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Lessons for Egypt and Turkey: democracy is more than winning elections

Commentary: Military coups do not advance the cause of democracy.
Turkey protests 2013_07_01Enlarge
Turkish protesters clash with Turkish riot policemen on Taksim Square in Istanbul, Turkey on June 22. (Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — With the ouster of Mohammed Morsi and the ongoing violence in Egypt, many are asking whether the military’s intervention will ultimately solve Egypt’s political and economic crisis.

According to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who faced his own public protests last month, the answer to that question is a decided “no.” In chorus, Erdoğan and Turkish opposition leaders across the political spectrum defined as a coup the removal of the Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi by the military.

The consensus among Turkish political leaders is not at all surprising. The military intervened in Turkish politics in 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997. Each coup was preceded by a period of economic and political crises marked by public protests and often violence too.

As a result, some of the politicians removed from power were executed, others languished in prison while others saw their political careers and personal lives suffer. More importantly, many civilians died needlessly or suffered untold human rights abuses. In the end, however, Turkey learned its lesson in an unequivocal manner: military coups do not help to resolve political crises let alone advance the cause of democracy.

Early in June, Erdoğan faced public protests that rocked the country in a manner unseen since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002. There were a string of causes cited for the protests in Turkey. The Prime Minister’s authoritarian or majoritarian understanding of democracy was the most widely cited. Yet, Erdoğan saw in the protests the making of a coup.

This was reflected in the set of conspiracy theories that his government chose to rely on to explain the protests rather than recognize them as a manifestation of the freedom to peacefully assemble. The result, as we all witnessed, was the aggravation of an already difficult situation.

At the same time, however, Erdoğan pointed to the ballot box as the only legitimate method in a democracy for replacing the government. For all his mistakes and ills, Morsi also repeated that same point in the days prior to the intervention.

The crowds that repeatedly filled Tahrir Square to protest Morsi’s rule and the estimated 20 million who petitioned against his rule were also responding to what they perceived to be an authoritarian and exclusionist government that was incapable of addressing the country’s economic problems.

They were clearly deeply frustrated and with good reason. But a military intervention was the wrong choice of action. They would have been better off channeling their energy into the parliamentary elections that were set to be held before the end of this year, rather than depend on the military.

The ballot box would have given the public a chance to hold Morsi’s economic and political performance accountable. Instead, Morsi and his supporters, who also have come out into the squares in their millions, rightly feel themselves robbed of their legitimate and decisively won right to govern.

They now will take a deeply critical if not cynical view of the virtues of democracy, to speak nothing of liberalism. Egypt will find itself divided between those who paradoxically aspire to achieve democracy through a military intervention rather than the ballot box and those who are deeply suspicious of democracy.

Under the given circumstances, Erdoğan is right. The only panacea is free and fair elections even when leaders show little care, respect or understanding for those who are not part of their majorities.

It is only through elections that electoral politics and effective opposition stand a chance to legitimately replace those in power. The alternative is chaos, instability and endless recriminations that would serve no one’s interests. Neither the majorities, nor the minorities would benefit in such a case, let alone the region or the West.

Now that the tanks are out in the streets, it may now be too late for Egypt to take the course of the ballot box. The lesson for the future is both to heed Erdoğan’s point about elections and to recognize that military coups do not help advance the cause of democracy. The greater challenge in Egypt as well as in Turkey is to appreciate that there is more to democracy than simply winning elections.

Kemal Kirişci is a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy Program and director of the Turkey Project at Brookings Institution in Washington, DC.

 

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