When President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed victory on April 16, following a narrow win of the “Yes” campaign, he marked a turning point in the country’s history. The referendum set the stage to restructure Turkey’s parliamentary democracy into a presidential republic, a profound change that none of the six prior constitutional referendums since the foundation of the Turkish republic had ever sought. By concentrating decision-making in the presidency, the changes will likely undermine the separation of powers and institutionalize an executive presidency with minimal institutional checks and balances. Although it was a close and contested victory on a skewed playing field, Turkey under Erdogan is beginning to look a lot like another presidency with unchecked powers: Egypt.Until recently, the countries often appeared as mirror images: In Turkey, the military lost its grip on Ankara after 2002 as the country embarked on a path of liberalization, whereas clientelist structures and autocratic elites persisted in the “Officers’ Republic” after Egypt’s short experiment with democracy after 2011. These inverse trajectories affect today’s perception of Turkey as a “faltering democracy” and of Egypt as a case of “authoritarian comeback.” Notably, it has led to stronger international criticism of authoritarian policies in Turkey as compared to Egypt under Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi. Western policymakers appeared to easily accept Mohammad Morsi’s ouster in favor of a normalization of bilateral relations. When it comes to Turkey, they appear more concerned seeing the erosion of the democratic system they thought stable.
However, historical labels no longer seem to fit. They conceal that the distinguishing lines between democracy and authoritarianism in the region are fading. Middle Eastern regimes are now moving toward hybrid forms of governance marked by a concentration of power in a formally democratic setup. Sisi’s Egypt and Erdogan’s Turkey are prime examples of this trend of a “convergence of governance.” Political turmoil has led both countries to converge at a point where democratic institutions are present, yet defunct; where civic rights exist, but are curtailed; and where decisions are made by an elected yet unaccountable leadership. Past differences in each country’s governance have been reduced to differing degrees of civil liberty.
Even here the gap is closing: In many global indices measuring civil liberties, Egypt and Turkey have significantly dropped in rankings over the past few years. The Committee to Protect Journalists ranks Turkey as the country with most journalists behind bars – 81 as of December 2016 – closely followed by Egypt with at least 25. Reporters Without Borders lists both countries’ leaders as “Predators of Press Freedom.” Notably, this convergence was initiated by military coups. While analysts tend to point to these coups as a factor that sets each case apart – a coup successfully toppled a government in Egypt but failed to do so in Turkey – this focuses only on how the coup played out for its perpetrators. In Egypt, the military has successively expanded both its political and its civil economic activities since Sisi assumed leadership of the state, whereas in Turkey it has been politically sidelined since the coup attempt. But thinking of the military coups instead as disruptive domestic interventions of the armed forces, both have reconfigured political decision-making. Today both Egypt and Turkey are ruled under emergency law by populist strongmen, both formally elected but highly polarizing. In yet another convergence, Egypt recently returned to a state of emergency after two Coptic churches were bombed on April 9. Turkey followed suit by extending the state of emergency imposed in July 2016, and which was due to expire on April 17, a day after the referendum.
The exclusive governing style of President Morsi may have heralded the revival of authoritarian policies in Egypt, yet since summer 2013 the authoritarian regression has gained pace. A plethora of legal provisions have restricted the public sphere; state security institutions abuse their powers against civil society representatives; and torture, arbitrary detention, and enforced disappearances have become recurrent phenomena. Likewise in Turkey, the authoritarian rollback arguably started before the coup attempt. The Gezi Park protests serve as a visible reminder that the assault on civil rights has been ongoing since 2013. However, it was undoubtedly following the bombing of Parliament and the deployment of troops against civilians in the night of July 15, 2016 that this authoritarian tendency was lifted to a new level, both in the intensity and scope of repression. The authoritarian backlash to the coup attempt manifests today in the vilification of political dissent, the persecution of political enemies and vast restrictions to freedom of information. A purge of alleged coup sympathizers in the public sector has left 47,000 people detained and 120,000 public employees suspended. The figures begin to reach those from Egypt, where it is estimated that around 60,000 are imprisoned for political reasons.
The legitimation of authoritarian policies is also similar in both countries. Both administrations thrive on a moralist and pious discourse. While Turkey is governed by a party rooted in a conservative Islamic doctrine, the case of Egypt illustrates how the politicization of religion is not contingent on Islamist rule. To shore up the regime’s religious credentials, authorities frequently justify infringements on civil liberties as protecting public morals, and President Sisi has called for a “religious revolution” in a conservative discourse that has blended with nationalist and patriotic lingo.
These populist policies and rhetoric have deeply polarized the Egyptian and Turkish societies. To mobilize support, both Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AK Party) and the Sisi administration resort to adversarial framing. Their constituents are portrayed as the true representatives of the nation, while political opponents are identified as enemies of the state. In Egypt, this role was assigned to the Muslim Brotherhood, which is targeted by a vicious crackdown. In Turkey, the “cleansing” of the state has, above all, affected supporters of the Gulen Movement, who are blamed for the 2016 coup attempt. The narrative of a war against terrorism has become key in the vilification of these two groups. In Egypt, the 2014 constitution enshrined the state’s fight against “all types and forms of terrorism” and respectively endowed security services with a broad mandate. Since then, the regime has gradually expanded its definition of terrorism to include all kinds of dissidents. Likewise, in Turkey alleged Gulen sympathizers are branded and prosecuted as terrorists, and the government publicly refers to the movement only as the Fethullah Terrorist Organization. Ahead of the referendum, this framing was extended to include other opposition, as the government publicly equated “No” voters with terrorist groups.
Examining these points of convergence is more than a comparative exercise. Instead, the realization that similar modes of illiberal governance are taking root in both countries despite different historical vantage points can compel policymakers to adapt their expectations and policies to empirical realities. For example, the experience of postcoup Egypt could foreshadow what may still come in Turkey. Prime Minister Binali Yildirim vowed on April 16 that the vote had opened a new page in the history of democracy in Turkey – but as Sisi’s Egypt forewarns, the opposite seems far more likely. The revision and repeal of 76 articles of the Turkish constitution will come into effect only after the next elections in 2019. This leaves some time to pressure the Turkish administration to moderate their polarizing rhetoric, embrace more inclusive policies, and respect basic civil rights, lest the country follow the Egyptian model.
Jannis Grimm is a doctoral fellow at the Berlin Graduate School Muslim Cultures and Societies in Germany and a visiting researcher at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Florence, Italy. Follow him on Twitter @jannisgrimm. This commentary first appeared at Sada, an online journal published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (www.carnegieendowment.org/sada).
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 29, 2017, on page 7.