By Ömer Taşpinar
16 February 2014
When Olivier Roy wrote his famous book “The Failure of Political Islam” in the early 1990s, he argued that political Islam, as a project that wished to deal with questions of governance, politics and public administration, had precious little to offer.
It was, therefore, failing as a political project but had some future as a social project with a vision of neo-fundamentalism based on an idealized past. Today, what we are facing in a post-Arab Spring and post-Turkish model Middle East is a new type of failure for political Islam's future.
In the wake of the Egyptian revolution that paved the road for a post-Mubarak Egypt and where the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) came to power, there was great hope for political Islam. Finally, Islamists had come to power in the most important country of the Arab world. More important was the way the MB came to power. The ascent of the MB was the product of democratic elections, not an Islamic revolution as in Iran. In that sense, the new government of Egypt was a rare example of political Islam's legitimate and democratic ascent. The only other comparable example in the region was Turkey's Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Today, we can argue that these Egyptian and Turkish examples of political Islam with their peaceful, democratic and legitimate rise to power have managed to disappoint. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt became the victim of a military coup; but any objective analysis should also accept that the MB was also the victim of its own incompetence and authoritarianism. Ideally, the party should have been punished at the polls by the Egyptian people, instead of being taken out by a military coup. But millions of Egyptians and the military feared that there may not be democratic elections in the future if they waited for years for the next election. The net result is that political Islam in Egypt failed its crucial test with governance miserably. The MB is now underground and the old dynamics of authoritarianism are making a tragic comeback in Egyptian politics. The military leader of the coup, Gen. Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, is sure to run as a presidential candidate in an election he is sure to win.
What about political Islam's failure in the Turkish model? Today, the Turkish model of democracy, good governance and regional influence is unravelling. The country is becoming increasingly authoritarian and unstable. The brutal suppression of protests during the summer of 2013 and increasing restrictions on freedom of expression and recent corruption scandals have exposed a different face of Turkey. Coupled with a loss of regional influence in the wake of the Syrian civil war, the positive image of a democratic, prosperous and influential country has been replaced by authoritarianism in domestic politics, cronyism and corruption in the economy and deadlock in foreign policy.
Unlike what many have predicted, the Turkish model is not coming to an end because of a clash between Islam and secularism. Instead, the real conflict is between “electoral” democracy and liberalism. The Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has a tendency to reduce democracy to elections. His populist understanding of politics comes at the expense of individual rights and liberties, an independent media and separation between the legislative, executive and judiciary powers. These crucial attributes of liberal democracy are either missing or in their infancy in Turkey.
History will probably remember Erdoğan as an agent of change who failed to truly liberalize and democratize Turkey. The rise and fall of the Turkish model under his rule is the tale of “illiberal” democracies with weak democratic institutions and political traditions. As a result, the old type of Turkish authoritarianism, where military and bureaucratic elites used to call the shots, is being replaced by another type of civilian, democratically elected authoritarianism. In short, in both Turkey and Egypt, political Islam had a chance to truly democratize the country. Yet, today Turkey is becoming more authoritarian under the AKP and Egypt is reverting to its old days of military tutelage partly as a failure of the Muslim Brotherhood to provide good governance. It is time to admit defeat for political Islam.