Friday, February 11, 2011

Who Will Fill the Vacuum?

So who will fill in the vacuum with Mubarak finally heeding calls to step down?  Will Egypt follow the example set by Turkey in the first half of the 20th Century and form a more secular government, with a Constitution that separates the rule of the state from the practice of religion?  Or will in follow the example of Iran, who in 1979 exiled the despotic Shah and replaced him with a despotic theocracy?

In the early half of the 20th century the Ottoman Empire had essentially collapsed after WW I. While the Sultan of the Ottomans retained some power, a democratic movement was taking hold, with Kemal Ataturk as one of democracies leading proponents, actually resigning his commission in the Ottoman Army to basically lead the Independence movement.  In the early to mid 1920s Turkey emerged from the old Ottoman Empire as an independent secular nation whose constitution borrowed liberally from the constitutions of the nations across Europe. Until very recently, Turkey has been governed with little eye towards Islamic input on governance.

Addition: as noted in the closing sentence above, Turkey has been a strongly secular nation, keeping religion and government separate. That has begun to change in 2003 when Tecep Erdogan was elected Prime Minister. He has given hints as to his beliefs over the years.

In 1994 when was Mayor of Istanbul Erdogan said, “We will turn all our schools into Imam Hatips.” [Imam Hatips are religious schools for males only. They do teach math and science but also have a very strong focus on religious teachings. (PACNW adds)]  A short time later he added “Thanks God Almighty, I am a servant of the shariah.” (Source: The Blaze)

In May of 1996 Erdogan said, “Democracy is like a streetcar. You ride it until you arrive at your destination and then you step off.” (Source: The Blaze)

With a statement like that above it makes me wonder how much longer Turkey is going to remain secular.  With a strong economy and a robust middle class it will be much more difficult for a strict Islamic rule to gain a stronghold over the government than in Egypt with 25% unemployment for those under 25 and a weak middle class.

While the region of what is now known as Iran was not part of the Ottoman Empire, the impacts of the Ottoman Empire’s fight against the allies lead to unrest in Iran as several battles between the Ottomans and the Allies were fought on Iranian soil. Occupations by Russian and British forces also did not sit well with the Iranian people.  This unrest and other factors lead to the rise of the Pahlavi family into power in Iran. Both the father and son tried, with a good deal of success, to modernize Iran. Several economic and social initiatives were successful in growing a large and stable middle class. However, religious leader did not like the move away traditional Islamic ways. The religious leaders also focused heavily on the allegations of brutality by the National Police.  The civil unrest culminated in the exile of the Shah, the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini, and the formation of the Islamic Republic.  Early in Khomeini’s reign, he made it clear that his goal was to establish a world-wide Islamic state.

In both Turkey and Iran the people clamored for change so they were both ripe for revolution. In both cases, the best organized revolutionaries (for lack of a better term) won the day.  Turkey has spent the last 80 years as a secular democracy with a vibrant economy that is not based on oil revenue alone and a well educated and large middle class. Turkey is not perfect. They have the issues of the Armenians and Kurds to answer for, but they are a stabilizing influence in the region with a decent relationship with Israel. Iran has spent the last 35 years under the thumb of a theocracy with a weak middle class and with oil and terrorism as their primary exports. They have armed Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and Sadr forces in Iraq. They continue to develop nuclear weapons (despite UN sanctions) with a stated goal of wiping Israel off the map.

Egypt is now at a cross roads.  Will Egypt become another Turkey? Or will it become another Iran? Most folks who know me would say I am an optimistic pessimist, but I am afraid that I have no optimism when it comes to Egypt.  Currently, the best organized group in Egypt is the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that has also vowed to eliminate Israel and are supporters and fomenters of terrorism with very strong ties to Al Qaeda. I hope that I am wrong, but without a strong a growing middle class I am afraid the Muslim Brotherhood will step in to fill the gap.

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