Turkey-Tunisia, Two Experiences of “Islamist Power”

The new century has seen the rise to power of political parties of the Islamist persuasion, both in Turkey and the Arab world. The most successful examples are the Turkish Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Ennahdha in Tunisia. A comparison between these two experiences can be enlightening.

AKP Meeting, 2015.

There are countless areas of divergence—ethnic, cultural, linguistic and historical—between Turkey and the Arab world. And yet though we observe constant tensions in the ways Turks and Arabs have viewed one another since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, powerful similarities do bind together the various movements of political Islam in their quest for the ideal form of government. And their theoreticians and cadres exchange ideas. Thus, all the Muslim Brotherhood authors have been translated into Turkish, in particular the writings of Sayyid Quib and Hassan Al-Banna. Starting in the seventies but above all in the eighties, Arab-Turkish business associations and NGOs with ties to Islamist political formations have been exchanging information about their respective experiences in the quest for power. Necmettin Erbakan1 and his entourage have never concealed their affinities with the Brotherhood, especially its Egyptian branch. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who for many years was Erbakan’s disciple and faithful consort, also cultivated a close relationship with the Brotherhood. He first took power in 2002 and has won every election since then, thus acquiring unparalleled experience in the exercise of power which has made Turkey a model in the post-Ottoman environment.2

Until 2013, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) could boast an enviable record for its management of the economy, and its handling of domestic and foreign policies. The liberalisation and growth of the national economy has lifted Turkey to the seventeenth rank worldwide, contributed to the formation of a powerful middle class and improved standards of living in all walks of society3. Politically, during its first two terms of office, the AKP promoted the democratisation of the country, weakening the army’s hold over the civil authorities, reforming the penal code and improving the lot of ethnic and religious minorities. In the area of foreign policy, the party has earned Turkey a major role in the region, with an influence and attractiveness unparalleled in the history of the Republic. It has conducted an effective diplomacy, has been able to mediate many conflicts among its neighbours, and has extended a form of “soft power” well beyond the country’s habitual sphere of influence.

Looking to Ankara

It was therefore quite natural that in 2011 the Brotherhood should have taken its cue from the AKP4. Some regarded the AKP regime as a model to be copied, others only wanted to adapt it, still others to study the model and redesign it altogether in the light of their own experience and actual practices of power. In the new Arab world which was beginning to emerge, political parties bearing almost identical names were formed. In Morocco there appeared the Parti de la Justice et du développement (PJD) a direct reference to the Turkish AKP. In Egypt, Mohamed Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Party proclaimed its affinity with the AKP, praised for its good governance. And as for Tunisia, Ennahdha and its leader Rached Ghannouchi openly displayed their determination to follow the Turkish example, praising its democratic virtues and economic performances.

However, after 2013, Turkey’s image as a “star pupil,” champion of the fusion between Islam and democracy, began to lose its lustre. Challenged from all sides, the AKP took an authoritarian turn and no longer inspired dreams. It was no longer the rising star of political Islam, and we will never know whether its dictatorial transformation was caused by the failures of the “Arab Spring” or whether these were caused by its own failings. Whatever the case, Turkey and the AKP model became a counter-model.

The 2013 turning

When did the turning begin? Some detect a hardening in 2011, when the AKP had easily won its third consecutive election, and Erdoğan is supposed to have believed he could apply his hidden Islamist agenda. This analysis is preferred by those who believe there is an essential incompatibility between Islamism and democracy, and that the evolution of the AKP is marked by a hidden determination to infiltrate the institutions of the Republic and subordinate them to a higher law. And yet at the time, the regime was still committed to a logic of dialogue. In particular, it was still introducing reforms on the Kurdish issue, with the support of the main pro-Kurdish party, and making efforts to satisfy the demands of the Alevi minority.

The real break came in 2013 when an ecological protest movement broke out over the trees in Istanbul’s Gezi Park, an issue which soon gave way to broader demands, political, cultural and identity-focused. This mass movement caused the implosion of a political system which was already undermined by a dramatic regional situation: Turkey was bogged down in the Syrian crisis and embarrassed by the difficulties of Mohamed Morsi’s government in Egypt. When Morsi, the first democratically elected president in the country’s history, was overthrown, the deafening silence of the West added a dose of cynicism to Erdoğan’s political vision.

To maintain law and order, he cracked down severely on the Gezi protests, thereby confirming his own frailty and vulnerability. The security climate steadily worsened with the weakening of a central authority abandoned by its regional allies on the Syrian issue. It was then that Erdoğan lost one of his most precious allies, the Kurdish national movement which had looked to him as the instigator of a sea change on that question. It was also against the background of the Syrian crisis that he lost his other allies of the period, the Gülen Movement and its powerful networks which had infiltrated the police and the judicial system.

After the failed coup in the summer of 2016, the power structure tightened its grip even more. Isolated in Turkey and having lost its regional and international allies, it abandoned its former preference for dialogue and set about restoring by force a political and social order under threat.

Favouring consensus and debate

How does Ennahdha in Tunisia, which has often declared its models to be the AKP and the Christian Democrats of Europe, perceive these developments? When questioned as to their model and source of inspiration, the Nahdhawi showed a preference for the AKP rather than the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, despite its greater historical, cultural and linguistic proximity. The relations between Ennahdha activists and the AKP began before the “Arab Spring” uprisings, when the AKP, even prior to its electoral victories, promoted language-learning stays in Arab countries for Turkish citizens of Arab descent in order to train specialists of those regions. One of the spokespersons for the AKP and counsellor to President Erdoğan is Yasin Aktay, a Turkish Arab who was educated in the Arab world and knows it well.

