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.


Transformation and the Arab Spring

It is possible to argue that the revolts of the Arab Spring failed most badly in Libya. After Gaddafi was killed, a militarist National Transition Council was established.

The Muslim Brotherhood established the Justice and Construction Party, but a bloc of moderate Islamists and liberals came first in the 2012 election and established an interim government to draft a new constitution. However, political violence has almost turned into civil war since then.

In general, transitions in the period following these Arab revolts have been painful, and each state still remains far from establishing a functioning democratic system.

Political Islam went through a remarkable transformation in this process, with both radical and moderate movements forming political parties and competing in elections.

The electoral process has been promising in this respect if we assume its moderating influence will continue. However, the secular-Islamist cleavage has nonetheless persisted.

The Islamists’ electoral successes, especially those of the Muslim Brotherhood, worry the secular and liberal opposition. This tension manifests itself most clearly in the constitution-making process regarding the role of Islamic law and the rights of women.

When the Tunisian National Constituent Assembly was drafting a new constitution in December 2012, the leading party, Ennahda, wanted to build the constitution on the basis of Sharia. However, the final draft was not based on Sharia, although in the Preamble and Article 1, Islam is declared as the state’s religion, while Article 73 states that the President must be a Muslim.

Sharia is only mentioned explicitly in Article 114 as the basis of financial law. Article 45 provides for gender equality and condemns violence against women.

The military’s exclusion from the political sphere is provided for by Article 17, which emphasizes that it has to be politically impartial and subordinate to the civilian authorities. Thus, in both state-society and civil-military relations, the draft Tunisian constitution sets a unique example for the MENA region.

In Egypt, by contrast, the constitutional process has been rather problematic. After ousting Mubarak, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) became an important political actor, even after the election of Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood as President.

The overthrow of the Morsi government in a coup d’état in July 2013 was therefore not surprising as is the influence of the military on drafting a new constitution. SCAF has been influential in the constitution-making process, especially with respect to elections and criminal law.

Since Mubarak’s arrest, the military establishment remained active and exercised its power during the writing of the constitution. It held power over and monitored the functioning of the constituent assembly, which led to the draft constitution in 2012. The President and SCAF struggled over the draft constitution on the issue of the distribution of powers.

The post-Arab Spring constitution of Egypt was finally approved by the President on December 26, 2012, thus replacing the 2011 Provisional Constitution of SCAF.

Regarding, the constitution’s religious content, Article 1 defines the Egyptian people as part of the umma. Article 2 states Islam as the religion of the state and subjects legislation to Sharia. Article 4 establishes Al-Azhar as the main source of Islamic knowledge.

Article 219 further stipulates that Sunni Islamic principles form the basis of the law. The draft constitution lacks any clear reference to gender equality; clauses regarding women were inserted within those on family and social policy instead, thus reinforcing traditional gender roles (Article 10).

The strength of the military establishment is also integrated into the constitution. According to Article 236, ‘All constitutional declarations that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the President of the Republic issued between 11 February 2011 and the entry into effect of the Constitution are hereby repealed. But their effects on the past remain in existence.’

This article may be interpreted as a guarantee that the initial enactments of the SCAF are not challenged. According to Article 147, the president also appoints military public servants, thereby subordinating the military to the president.

However, Article 195 states that the Minister of Defense will be appointed from among the members of the military, and there is also an autonomous military judiciary (Article 198). Although the draft was completed during Morsi’s time in office, the Muslim Brotherhood claims that the final draft has been altered by the post-coup government.

Of the three Arab countries discussed here, the constitution-making process is slowest in Libya. Libya’s lack of any electoral history and the absence of any basic political party organization certainly accounts for this situation.

In Egypt and Tunisia, there is at least the minimal institutional structure required for the dialogue necessary for drafting a constitution.

Libya’s ongoing civil strife also prevents the functioning of the constitutional committee. So far, therefore, the only achievement has been the approval of the Constitutional Drafting Commission electoral law, by which the 60 members of the constitution-making committee are elected so that all tribes and regions are represented.

In contrast to Tunisia, it is highly likely that Sharia will be the basis of the new constitution given the lack of a strong secular opposition. However, as of August 2014, there is not much progress in constitution-making due to the deep political divisions.

As this discussion of the draft constitutions reveals, the new states and their governments have not yet been able to settle issues regarding the secular-Islamist cleavage and civil-military relations.

Of the three countries, Tunisia appears to have the most liberal draft constitution because Islamic law does not form the basis of legislation although it is declared the state religion.

