By Dr. Aylin Güney & Dr. Hasret Dikici Bilgin

This study analyzes the Turkish case as a model country for the state-building processes in the Arab world in the aftermath of the Arab revolts that took place in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

To this end, it deals with the Turkish case in three phases: the founding of the Turkish Republic, political developments until 2002, and the post-2002 Justice and Development Party period.


The study focuses on state-society relations manifested in the form of a secular-religious cleavage intertwined with problematic civil-military relations. Each phase of Turkey’s history is compared to cleavages and civil-military relations in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.

After analyzing the constitution-making processes in the latter three countries following the Arab revolts, the study concludes by discussing the viability of the Turkish model in the light of Turkey’s search for a new constitution.


Since 11 September, 2001, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has been in constant political turmoil and the most recent Arab revolts have added to this situation.

The US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, have been accompanied by US rhetoric of democracy promotion in the Arab world.

Since then, the removal of dictatorial regimes, especially in the Arab world, which is considered as the hotbed of terrorist organizations, has constituted the core of US national strategy.

The Arab revolts in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, which were marked by the removal of dictators Ben Ali, Gaddafi and Mubarak respectively, gave rise to state-building in the postrevolution period, which has become an issue of intense debate amongst academics since state institutions have been regarded as malfunctioning in these countries.

Turkey, as a regional actor, has been at the epicenter of these developments. Being a relatively stable country with a functioning democracy, a secular state and liberal market economy, it has been presented as a ‘model’ country for the state-building process in the postrevolution periods in the Arab countries in question.

This debate about whether Turkey can be a model for Arab countries in transition to democratic regimes has intensified as the topic has been widely covered by the media and also referred to by various political figures in the Arab states, in Turkey and in the countries outside the region, including the US.

In this respect, this paper in assessing weather Turkey can be considered a model for Arab countries, will highlight the most controversial aspect of Turkish state-society relations, namely the relationship between Islam and democracy.

Since civil-military relations are also related to this topic, they will also be dealt with as a complementary issue. They are also deemed important because the military has played a very important role in Turkish political life since the founding of the Republic.

The paper presumes that the analysis of constitution-making may provide evidence as to whether the actors in one country take another country’s constitution as a model in certain aspects. Thus, it will, at times, refer to the constitutions of the Arab countries to reveal differences and similarities with Turkey’s.

Finally, it will assess whether the Turkish case can provide an example or inspiration for Arab countries in transition.

Islam and Democracy in Turkey: the Ottoman Legacy?

One of the most important and controversial issues regarding Turkey is how, with its approximately 99 percent Muslim population, it could establish and sustain a democratic regime, which, despite some brief interruptions, has managed to survive until now.

In other words, how have Islam and democracy managed to co-exist in Turkish political life? To address this question, it is important to shed further light upon the main ideas and principles on which modern Turkey is based.

In order to be able to assess whether Turkey can constitute a model country for the Arab world, this study will first outline the main characteristics of the Turkish Republic.

Since its foundation on 23 October 1923, following the demise of the centuries-old Ottoman Empire, the Turkish Republic has been characterized by several important features.

First, it aimed to create a secular state as opposed to the Ottoman Empire, with its first duty being to protect the freedom of conscience of its citizens.

Second, it based the notion of citizenship on constitutional citizenship, which eventually recognized the non-Muslim Jewish, Christian and Greek minorities as the only minority groups.

Third, from the memory of foreign occupation and subsequent War of Independence, it stood by the principle of the indivisible integrity of the Turkish Republic.

Fourth, the military was regarded as the ‘guardian’ of the two main principles – secularism and the unitary state – upon which the Turkish Republic was founded.

It is important to note that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkey, tried to pursue both nation- building and state-building processes inspired by French revolutionary ideas.

As Ahmad argues, “in the tradition of revolutionary France, the Kemalists saw the Allied occupation of Istanbul in March 1920 not as a de facto end of the Ottoman state but as the beginning of a new era by what Kemal described as the ‘first national year’.”