And yet the Ennahdha leadership remain fervently attached to consensus and dialogue in their exercise of power, although it is true that they have no choice since the Tunisian electoral law does not allow any single party to win a parliamentary majority. As soon as they came to power in 2011, they demonstrated their capacity to work in coalition with different formations. In the 2014 elections they experienced a pronounced setback, with 27% of the vote, which made them only the second largest force in parliament. Since then, Ennahdha has been part of a coalition government in which it is underrepresented considering the size of its electorate and has shown no signs of trying to impose an Islamist agenda. On all the major societal issues, secularised as part of the Bourguiba heritage, but called into question today, such as polygamy, the sharia or, to a lesser extent, inheritance equality between the sexes, Ennahdha’s positions do not differ fundamentally from those of the other parties. In this respect it has followed the same line as the AKP which, until now, has not implemented an openly Islamist agenda.

Recently, however, Erdoğan’s party has shown worrisome signs of trying to intrude upon the private lives of the population, so that by comparison Ennahdha’s participation in a ruling coalition seems far more democratic. During 2016, each of these parties held its congress. Ennahdha decided to split its modus operandi into two parts, dawa (preaching) and siyasa (politics) and to make overtures to non-Islamists, who may now join the party more easily than before. On that occasion also, the party displayed a determination to function more democratically, or at least on a more consensual basis, through debate and exchanges between the three ruling bodies of the party, i.e. the chairman, the maktab tanfidhi (elected executive committee) and the majlis shura (council of representatives).

The roles to be assigned to these three entities were the object of hot debate. Ghannouchi’s own positions were challenged by all the delegates. Another internal debate on the party’s successes and failures allowed for a review of past experience and a constructive evaluation. Chairman Ghannouchi clearly emphasised the importance of these debates and criticisms in the life of the party.5

Erdoğan and Ghannouchi, two contrasting personalities

At the same time, on the other shore of the Mediterranean, the atmosphere was completely different, with the exclusion of Ahmet Davutoglu, Prime Minister and party Chairman until then, and his replacement by Erdoğan in a quasi-plebiscitary manner. The AKP Congress denied itself any self-criticism and refrained from any debate over the choices of its leader Erdoğan.

If we linger briefly on the personalities of the chairmen of these two parties, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Rached Ghannouchi, the comparison is easily to the advantage of the latter. Aside from the fact that both are followers of political Islam, they are worlds apart, from their itineraries as activists and politicians to their personal character traits.

First, Erdoğan is a seasoned fighter, he has fought his way up in politics through a long ascension which led from his neighbourhood to the presidency of the Republic. Not content with having risen to the top, he has endowed himself with full executive powers through tailor-made reforms. Conversely, Ghannouchi is less a politician than an intellectual, a theoretician of political Islam who has risen to the rank of near-chief of state unexpectedly and almost by accident, propelled by the course of history. Erdoğan is the object of a veritable cult within his party, whereas Ghannouchi’s authority, like his ideas and his options, are still subjects of debate, criticised and challenged by the Ennahdha membership. Does this make Ennahdha a more democratic Islamist movement than the AKP? The answer to the question is not self-evident, because the two parties exist in very different environments with different rules and different power relationships. But it must be admitted that the most democratic of the two is not as was originally supposed. The AKP, seen as a model of liberal development, open and moderate in its debates and reflections on political Islam, has foundered on the shoals of growing authoritarianism.

The Syrian factor

Is this to say that a party’s efforts to democratise rest solely on the personality of its leader? Can we claim that the more democratic functioning of Ennahdha is a direct consequence of its chairman Ghannouchi’s personality, more conciliatory than that of his counterpart, Erdoğan? No, because other factors must be taken into account. And first of all, the political context in that region of the world, which has largely determined the AKP’s authoritarian drift. Indeed, after 2013, the Syrian crisis, which degenerated into a ghastly civil war and spilled out beyond its borders to become a regional security crisis, have made the AKP less flexible. The violent repression of those Gezi protests which looked to be the birth of a “Turkish spring,” the throttling of the Gülen movement, and the stifling of the press are less to be viewed as demonstrations of power as proof that the regime feels fragile and vulnerable, and that this authoritarianism is a measure of self-defence.

Ennahdha reached a position of power in 2011, having taken stock of the AKP’s first ten years in power in Turkey, its successes and its mistakes. While this gave it an undeniable advantage in terms of theory, Tunisia is also a smaller country, ethnically and religiously more homogeneous. In its governance, Ennahdha ought to run into fewer obstacles and be able to avoid the pitfalls which have beset the Turkish regime.

Does this second historic attempt at a symbiosis between Islam and nascent forms of democracy mean that Ennahdha already bears the stamp of victory? Insofar as the party has not implemented an Islamist agenda in the country under its care, one can hardly speak of symbiosis, let alone of victory in this respect. So the question is this: does Ennahdha’s restraint regarding Islamist ideology, whether due to self-censorship or to a deliberate renunciation in view of the way the Turkish experiment has turned out, not constitute in itself a failure of political Islam to impose its ideas in a democratic context?

1One of the founding fathers of Turkish political Islam, Necmettin Erbakan won major elections which took him to the threshold of power in 1974. In 1996 he was Prime Minister in a coalition government but the army forced him to resign in 1997.

2Jana Jabour, La Turquie. L’invention d’une diplomatie émergente, Éditions CNRS, Paris, 2017.

3Soner Çağaptay, The Rise of Turkey: The Twenty-First Century’s First Muslim Power, Potomac Books, 2014. — p. 184

4John L. Esposito, Tamara Sonn, John O. Voll, Islam and Democracy after the Arab Spring, Oxford University Press, 2016.

5Monica Marks, « Tunisia’s Islamists and the Turkish Model, Journal of Democracy, Volume 28, No. 1, 2017 ; p. 102-115.