What just happened in Egypt? Let’s call it the Turkish Solution.
The First World War did not end neatly in the Middle East — or anywhere else. The Ottoman Empire quit fighting a week before the armistice on the Western Front, and two weeks later the capital at Istanbul was occupied by Entente troops. But that was hardly the end of it.
There were two different peace treaties. First came the Treaty of Sèvres, which chopped up the Ottoman Empire about as neatly (and completely) as the European powers had carved up Africa 45 years prior. But Sèvres was never ratified by the Turkish parliament, as the Brits had dissolved it already. And anyway, Mustafa Kemal Pasha wasn’t having it, and set up his own post-Ottoman government in Ankara.
Naturally, that led to more fighting — the Turkish War of Independence. This time the Turks won. The resulting Treaty of Lausanne was much more generous, and gave Turkey the borders it still has today. (OK, except for Iskenderun, but that was a trifle.)
Mustafa Kemal Pasha also changed his name to Kemal Atatürk (“father of the Turks”) and went about modernizing and westernizing his new country as quickly as he dared — and gave us the Turkey we know today. Or at least the Turkey we knew up until a few years ago, before Atatürk’s westernization gave way to a sort of creeping Islamization.
Atatürk was an idealist. He knew Turkey needed a democratic republic if it was to become western and modern. But he was also a realist, who knew that the Turks were not fully ready for the responsibilities of self-governance. So Atatürk gave the military a special role, one that would make us here in the West rightly aghast. Put simply: When the civilian government became too corrupt or strayed from the overarching goal of westernization, the guys with guns would show up and set things right. After an appropriate time (determined by the army, of course) the army would stand down and civilian politicians would resume power.
It was never pretty, but it mostly worked.
And Atatürk’s Turkish Solution is very much like what just happened in Egypt — albeit de facto rather than du jure; an ad hoc coup, rather than a careful design. What Atatürk meant for the Turkish army to do in a crisis, the Egyptian army has done as a desperate measure. It’s also not stretching the truth even a whisker to say that your typical Egyptian in 2011 is not much more ready for the full rigors of republican democracy than your typical Turk in 1924.
So, having an ex-spy chief in charge, with a somewhat westernized military at his command, is a pretty decent short-term outcome. Two cheers, then, to the people of Egypt for forcing Mubarak out and for tolerating (for now) his replacement.
The army promises that the September election will be held as planned. We’ll see. We’ll also see if the Egyptian people tilt to the West, as they seem to have done these last three weeks. Or if they’ll tilt towards Mecca and vote themselves in a Muslim Brotherhood dictatorship, using the One Man, One Vote, One Time so popular in Third World countries.
What ails Egypt isn’t much different from what ailed nascent Turkey, ninety years ago. Also like Turkey, Egypt’s army is the most westernized and secularized institution in the country. So if Egypt tips more West than East, the army will certainly be involved to a degree we would never tolerate here.
Now is not the time to press Egypt any harder. The White House has been alternately pushing and pulling the Egyptian government for weeks now, to little positive effect. Egypt has its own democratic processes in place, due to begin unfolding in September. We might not like how things play out — we were never entirely comfortable with Turkey’s occasional military coups, either.
This is a tricky moment. The army needs to relax its grip on Egypt, without ever losing control. And it must walk a fine line between nurturing democracy and denying sharia — all the while, keeping an eye to turning power back over to a legitimate civilian government. The Muslim Brotherhood is always watching for any weakness, any opening. But the protestors on the streets have their expectations, too, for affordable food, economic opportunity, and a government they can trust.
The army can’t deliver all that, but it can help the process along — and maybe even provide the occasional (ahem) course correction. While it’s far from ideal, for the time being the Turkish Solution is Egypt’s best and only bet.