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Egypt eyes Turkey's example
CAIRO -- Now that Egypt has its first freely elected president, Egypt's generals appear headed toward copying the Turkish model from decades past -- retaining overwhelming powers while allowing a civilian regime complete with the trappings of democracy to emerge.
It is not the model that many in today's Turkey boast about, but rather one dating back to the 1980s and 1990s when civilians ran Turkey's day-to-day affairs under the watchful eyes of the military.
Egypt's ruling generals went for a power grab even before the winner of a presidential runoff -- Mohammed Morsi of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood -- was announced Sunday.
The two sides are now thought to be negotiating a power-sharing deal behind closed doors. The military currently retains full legislative powers, controls the drafting of a new and permanent constitution and has the final say on foreign policy and security.
The seeds for such an arrangement were planted soon after longtime Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in February 2011, when Egypt's generals ordered an Arabic translation of Turkey's 1982 constitution, according to Middle East expert Steven Cook of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations. The document empowered Turkey's military to police the political arena.
Wahid Abdel-Maguid, a political insider who has been a key player during Egypt's transition, agrees that Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi and other generals on the ruling military council are seeking to replicate the Turkish model.
"The generals mainly want a unique status in the constitution, to be independent from the executive authority and even stronger than it," Abdel-Maguid said. The military "will be the one steering the country's policy in the future directly or indirectly."
The Turkish military of the 1980s and 1990s sought domination to protect the secular nature of the state. Although Egypt was never as secular as Turkey, the Egyptian generals similarly seem largely motivated by their desire to prevent the Islamic Brotherhood from gaining a monopoly on power.
But Turkey has changed over the past decade. The military's political clout has largely been broken by a government led by moderate Islamists with a strong electoral mandate and a public commitment to secular politics.
"Model might not be a suitable word. But Turkey can be an aspiration point for Arab countries," said Kamer Kasim, vice president of the Ankara-based International Strategic Research Organization. "Turkey has a large Muslim population. It is secular and it has been experiencing democracy for a long time. I think Arab countries can take great lessons from Turkey's bad experiences" -- such as a string of military coups over the decades.
The Egyptian military's quest for ultimate power is understandable given its role as the de facto ruler of the country since the overthrow of the monarchy some 60 years ago. All four presidents since then had military backgrounds. More recently, the military has built a vast economic empire that accounts for more than a quarter of Egypt's gross domestic product, according to some estimates.
Besides the powers it grabbed just as the polls closed on the second day of presidential runoff voting, the military has created a council that will serve as the nation's top executive body on defense and foreign policies.
The president and prime minister will serve on the council but will be outnumbered by army generals, with decisions adopted by majority vote.
Armed with a court ruling, the military this month dissolved a freely elected legislature dominated by the Brotherhood.
Details of what is being discussed behind closed doors between the Brotherhood and the military are sketchy, but analyst Gamal Abdel-Gawad of Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies believes the conflict between the two sides will continue.
"They will reach an understanding that will be shaky, and the struggle will linger since their interests clash and there is little common ground between them," he said.
Signs of that accommodation, even if temporary, were evident in an address by Morsi after his win was announced, lavishly praising the armed forces for its role since the ouster of Mubarak 16 months ago.
Of course, an evolution for Egypt into something more along the lines of today's Turkey is hardly guaranteed.
Oytun Orhan, an expert at the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies in Ankara, said Christians and other minorities in Egypt are concerned about the rise of Islamists and might be more open to a military role in politics as an undesirable but necessary counterpoint.
"Islamists shouldn't use democracy as a tool," he said. "Islamists must inspire confidence in all parts of society. Otherwise, there won't be any stability in Arab Spring countries."
By most accounts, Turkey is a success story, at least in terms relative to the Middle East region. As a NATO ally, it has leverage in the West. It resembles a beacon of prosperity and democratic politics to Muslims in countries emerging from authoritarian rule like Egypt, or still in its bloody grip like Syria.
This idea has both potential and limitations, just as Turkish leaders have calibrated the idea that they have a central role in the history unfolding on their doorstep.
Their ambivalence reflects Turkey's close historical and cultural links to the Middle East and North Africa, much of which was ruled by the Ottoman Empire in past centuries, and an awareness of the sensitivities of populations that want to carve their own destinies without a foreign patron whose prescriptions won't work in every case.
Turkey hosts Syrian opposition groups, and therefore has some measure of direct influence over figures who might eventually assume the Syrian leadership if President Bashar Assad cedes power or is ousted. Those groups have struggled to coalesce, despite encouragement from Turkey and its Western and Arab allies to form a viable alternative to Assad, raising fears of a protracted period of instability in Syria.
In a recent interview with the Cairo Review, a policy journal of the American University in Cairo, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said every country has its own "unique characteristics," but noted that Turkey had proved the compatibility between democracy and secularism in a predominantly Muslim society and could therefore inspire countries in transition, including Egypt.
"We do not want to present ourselves, nor to be seen, as a role model," he said in the interview. "It took years of democratic experimentation for Turkey to arrive at the current stage. ... If needed, Turkey remains ready to share her own democratic experience with all interested countries."
But for Egypt to aspire to a political system similar to that of today's Turkey -- a military restricted to the defense of the nation and a government enjoying a strong popular base -- Morsi's Brotherhood must give up its longtime dream of imposing Islamic Shariah laws on the country and instead strike a moderate course.
"Morsi has to assuage the anxieties of large sectors of Egyptians who fear the Islamists," said Abdel-Maguid. "Only then can they confront the military."