In Egypt, a number of younger and more moderate Islamists have pointed to Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) as a source of inspiration, citing legal reform, successful economic management, and electoral victories as models to be emulated. In some policy quarters, Turkey has even been presented as an overall model for the Arab world—a characterization which derives largely from its seemingly unique ability to couple secular democracy with a predominantly Muslim society. But those who talk of “the Turkish model” misunderstand that country’s transformation; the coexistence of Islam and democracy have come to pass in Turkey not from the AKP’s development of institutional and political structures that accommodated both Islamic and democratic principles, but rather because Islamists themselves came to accept the secular-democratic framework of the Turkish state. 

This transformation primarily resulted from Turkey’s neoliberal transition in the eighties which would eventually lead to the emergence of a new class within Islamist constituencies—one that would became the force of ideological moderation. Economic liberalization created an organized class of powerful and devout businessmen from the provincial bourgeoisie who advocated greater political pragmatism and stability in addition to closer relations with the EU as a major trade partner. These moderate Islamists broke away and established the AKP in 2001.

As a conservative party representing neoliberal interests, the AKP has worked to downsize the state, establish greater political and economic stability, and construct friendly relations with the outside world. The party has not only increased its support in secular businesses and the middle classes, but also rendered the idea of a powerful state—which commands the economy as well as the lives of Muslims through Islamic principles—an obsolete one. For the most part, the AKP has maintained the basic constitutional and institutional structure of the Turkish state, but has enacted constitutional amendments for EU harmonization and curtailed the power of the military. In other words, Islam and democracy have become compatible in Turkey under neoliberalism.

Observers who credit other factors with this transformation—such as Turkey’s culture of secularism, pressures from the military, or its geographical proximity to the European Union—ignore the fact that Turkish Islamism hitherto had successfully resisted these influences which had been established long before the Islamism’s heyday in Turkey. Organized political Islam in Turkey resisted the transforming impact of secular democratic practices as well as pressure from the military and the broader establishment while remaining staunchly anti-western (anti-EU and anti-NATO) for close to three decades. 

Conversely, Egypt’s neoliberalism has mainly benefitted Mubarak regime cronies and failed to trickle down to smaller enterprises. There is no strong business constituency within the Islamist movement to insist on neoliberal reforms, a smaller state, or political pragmatism. The movement is dominated instead by professionals (doctors, engineers, teachers, and lawyers) who prefer a strong and expansive state as a source of employment, social security, and public goods. While the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) established by the Muslim Brotherhood supports private enterprise, such support should not be mistaken for support for neoliberalism. A closer look at FJP’s platform reveals that it reserves a substantial role for the state in production, planning, price regulation, social security, and job generation. Demands for greater social justice for wage earners and calls for an elimination of unemployment among the educated occupy an important place in the platform. The economic system that the FJP envisions is much closer to corporatism oriented towards import substitution and export promotion than it is to a neoliberal economy with a small state and free trade.  

Further economic reform is unlikely to generate the pragmatism that Turkish-model advocates envision for Egypt in the near future. Even if a new class of Islamists should flourish, as it did in Turkey, its ability to have an impact similar to the AKP will depend entirely on Islamist movements becoming full-fledged political parties. Unlike their Turkish counterpart, the Muslim Brotherhood is first and foremost a religious society; economic, political and cultural objectives are secondary to religious proselytization. The FJP relies on the existing rank and file of the Brotherhood for support in elections, and though the members of the Brotherhood fulfill the function of party organizers, they are recruited primarily by the Brotherhood in the name of da’wa (invitation to Islam). From there, they are organized according to a strict hierarchy and mobilized in the name of Islam rather than in terms of political or economic interests. The structure of the party reinforces religious priorities, undermines internal accountability, and casts a shadow of Muslim Brotherhood control over the FJP. The Brotherhood’s decision—accepted by the main body of the party itself—not to nominate a presidential candidate under the FJP is another demonstration of its subordination of the political to the religious. Unless the FJP evolves into an independent political organization accountable to its own constituency and oriented towards that constituency’s political interests, it can hardly become answerable to the Egyptian people.

In short, there is no “Turkish model” of an Islamist democracy; rather, there are Muslims in a secular-democratic state working within a neoliberal framework. Structural and institutional factors in Turkey are historically unique and it is highly unlikely that we will see a similar process unfold in Egypt. Under Islamist leadership, Egypt will seek another framework and one that will require the Islamist movement to separate its political and religious functions and allow for the political party to represent the aggregated interests of a voting demographic. And because of this, the task of Islamists in Egypt will be more difficult than that of their Turkish counterparts: they must shed deeply ingrained habits of hierarchy and proselytization to build a democratic system with unique institutions.

Sebnem Gumuscu is a political scientist specialized in Islamic political movements at Sabanci University in Istanbul.