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.


Political Islam, Democracy and the Military

One can argue that throughout Turkey’s republican history, trends in the politicization of Islam can be traced from the formation of either religiously-oriented political parties (National Order Party, National Salvation Party, Welfare Party, Virtue Party etc.) or center-right parties (Democrat Party, Justice Party etc.) that refer to religious values.

It is also worth noting that the Islamic opposition in Turkey did not resort to violence, but allowed itself to become integrated into the political system, thereby trying to avoid clashes between the political elite and the state elite.

Heper argues that “the consolidation of democracy in Turkey and the gradual reincorporation of Islam into politics were facilitated by the increasing secularization of the Turks, after the establishment of the Republic in 1923, which made general support for a radical religious revival less likely.”

The state elite, comprised of the Kemalist and secular military-bureaucratic establishment, regarded the political elite, perceived by the former as pursuing populist, short-term and sometimes religiously-oriented interests and policies,with uspicion.

This perception of political Islam by the Turkish state elite is rooted in the traditionalist-Western divide during the late Ottoman period.

On March 31, 1909, a group of Islamists staged a counterrevolution against the Young Turk Revolution of 1908. Alleged British support for reactionaries in 1909, and later collaboration during the Independence War, further centralized the anti-imperialist movement around the Republicans.

The Republicans’ victory in 1923 delayed the institutionalization of the Islamist movement as a political party for nearly half a century. Although Islamists, especially the tariqats, found representation within center-right parties, they were unable to establish their own party until 1970s.

The Turkish state elite employed two main ways of intervening to prevent the rise of political Islam:

(a) first, the repeated dissolution of religiously-oriented political parties by the Constitutional Court; and

(b) second, the Turkish military’s direct and indirect political interventions.

In this respect, the definition (as in the Internal Service Act, Article 35) of threats in Turkey’s laws, especially internal ones, is noteworthy. These threats are defined as political Islam and Kurdish separatism. The Turkish military has long been depicted as a ‘political party’ in the military studies literature because it has intervened politically to overthrow an elected government three times (1960, 1971, and 1980) directly and once indirectly, which is also referred to as the post-modern coup (1997).

In Egypt, by contrast, continued British influence despite independence in 1922 created space for Islamists within the anti-imperialist movement.

By the late 1920s, the Muslim Brotherhood had emerged as a prominent political actor under British colonialism with a discourse combining a desire for independence and the preservation of the Islamic values.

In the first couple of years after the 1952 coup, the Free Officers collaborated with the Brotherhood to crush the Communists. However, after the military Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) had consolidated its authority, it declared the Brotherhood illegal, arrested and imprisoned its leading members, and purged suspected sympathizers from the military and ruling Free Officers’ corp.

Before the Free Officers, during the rule of King Farouk I, the Islamist movement had also been suppressed and the movement’s founding leader Hassan al-Banna was murdered in 1949.

But the Brotherhood’s appeal to Egypt’s poor masses kept the Islamist movement intact, making it the chief rival of Nasser’s post-coup establishment in the 1950s.

Since Islamists had been deeply involved in Egypt’s independence struggle and the Brotherhood had already consolidated a network in Egyptian society since the late 1920s, Nasserites had to develop a different strategy towards political Islam than the one adopted by the Turkish state elite.

The Egyptian state elite tried to utilize Islam to legitimize their regime by bringing Islamic institutions, including Al-Azhar University, under state control and reorganizing them.

Meanwhile, the state turned a blind eye to the Brotherhood’s existence as long as the movement refrained from being vocal and allowed the regime to capitalize on Islamic values.

From the mid-1950s to the 1980s, candidates from the movement even won parliamentary seats by standing for various Egyptian political parties.

In the 1970s, Anwar Sadat’s domestic and international political opening (al-infitah) further expanded the permissive space for the Muslim Brotherhood.

In time, the movement’s discourse moderated and its leadership adopted a more collaborative stance towards the regime. At the same time, however, Egypt’s Islamist movement was also marred by internal strife, with radical groups gradually recruiting new members from the lowest strata of society.

This increased the appeal of the moderate and accommodating Muslim Brotherhood to the state elite. Subsequently, Hosni Mubarak continued the previous policy of complacency towards the Brotherhood, by turning a blind eye to its activities without allowing them to become a legitimate actor.

In the 2000 elections, for example, candidates from the movement standing as independents were allowed to run, winning as many seats as the legal opposition.

However, a rise in the Brotherhood’s share of parliamentary seats to one fifth of the assembly in the 2005 elections revived the regime’s threat perception and the movement suffered unprecedented suppression from 2005 to 2010.

Overall, unlike Turkey’s Kemalist establishment, the Egyptian state elite have refrained from staunch secularism, prioritizing loyalty of the security forces to the state elite over attempts to secularize society.

Nevertheless, when they considered it necessary, both state elites have crushed political Islam and prevented genuine electoral competition through various methods to block Islamists from taking political power.

The revolution led by Gaddafi in 1969 which overthrew Libya’s monarchy, followed an institutional and ideological path similar to that of the Egyptian officers.