The first step was to create a new society. Just as the French Revolutionaries had to create the Frenchman, the Kemalists had to create a new type of ‘Turk’ different from the ‘Ottoman’.

However, one can argue that Atatürk, in a rather pragmatic fashion, followed a two-step process in establishing a secular state.

First, when the first Turkish Grand National Assembly convened in Ankara on 23 April 1920 in the middle of the War of Independence, Atatürk made it clear that the priority was only to end the occupation of the country.

Although he was well aware of the fact that the Second Group in the Parliament, i.e. the opposition, focused basically on religious issues, he did not “show his hand” until the end of the War of Independence.

It was only after victory that it became easier for him to “assume a hold over politics” and initiate the reforms. The radical reforms aimed at establishing a new state-religion-society relationship came into force after the declaration of the Republic on 29 October 1923, when the founders tried to distance the new Republic from the Ottoman past and the Islamic heritage that characterized it.

In particular, they recognized that if the Caliphate and various other Islamic institutions continued to exist, then supporters of the Ottoman Empire would be able to “manipulate the symbols of Islam as powerful weapons against the reformers and their program.”

Therefore, they took the radical steps of abolishing the Caliphate in 1924 and closing autonomous religious lodges (tekke ve zaviyeler) and Sufi orders (tarikat).

In addition, the Directorate of Religious Affairs was established in the same year “to act as the ultimate authority on the knowledge and practice of Islam.

The directorate would operate directly under the Office of the Prime Minister and its chair and board would be appointed by the president”, while Islamic law (sharia) was replaced by a new secular civil code modeled on Switzerland’s.

This code was revolutionary in many ways: first, “it outlawed all forms of polygamy, annulled religious marriages, and granted equal rights to men and women in matters of inheritance, marriage and divorce.

The religious court system and institutions of religious education were Abolished.

The use of religion for political purposes was banned, the article that defined the Turkish state as “Islamic” was removed from the constitution, and the alphabet was changed, replacing Arabic letters with Roman ones”.

Chanting prayers in Turkish instead of Arabic was another revolutionary step.

For Çınar, “these steps represent the institutionalization of secularism, which involved not exclusion, but a tightly controlled inclusion of Islam in the public sphere.”

Reconciling Islam with democracy constituted the main challenge for the founders of the Republic, who were struggling to establish a state de novo.

Tachau argues that “the dawning of a new political era was heralded by the adoption of a new Constitution in January 1921, consolidated and reenacted in 1924. The most important aspect of this constitution was its proclamation that “sovereignty belongs unconditionally to the nation” and that the Grand National Assembly was the only true representative of the nation.”

Despite all these revolutionary steps, continued allegiance to Islamic values and glorification of Ottoman times were major factors encouraging suspicion towards the Kemalist Reforms.

The dissolution of political parties in the First Parliament, such as the Progressive Republican Party established in 1925 and the Free Party in 1930, indicated that Islamic conservatism still constituted a challenge to modernization reforms.

Consequently, Atatürk’s initial attempts to establish a multi-party democracy proved to be unsuccessful. It is important to note that the basic problem during the early Republican and subsequent single-party years faced by the Republican Peoples’ Party (RPP) was how to establish a democratic regime by “accelerating the process of literacy and education in the new Turkey”.

Although, for Atatürk, the creation of a “democratic citizen” was of utmost importance, low literacy levels in Anatolia were considered a major obstacle to this end.

Therefore, Atatürk recognized that an important dimension of the state-building process was to create the necessary institutions to educate the people and elevate them to the level of contemporary civilization.

Thus, since education of the masses was an indispensable element of the new Republic, the “script revolution” of moving from the Arabic to the Roman alphabet became necessary.

In 1937, “secularism was included in the Constitution so that the amended Article 2 read: “The Turkish State is Republican, Nationalist, Populist, Statist, Secularist, and Revolutionary- Reformist.”

Turning now to Arab countries, disassociating themselves from their Ottoman past was also central to the state- building strategies of these states that had emerged from the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East.

