Over the past decade, the Turkish government has received much praise for successfully melding Islam and democracy. Today, however, Ankara’s continued reliance on tactics of confrontation and intimidation is threatening to overshadow the country’s significant achievements. As Turkey attempts to construct a post-revolutionary order, it would do well to follow the example of one Arab country that has managed to avoid political gridlock: Tunisia.
In 2011, protests led to the ouster of Tunisia’s longtime dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. The spirit of revolution soon spread to other Arab countries, albeit with less-impressive results. Libya suffered from bloody internal turmoil; Egypt reverted to brutal military rule; Syria continues to be ravaged by civil war. In Tunisia, however, the nascent democratic process has not been derailed. The country’s new Constitution — the most liberal and democratic charter the Muslim Middle East has ever seen — remains the Arab Spring’s crowning achievement to date.
Ratified on Jan. 26, the Constitution is a strikingly “We the people” document in a region where “Me the state” has long been the norm. It protects civil liberties, establishes a separation of powers, and guarantees women parity in political bodies. Though it declares Islam the country’s official religion and refers generally to Tunisia’s identity as an Islamic state, the Constitution protects religious freedom for all.
This is a significant achievement, as things might have easily gone awry. Like most other countries in the region, Tunisia is deeply divided along secular and religious lines. The post-revolutionary ascendance of the Islamist Ennahda party has particularly troubled the secularists. In May 2012, ultraconservatives in Jendouba and Sidi Bouzid firebombed bars and stores selling alcohol; the following month, Salafists in a Tunis suburb rioted in protest of an art exhibit they considered insulting to Muslims. The violence soon spread to other areas around the capital. These and other repeated provocations by hard-line Salafist groups, including the assassination in 2013 of two prominent liberal politicians, Mohamed Brahmi and Chokri Belaid, have caused some to fear an Egyptian-style military coup against elected Islamists.
I have been following the steady stream of good news out of Tunisia with admiration, if not envy. Paradoxically, Turkey’s democracy, which is more than six decades old, and its economy, the world’s 17th largest in 2012, are better-established and stronger than Tunisia’s. But Turkey sorely lacks the consensus-making skills that Tunisians so clearly possess. Turkish politics is poisoned by bitter fighting between leaders who view compromise as cowardice. Quarreling political figures condemn one another for “high treason,” and often resort to extravagant conspiracy theories to delegitimize opponents. The result is that confrontation is common, and agreement all too rare.
This is why Turkey, still governed by a 1982 military Constitution, has not been able to pass a liberal democratic charter like Tunisia’s. Military dominance has gradually eased in the past decade, but elected politicians have proven unable to agree on what a new document would look like. A parliamentary constitution-drafting committee was established in 2011 following general elections that saw the re-election of Mr. Erdogan to a third term. (Indeed, the passage of a new constitution had been one of Mr. Erdogan’s main campaign pledges.) But the initiative was declared dead last December, largely because Mr. Erdogan’s governing Justice and Development Party insisted on a regime that maximized presidential power at the expense of the legislature and judiciary, and incorporated few checks and balances. Turkey’s main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party, proved similarly rigid.
In late January, the passage of Tunisia’s Constitution was celebrated in that country’s National Constituent Assembly by deputies from all parties, who hugged one another, sang and chanted “Mabrouk alina,” or “Congratulations to us all.”
Just days earlier, a markedly different scene played out in the Turkish Parliament, as vicious debates devolved into a full-fledged fist fight that left one member injured. It was the second time punches had been thrown in the Turkish Parliament that month. (In the earlier incident, a deputy had thrown an iPad, too.) Ultimately, the problem is not that one or another opposing faction is too religious, too secular, or too ideological; it is that everyone is too macho and power-hungry.
Today, Turkey is a nation of rapid economic growth, declining inequality and heightened political participation. One of the world’s top tourist destinations, it has invested heavily in infrastructure and public transportation. Turks do not need more high rises or shopping malls; we already have plenty of those. What we urgently need to build is a culture of dialogue, empathy and consensus — and Tunisia might be a good place to look for guidance.
Published in New York Times, 16/02/14