Like them, Gaddafi did not initiate secular reforms, trying instead to integrate Islamist discourse within his rule. For example, his manifesto, the Green Book, was an eclectic project incorporating Arab nationalism, Islam and economic egalitarianism. In its early phase, the new Libyan establishment tried to depoliticize Islamists and restrict the political power of the ulema by integrating a certain version of Islamism with Arab nationalism.

One reason for this explicit integration of Islamism into state-building might be that, unlike Egypt and Turkey, Libya had lacked intensive exposure to the West until the 20th century and so Westernizers never formed a significant faction within the revolutionaries’ group who later formed the state elite.

Moreover, Ottoman support to the resistance movement against the Italian invasion in 1910 limited rejection of the Ottoman past compared to Egypt, while at the same time the appeal of pan-Islamism persisted.

Indeed, Gaddafi’s policies evolved into a form of pan-Islamism in the late 1970s, with Libya financing Islamist militia in several African countries. However, this resulted in Libya’s gradual international isolation by other African states and, more importantly, by the US in the 1980s.

What makes the Libyan case distinct from both the Turkish and Egyptian state- society relations is the extent to which Gaddafi went to redefine Islam.

The Turkish state elite was more interested in the political institutionalization of the Islamists and limiting religion to the private sphere, while the Egyptian establishment was concerned primarily with limiting the political power of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups, as well as the religious scholars.

In contrast, in Libya, under a more personalized form of rule than in Egypt, Gaddafi went as far as reinterpreting Koranic script. Initial collaboration between Libyan religious leaders and Qaddafi against the king soon turned into a struggle for power.

In Libya where Colonel Gaddafi kept a tighter control over all forms of political movements and activities than in Egypt, the Islamist Movement encountered serious obstacles and as a result it did not develop into a moderate movement as it had done in Egypt and Turkey.

As a result, Libya’s Islamists movement did not become more moderate, unlike what happened in Egypt and Turkey. Instead, militant Islamists resorting to political violence found wider appeal in Libyan society from the mid- 1980s onwards, with clashes between state security forces and radical Islamists intensifying into a civil war in the mid- 1990s.

In contrast to Egypt and other countries in the Middle East, the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya has been overshadowed by the strength of more radical groups.

Tunisia’s state elite has been relatively more secular and civilian than both the Egyptian and Libyan elites. Habib Bourguiba, the leader of the independence movement, was influenced by French socialism and shaped his party accordingly.

The Neo Destour Party, later renamed as the Destourian Socialist Party, established by defectors from the conservative Destour Party, also emphasized secularism and nationalism.

However, Bourguiba established a one-party state, which led to both the secular and Islamist opposition accusing the state elite of corruption and authoritarian policies, especially from the 1970s onwards.
In response, the Tunisian state first tried to utilize rising Islamism against the left by tolerating the former to a certain extent. Later, however, the gradual growth of the Islamic Tendency Movement (referred as MTI from its original French name) unsettled Tunisia’s rulers and the Bourguiba administration arrested and imprisoned MTI’s activists, and declared it illegal.

Thus, the Tunisian case resembles more the Turkish one than the Egyptian and Libyan cases with regard to state- society relations.

Both the Turkish and Tunisian state elites have pursued secularist policies so opposition to these policies has been anti-secular and anti-state in both countries.

However, a contrast to the Turkish case, the Tunisian military have not extensively intervened in politics although, as an authoritarian leader, Bourguiba did not refrain from resorting to use force to suppress labour strikes and uprisings in the early 1980s, despite his civilian background.

In doing so, however, he carefully used a special division named the Brigade of Public Order, thereby keeping the rest of the military out of domestic policies.

In Tunisia, therefore, the militray has not become part of the state elite and remained uninvolved in the country’s modernization project.

While the transfer of power from Bourguiba to Ben Ali, who was the Prime Minister, was not achieved democratically, it was not a clear coup d’état.

His fall started when in its efforts to prosecute the MTI, the Bourguiba government had charged the movement and its leader, Rachid al-Ghannouchi, of terrorist activities.

However, the court freed those charged and in response, Bourguiba ordered a retrial of 15 of the key leaders and demanded that 12 of them be hanged by the weekend, whereupon Ben Ali drew on Article 57 of the constitution to secure medical certification that the president was physically and mentally unable to rule.

Initially, Ben Ali’s rise to power allowed a rapprochement between the moderate Islamist MTI and the state elite, with Ben Ali capitalizing more on Islamic values to revitalize the legitimacy of the regime.

In 1989, although the Islamist movement, then renamed Ennahda, remained illegal, it was allowed to run with independent candidates in the first elections under Ben Ali’s rule. However, he still refused to legalize Islamist political groups in general and allow them to compete electorally as a political party.

From 1987 until he fled to Saudi Arabia in 2011, Ben Ali and the state elite prevented fair political competition; yet, they also followed Bourguiba’s policy of keeping the military out of the decision- making process, probably to prevent any potential threat to their power.


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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