Erdogan’s hello to Egyptians

THAT WAS A second in Turkish history. Democratic forces, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, overwhelmed Turkish military units that had attempted to overthrow the country’s democratically elected government.

It was a spectacular triumph for Erdogan, and more to the point, the democratic fervor and aspirations of the Turkish masses.

The first time Erdogan and the Turks foiled a military plot to overthrow their civilian government was in 2012, when the government of then Prime Minister Erdogan roped up hundreds of coup mongering military officers and soldiers, 322 of whom were sent to prison after lengthy trials. Since 1960 the power hungry Turkish military had overthrown four democratically governments.

During and after yesterday’s abortive military uprising, the Erdogan government arrested more than 2,800 military personnel, suspected of participating in what the president termed “an act of treason.” He vowed that the plotters would “pay a heavy price.”

I have known Erdogan for a while and am familiar with his commitment to democracy. He’s a single-minded man. He can be impulsive, too. But don’t get worked up by “authoritarian” and “autocratic” labels put on him by his detractors in Turkey and abroad. Most of them have been raving about his Islamic political background right from the beginning. They abound in the American media and political circles. These Americans have forgotten about slavery, the disenfranchisement of women, Jim Crow, and the enduring racism – all of which coexisted with the democratic process. Erdogan may be an imperfect practitioner the democratic art, but he’s the father of full-fledged democracy in Turkey, founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, an autocrat.

Erdogan impressed me with his commitment to true democracy during my first interview with him nearly two decades ago. A journalism fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, I had been on a research trip through Western Europe and Turkey to assess the spread of Islamism among Turks and its possible impact on Ankara’s bid for accession to the European Union.

Then mayor of Istanbul, Erdogan had been convicted by a secularist court for reciting a poem at a public meeting that the judges said could have incited religious hatred. Intriguingly, the poem had been composed by an agnostic sociologist who was also a protagonist of secular Turkish nationalism. Zia Gokalp’s poem, entitled “Soldier’s Prayer,” likened Turks to Islamic soldiers, mosques to their military barracks and minarets to their swords.

Following Erdogan’s conviction, the ultra-secularist government of the day sacked him from his job as mayor. On August 2, 1998, when I arrived to interview him in Istanbul, the disgraced mayor was packing to vacate the mayor’s office. Apparently because of his belief that his political career would survive the conviction and a subsequent prison term, he showed a keen interest in Turkey’s accession to the EU.

He was eager to know what my interlocutors in France, Germany and Belgium had said about Turkey’s EU membership.

“Do they want us in,” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Some of them said they were concerned about your military’s grip on your democratic process.”

“I share their concern. We, our party [the Islamist Virtue Party], have been the worst victims of military coups.”

The previous year the army, which considered itself the guardian of Turkish secularism, had thrown out the democratically elected government of the Islamist Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, Erdogan’s mentor. The generals accused Erbakan of posing a threat to the country’s secular political system.

Most EU officials, I said, wanted to see Turkey “a real democracy before they take a serious look at your membership application.”

“We want Turkey to be a full democracy. That’s one of the reasons we want to join the European bloc. That would help us secure democracy.”

I have since watched him, as prime minister and president, replace Turkey’s military-supervised, elitist political system with a full-blown democracy, as it can be in the ethnic contexts of the Turks and Kurds and their Islamic tradition. I’ve watched him reiterate his commitment to democracy over and over.

Yesterday I remembered Erdogan’s democratization campaign as I watched crowds pouring into the streets and squares of Ankara and Istanbul, facing down the rebellious troops and their tanks and rolling back their short-lived rebellion. And I was wondering why Egyptians couldn’t do the same thing in July 2013, when a military junta overthrew the democratically elected Islamist government of President Mohammed Mursi. Why couldn’t Egyptian crowds chase Gen. Abdul Fattah al-Sisis’s forces back into the barracks? Al-Sisi and his troops probably were more brutal than Turkey’s rebel soldiers and officers. They have mowed down hundreds of protesters, imprisoned and hanged hundreds of others and unleashed a reign of terror in Egypt.

