Morsi and Erdogan Must Acknowledge Legitimate Protest

A Publication of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding

Morsi and Erdogan Must Acknowledge Legitimate Protest

Taksim isn’t Tahrir. Turkey isn’t Egypt, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan isn’t Hosni Mubarak or Mohammed Morsi. At last, these simple facts are becoming clear to observers and pundits around the world.

The discourse around the recent Turkish protests has of course been highly polarised inside Turkey. But outside the country, too, there have been heated claims about the origin and legitimacy of the big demonstrations.

And now very similar accusations are being made about Egypt. The subject demands some close attention.

Let’s start with a central fact. The popular support of Mr Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, should not be doubted. He and his party won three elections in a row, and his government has brought economic progress, so that Turkey is no longer reliant on support from the IMF. Those are great achievements.

But, precisely because there is so much grassroots support for Mr Erdogan and his party, some have questioned the motives and intentions of the protesters. Some supporters of the government, inside and outside of Turkey, described the protesters as looking forward to an attempted coup against the civilian government.

Similar assertions are being heard about Egypt. Next Sunday, June 30, is the scheduled date for very large protests against the Egyptian president, Mohammed Morsi, and the ruling party.

Many of Mr Morsi’s supporters now make the cynical accusation that the protesters are trying to create a situation of chaos as a way to dislodge the elected choice of the Egyptian people.

It is also sometimes suggested that criticism of Mr Erdogan, and of Mr Morsi, is evidence of an instinctive opposition, in both countries, to any religiously-inspired political movement, regardless of the issue of competence.

In Egypt, this is bluntly asserted by supporters of the president, many of whom see June 30 looming as an almost-cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil.

Supporters of the government in Turkey, meanwhile, view Mr Erdogan as a successful, democratic, pious Muslim leader – who will never be given a fair assessment by the international media, which, Mr Erdogan’s partisans believe, will always oppose such a model regardless of country.

The similarities ought to stop there. Mr Erdogan is, after all, a popular prime minister whose party enjoys great support, while Mr Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood would be fortunate to hold onto even 20 per cent public support for much longer.

The Egyptian-style assumption that protests automatically lead to chaos is deeply questionable. In fact, this notion is fundamentally flawed. The idea that any protest amounts to an effort to overthrow the government implies that there are no genuine grievances behind the protests.

In Egypt, the list of legitimate grievances could go on for pages – and almost every part of the political spectrum, as well as much of civil society, would have something to add. That the government is willing to ignore these problems, or set them all aside as unimportant, beggars belief.

In Turkey, there is far less grassroots opposition to the government, but it certainly exists, and is capable of spontaneous mobilisation. And it is true that genuine grievances can be exploited and magnified by forces seeking to bring down the government by any means necessary.

That is the accusation being made by some government supporters in both countries – and it is not impossible.

Indeed, it would be surprising if hard-core opposition did not exist in some form in Turkey, which was long run by a military-dominated ultra-secularist regime, that is opposed to Mr Erdogan’s party and orientation. And in Egypt, there are those known as “remnants” (of Mr Mubarak’s regime) who still wield a certain amount of power in some places.

In this situation the correct response is to recognise the legitimate grievances, and build alliances with those among the protesters who are willing to compromise or even become the government’s allies.

There is reason to believe this will happen, to a degree, in Turkey, where electoral democracy and its compromises have built more than a foothold.

With its high support level, Mr Erdogan’s AKP party does not really need new allies – but for the good of Turkey’s future, one hopes, and to a degree expects, that he will see magnanimity and openness as being good for the country – and for himself.

In Egypt, however, it is unfortunately the case that the ruling party is unlikely to seek consensus – and because of that inability it will probably not be able to continue much further as a result.

The argument that only the Muslim Brotherhood is a “pious alternative” is not taken remotely seriously outside of the government camp in Egypt, as we can tell by the huge array of political and social forces, even former allies and including deeply religious groups, that oppose and criticise the president and the ruling party.

In every political crisis, there will be those that act with ethical motives, and those trying to take advantage for base ends.

It is important to be aware of the latter, of course – but not to use their existence as a way to ignore or belittle the former. Indeed, in a crisis, you may need as many of the former as you can get on your side.

This is a lesson we can hope the Turkish ruling party already knows, but one Egypt’s current rulers seem unable to appreciate.

Dr H.A. Hellyer, a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a Cairo-based specialist on Arab affairs, and relations between the Muslim world and the west. Fellow at ISPU, he was previously senior practice consultant at Gallup, and senior research fellow at Warwick University. Find him online @hahellyer and www.hahellyer.com.
 
This article was published by The National on June 23, 2013. Read it here.