8 February 2011
Fadi Hakura

Fadi Hakura

Associate Fellow, Europe Programme


The 'Turkish model' - a Muslim majority society that marries Islam with a free market economy and multi-party democracy, now led by a relatively moderate Islamist-rooted party - has been brought back into the spotlight by the recent unrest in Egypt.

Turkey has often been touted as an example for Egypt and the Middle East. Turkey and Egypt both have large young populations, powerful militaries and proactive Islamist political forces. However, beyond the surface similarities, the Turkish example does not necessarily offer a clear road map for Egypt and the region.

Reform of the Army

After 1949, the pro-Western Turkish military anchored Turkey in European institutions and traditions: for over sixty years, the men-in-uniform helped ensure free and fair elections and regular changeovers of government. Despite the four military coups, the daily running of the country was largely left to civilian politicians.

By contrast, the Egyptian military is deeply integrated in the political system, with generals-turned-politicians the rulers of the land. It has never sought to emulate Western political values or industrialize the Egyptian economy to the same extent as the Turkish military.

Islamists and the Economy

Turkey's Islamists underwent several decades of evolution under military and electoral pressure. Over time, they have come to embrace capitalism, piety and international outreach with gusto. Hence, the so-called 'Anatolian Tigers' - small and medium-sized socially conservative enterprises assisted by sympathetic governments - are thriving in new markets in the Middle East, Eurasia and Africa. It's no surprise that Turkish Islamists are the darlings of international investors.

Egypt's Islamists, in comparison, tend to be suspicious of economic globalization and will need many years to undergo a similar maturation to their Turkish counterparts, should they assume power. The latter accumulated managerial experience as mayors and legislators prior to assuming national power; Egyptian Islamists have not had such opportunities to hone their political skills.

A Work in Progress

The Turkish model is far from complete. Turkey's constitutional referendum in 2010 showed a deep ideological divide between socially conservative Anatolians and the more liberal coastal Turks. Winner-takes-all confrontational politics, hardly a good example for Egypt to follow, is increasingly the norm. Turkey still has much to do to improve the rule of law, civil liberties, religious tolerance and gender equality.

One can appreciate the interest in the Turkish model, but it is far from ideal for Egypt. Not only is Turkish democracy a product of specific historical circumstances not present in the Middle East, there is also an absence of robust institutional checks-and-balances to diminish the risks of majoritarian rule, such as the role the European Union has played in Turkey's recent history. Turkey is a source of inspiration for future political change but cannot yet act as a model.