My take on it is that unlike in Turkey, democratic consciousness and aspirations in Egypt have yet to jell among the public. In their 7,000-year history, Egyptians had never known elections and democracy until 2012, when Mursi was elected president and his fellow Islamists won a parliamentary majority. The Turks, on the other hand, have been having elections and nurturing a multi-party democratic process, albeit with occasional military interruptions, for some six decades now.

Democracy never takes root in a society in one smooth push. It’s a messy and long-tern business. The British took seven turbulent centuries to become a pro in the art. The Americans have been practicing it through slavery, a Civil War, Jim Crow and racism, whose latest manifestation has been a spate of killings of African Americans by white policemen and the slaughter of five white police officers by an African American man.

As I see it, four years ago Egyptians had a trial run of democracy. I bet the barbarity to the Sisi dictatorship is fueling a second, more determined democratic uprising in Egypt. A more enduring Arab Spring.

  • Mustafa Malik, an international commentator in Washington, hosts the blog: Muslim Journey (


Egyptians, unite to rescue democracy!

My hats off to Egypt’s secular and Islamist revolutionaries for the courage and spirit of freedom they demonstrated when they bundled out Hosni Mubarak’s monstrous dictatorship.

Over the decades I have developed an interest in Egyptian society and politics. I cherish my friendship with Egyptians in Egypt and the United States. I understand Egyptian secularists’ frustration with President Muhammad Mursi, who could have been more thoughtful in his dealings with them and in his approach to their demands.

I hope, though, that the secularists realize that the military didn’t overthrow Mursi to give them their cherished version of freedom and democracy. Never in history has a military force willingly democratized a society.

The secularists should know by now that their generals have taken them for a ride. Using their protests against Mursi as a cover, the army has stamped out the democratic process for which they paid an enormous price, including the blood of scores of martyrs. General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi and his comrades ditched the Mursi regime only to regain their levers on government and politics and preserve their obscene, ill-gotten wealth. The military brass will now try to continue their divide-and-rule policy (pitting secularists against Islamists) to maintain their repression and exploitation of Egyptian society, albeit through their lackeys in business suits.

About the only way Egyptians can rescue freedom and democracy from their power-hungry generals is to restore the national unity that enabled them to overthrow the Mubarak dictatorship.

Secularists and Islamists are two integral segments of Egyptian society. Neither can banish the other from the public space. Their estrangement from one another can serve only to perpetuate the military stranglehold on their political and economic life.

It’s time the two ideological camps reach out to each other. They should thrash out their constitutional differences in a spirit of compromise. And together they should send their swashbuckling generals back into their barracks, never again to venture into politics and governance.

-Mustafa Malik

On to the Malian quagmire?

ISLAMIST GUERRILLAS  are fighting back French and Malian forces in northern Mali, from where they were expelled last month by invading French forces. The Muslim militant group Mojwa (Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa) has twice engaged the French in sustained gun battles in Gao, the region’s largest city. The guerrillas have vowed not to let up their struggle until foreigners are expelled from Mali.

I wonder if we’re going to see a replay of the Iraq and Afghanistan dramas in West Africa.

Although Mojwa has taken the lead in these attacks, Mali’s main Islamist organization, Ansar al-Din, and Al Qaeda-affiliated fighters are reportedly planning their own offensives against the invaders.

The French invasion was quickly supported by the United States, Canada, Britain, Belgium, Germany, and Denmark. The West, too, is trying to court the secular secessionist National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA). The Islamists had allied with the NMLA to “liberate” northern Mali – which they call Azawad – from Mali. Later the two groups split, and the Islamists wrested control of northern Mali from NMLA.

There’s a difference between the French-led Western invasion of Mali and the U.S.-led ones in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Mali, the Western governments are saying they’re after all at war with Islam, albeit an “extremist” wing of it. They strongly denied suggestions of the anti-Islamic nature of the Iraqi and Afghan invasions.

Are they really trying to roll back Islamic resurgence in West Africa? If so why? Can they have their “mission accomplished” in Africa, which they failed to do in the Middle East?