In their early years, these new states, and their largely Ottoman Turkish- speaking ruling elites, mainly continued the former Ottoman Imperial administrative system, while they based their laws on the Ottoman code of law known as Mecelle.

However, centuries of Ottoman domination and more recently decades of Western colonial rule meant that the Ottoman past was constructed as an era of foreign invasion.

Therefore, while the Arab nationalism that emerged in the 20th century primarily targeted Western colonial involvement, it also distanced itself from the Ottoman rule, partly to negate the old ruling elite.

Prominent leaders of the movement, such as Gamal Abdel Nasser and Gaddafi, deployed antiimperialistic rhetoric as part of their Arab nationalist ideology that now shaped state policies.

Arab nationalists, seeking to emphasize commonalities among Arabs across the Middle East and North Africa, also confronted Ottoman social organization based on confessional origins, known as the millet system.

This resentment towards the founding elites of the major Arab states because of their Ottoman past carries both similarities and differences with that of Turkey’s republicans.

On the one hand, both modern Arab and Turkish nationalisms defined their nations by distancing themselves from ‘the Ottoman’, with educational and language reforms, for example, being initiated accordingly.

On the other hand, while Arab nationalism aimed to unify all Arabic people of the region within one single state, Turkish nationalism explicitly rejected expansionism and revisionism, limiting itself to the Anatolian Turks within the limits of the National Act (Misak-ı Milli).

Both post-independence Arab and Turkish state elites experienced a conflicting attitude towards the West: one of perceived cultural threat combined with admiration of Western modernity. Both Arabs and Turks had revolted against Western domination in the aftermath of World War One.

The Turkish War of Independence led to the establishment of the Republic in 1923 as mentioned above, while the Egyptian revolt against the British mandate which had been established on the eve of the Great War led to independence in 1922, although British influence continued until the Free Officers Movement’s military takeover and the inauguration of Nasser as President in the 1954.

Libya remained under Italian mandate, while French domination of Tunisia continued until the mid-1950s. The Italian defeat in World War Two allowed Libya to attain independence under King Idris in 1951, before he was toppled in a coup d’état by Gaddafi’s Free Unionist Officers in 1969.

The Tunisian struggle for independence from French colonialism, led by Habib Bourguiba, an activist journalist and politician, led to the declaration of the Republic in 1957.

Thus, the de facto independence of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia were all owed to post-1945 anti-colonial independence movements. Their colonial experiences also transformed their perceptions of the Ottoman past to one that equated it with foreign rule and the exploitation of the region’s natural resources.

In Turkey, by contrast, criticism of the Ottoman past focused on its traditionalism and backwardness. It is important to note that the military, especially junior officers, played an indispensable role in the anti-imperialist struggle and the establishment of republics in Turkey, Egypt and Libya.

It was only in Tunisia that civilians and political parties – whose activities had been suppressed by colonial rule – led to the establishment of the modern state.

The Egyptian and Libyan military takeovers shared several similarities, with the Libyan officers’ movement replicating the Egyptian model of organization both before and after their intervention.

As well as similarities in the institutional structures of the new one- party militarist states in the two countries, both Gaddafi and Nasser emphasized Arab nationalism, socialism and antiimperialism as the main principles of nation-building.

This pioneering role of the military in state and nation-building in Egypt and Libya, and earlier in Turkey, resulted in the military becoming entrenched as part of the state elite.

The extent that this military-dominated state elite permitted Islam to be visible in the public sphere defined the nature of state- society relations and intertwined the debate on political Islam with that concerning civil-military relations.


Dr. Aylin Güney is a full-time professor at the Department of International Relations and also is the Dean of the Faculty of Human and Social Sciences and the Acting Dean at the Faculty of Economics and Administrative Sciences at Bilkent University.

Hasret Dikici Bilgin – Istanbul Bilgi University Faculty Member. A political scientist curious in class, political change, political Islam, political parties, elections, Turkey and the Middle East





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