Notwithstanding, the military’s decision not to use force against anti-government demonstrations, which allowed Tunisia’s former state elite to be overthrown, the military establishment has been kept out of the constitution-making process and carefully subordinated to civilian control in the constitution.

However, the secular opposition is still suspicious of the incumbent government’s intentions to put the Islamic law in effect if it expands its power base in the upcoming elections.

In the Egyptian constitution, Sharia is used as the basis of legislation, with the institutional authority of Al-Azhar scholars being explicitly recognized.

The constitution also empowers the military. Given that the democratically elected Islamist government was toppled by the military, prospects for a functioning civilian political system are not promising in the near future.

However, Libya’s situation is the grimmest, with even basic institutions not functioning, tribal social structures persisting, and the armed forces divided while the country has collapsed into civil war.

Concluding Remarks: Turkey as a Model?

As this paper’s comparative analysis reveals, it is hard to conclude that Turkey can constitute a model for MENA countries. From the three periods analyzed, the founding of the pre and post Arab Spring periods, it is clear that the Turkish experience with democracy is unique due to its specific historical background and the political culture of Turkish society.

Its state- building process has followed a specific trajectory, marked by a high degree of Westernization and modernization. Although there had been military interventions in Turkish political history, the strong adherence to the Kemalist principles prevented the military from staying in power for long periods.

Eventually, Turkey’s accession process to the European Union has proved to be a major factor in bringing about the transformation of the military’s traditional role in Turkish politics, which rendered future coup d’états almost impossible.

Turkey’s democracy, however, still needs to be further consolidated. In this respect, the relationship between the state elites and political elites are of utmost importance.

The state elite who perceived themselves as the guardians of the Republican principles saw the politicization of Islam as a major threat and want the state to control the practice and public visibility of religion.

The political elites argue that secularism, imposed from above, was not embraced by the masses and attempt to take measures that will make public life more suitable for practicing Muslims.

The mutual suspicion and contempt have driven both sides to resort to non-democratic methods. Being part of the state elite, the military is mobilized against the political elites.

The political elites did not take the worries of the secular opposition into consideration in decision and policy-making; and, as the recent developments reveal, they fabricated law cases without solid evidence to undermine the credibility of the prominent members of the bureaucratic and military establishment.

In other words, democracy has not been the only game in the town. However, it is possible to be optimistic for the future. The legal reforms have curbed the political powers of the military and awareness of the negative repercussions of military interventions seems to have developed in the last few years.

The Gezi protests, on the other hand, reveal that Turkish society, despite being conservative on average, despises authoritarianism and intervention in the life-styles of the people.

In future, the state elites are more likely to refrain from relying on the extra-parliamentary actors and the political elites have to recognize the civilian secular opposition. However, at its current stage, the Turkish political system does not resolve its problems with respect to the state- society relations, and its flaws prevent the country from being a model for any other country.

Besides, the state elites and the political elites mean two different things when they talk about the Turkish model, and both are problematic: the former suffers from elitism and militarism, while the latter tends to be authoritarian on the inside and expansionist/revisionist on the outside.

No matter how it is formulated, the Turkish model appears unacceptable to Middle Eastern public opinion, which can be explained as resulting from lingering resentment of Turkey’s Ottoman past.

Research indicates that the level of positive support to Turkey playing a greater role in the region has consistently declined in the last three years. As the Neo-Ottoman’s discourse of the JDP period indicates, relations between Turkey and Arab countries are shaped by history on both sides.

On the one hand, Turkey’s ruling party the AKM apparently views Turkey as a regional leader with historical experience of ruling the MENA region. On the other hand, Arab leaders and public opinion resent the Turkish model for similar historical reasons, and from an entirely opposite perspective.

Turkey’s interventions in the internal conflicts of the countries in the region are identified as one of the main reasons why Turkey cannot be a model for the region. In other words, Turkey’s activism in the region appears to be perceived as a patronizing act.

Constitution-making processes in the aftermath of the revolts also reveal that the history of state-society relations and civil- military relations conditioned Egypt, Tunisia and Libya in a different way than Turkey.

Despite the tension between the secularists and Islamists in Turkey, the level of secularization at the social and constitutional level is incomparable to these countries.

As far as the civil-military relations are concerned, the legal reforms in Turkey have so far strengthened the autonomy of the civilians from the military.

The military remains a very strong political actor in both Egypt and Libya and is empowered by constitutional rights. Tunisian politics and the new constitution have been more civilian than the Turkish one, yet not more secular.

Overall, it can be concluded that the Turkish model does not seem to appeal to the bureaucrats and politicians in these countries.


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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