is an important practice in order to kill all germs so that bacteria do NOT develop resistance to the antibiotics being used. When we don’t finish all prescribed pills (often, we tend to stop the treatment because we feel better the next day or two), the likelihood of bacterial resistance to drugs will increase.
In similar terms, some authoritarian structures can adapt to new conditions and even use democratic institutions to resume some of their old autocratic practices.
In this regard, we can cite a few examples when we study the outcomes of Ukraine’s and Kyrgyzstan’s recent revolutions which produced mixed results. Therefore, the success of the Egyptian future political state will largely depend on persistent implementation of free, frequent and fair elections to build, strengthen and sustain newly established democratic institutions.
In the long-run, however, I think Egypt will emerge as a strong democratic republic. I can’t speculate the timing. But I am very comfortable to say that assertive “authoritarian rule” is unlikely to come back to Egypt given the rising, youth strong Egyptian civil society.
A minor side-note: Interestingly, the incumbent president (for now at least) of Yemen – Ali Abdullah Saleh – has recently described the uprisings as “viruses” rapidly spreading in the region. While the ongoing unrest is seen as a “virus” by autocratic leaders, it is largely viewed as an “anti-biotic” by the free world.)