The reason that France and its Western allies have given for hounding the Malian “Islamic extremists” is that, if the militants can come to power in Mali, they would impose Islamic canon law, the Shari’a, in that country. The argument doesn’t make any sense. The Malian population is 90 percent Muslim. Introduction of Islamic law in a Muslim society didn’t cause Western military intervention ever before. It didn’t when Pakistan’s military dictator Muhammad Zia al-Haq clamped the Shari’a on Pakistan, getting Muslims flogged and given death sentences for infractions of his extreme version of Islamic law.

The West didn’t go to war or propose any kind of sanctions against Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his radical Islamists when they imposed another harsh version of Islamic law in Iran. Instead, sanctions were imposed on the Islamic Republic because of its holding Americans hostage, carrying on its uranium enrichment program, and other mundane reasons.

Indeed, the United States funded and armed the Afghan Islamic fundamentalist Mujahedeen in their war against Soviet invaders in Afghanistan. President Ronald Reagan was impressed by the Mujahedeen’s fierce resistance to the Communist invaders. In 1988 he counseled visiting Turkish military ruler Kenan Evren to promote Islamic education in Turkey as part of his battle with Communists and leftists.

In reality, the Malian war is about preserving and promoting Western economic and strategic interests in West Africa. The Islamists are facing the Western onslaught because they’re about the only forces that would resist Western hegemony and exploitation of their resources by the West. They’re the only ones fighting Western hegemony in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and in other Muslim societies.

Mali is the second-largest gold producer in West Africa, after South Africa. Several foreign companies have begun uranium exploration around Gao, where Islamist militants recently engaged French and Malian troops in a bitter fight. Diamond, iron, bauxite, copper and other minerals are also being explored in Mali.

The French depend heavily on uranium to run its nuclear reactors, which provide more than 75 percent of its electricity and make nuclear bombs. It was no surprise that while fighting Islamists in Mali, the French lost no time to rush special forces commandos to Niger to reinforce security around the French state-owned uranium mining company Avera there.

The United States has seized on the Malian crisis to beef up its strategic ties to that region. The Obama administration, besides providing logistical support to French forces in Mali, has signed a status-of-force agreement Niger to build a drone base there to conduct missions against Islamist groups in Africa. President Muhammad Issoufou of Niger told news media that he was planning “a long-term strategic relationship with the U.S.,” adding, “What is happening in northern Mali can happen to us.”

Western powers are aware of Africans’ sensitivity about Western “neo-colonialism.” Hence they’re anxious to localize their fight against Islamism. They’re the strengthening the military muscle of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a regional strategic and economic-development grouping. They plan to outsource their war on Islamism to pliant members of ECOWAS. Many of these regimes are themselves threatened by Islamist resurgence, and welcome security cooperation with the West. Chad, an ECOWAS members, already has sent several thousand troops to join the French-Malian assault on the Islamists.

The West and its West African allies may have short- or medium-term successes against the Islamists. The French and Malian government troops have dispersed the Islamist insurgents from the cities of northern Mali: Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal. As mentioned, the West and the Malian government are trying to woo the secular NMLA in northern Mali. Many Malians opposed to the Islamists have hailed the invaders. They greeted visiting French President Francois Hollande with a boisterous applause. President Traore thanked “our brother” Hollande for the French intervention.

I have seen enough of adulation of invaders in the heady aftermath of invasions and its rapid evaporation. In 2003 the American invasion sparked jubilation among Kurdish secessionists in northern Iraq. Earlier, in 2001, Afghanistan’s dissident Tajik tribes fought on the front lines of the U.S. invasion. In 1971, Bangladeshi insurgents showered invading Indian troops with accolades and bouquets. In all these countries, early hospitality to foreign forces soon gave way to widespread public resistance to their presence.

Malians and West Africans are unlikely to be an exception. Mali’s Islamist guerrillas apparently made a strategic retreat to the desert and northern mountains, from where they begun to wage what’s likely to be a drawn-out struggle against foreign and Malian government forces. I’m afraid Mali is turning into the next Western quagmire after Iraq and Afghanistan.

If American experience in Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen is any indication, the Western aggression would eventually bolster, rather than diminish, Islamic resurgence.

◆ Mustafa Malik, an international affairs columnist in Washington, hosts the blog Islam and the West.