Can the Middle East Escape Dictatorship?

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It is ironic and iconic that Turkey’s nascent uprising was triggered by a protest to protect a small inner-city park against the unsentimental and merciless bulldozers of developers seeking to build an ultra-modern shopping centre.

“Before, the Muslim Turk only needed three or four things,” Said Nursi, one of the founding fathers of Turkey’s modern Islamic revival who advocated teaching modern sciences in religious schools and religious sciences in secular schools, wrote sentimentally in 1959. “The present tyrannical Western civilization has encouraged consumption, abuses, wastefulness and the appetites, and, in consequence, has made the nonessential into essential.”

As I watched events unfold in Istanbul, I wondered what this Islamist intellectual would make of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s staunch defense of what Nursi called “tyrannical Western civilization” - the building of a shopping mall - right in the heart of the former capital of the former caliphate, as well as the yuppie class of Islamists in sharp suits that has emerged during the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) decade in power.

Naturally, this gaping chasm between discourse and reality is not surprising to anyone familiar with the Islamist ideology and traditional Islamic society, which – rather than repelling ideas of international trade - set up a pre-modern form of globalization by internationalizing the trade in crops and spices, commerce, as well as the exchange of knowledge and technology between East and West.

In fact, a casual and short stroll down to Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, Kapalicarsi, that ancient Ottoman shopping temple, one of the oldest and largest in the world, would dispel any romantic notions that the West somehow cut out Islam’s spiritual heart and consumed its soul with consumerism. It can even be argued that the whole concept of faddish fashion so derided by Islamists carries a distinctly "Made in Islam" designer label.

This might explain why Erdogan’s Islamizing agenda has set off so few alarm bells in Washington and other centres of capitalism, since the AKP – like its disciple, the similarly named Freedom and Justice Party in Egypt – reads from the same neo-liberal hymn sheet, while the Turkish delight of rapid economic growth and free markets has kept the Western business elite sweet.

Since the protests in Turkey erupted, the media has been filled with speculation as to whether modern Istanbul’s central plaza, Taksim, has become the Turkish “Tahrir Square”, and there are protesters in both countries who have expressed mutual solidarity.

Whether or not Turkey actually becomes a revolution, there are certainly clear parallels, as well as differences between the two. But for me, the most interesting parallels have to do with leadership. On the one hand, there is the channeling of public fury against a single “authoritarian” leader as shorthand for all that is wrong with the country. On the other hand, there is the clearly leaderless nature of the uprisings.

While this leaderlesness was instrumental in decapitating the regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, by creating a hydra with millions of heads which leaders could not contain and keep down, it is also prone to fall victim to its own success. Although it can topple regimes rapidly, it is far less capable at building a viable and robust alternative, at least in the short to medium term.

This raises the danger that unsavoury powers can walk into the vacuum, as occurred with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, sparking a paradoxical nostalgia among a troublingly growing body of Egyptians for Mubarak’s “good old days."

Even if Turkish protesters manage to bring down Erdogan, they are in danger of ending up, at least in the immediate aftermath, with something worse – though in Turkey, this is more likely to be a return to military-sponsored semi-authoritarianism – if they fail to formulate and implement a far-sighted transitional vision.

Although the risk of sliding toward authoritarianism afflicts all societies, the modern Middle East seems particularly prone to this. But what is the reason behind this?

Some Western academics and scholars argue that it is something intrinsic to Islam. While there are many problems associated with Islam, I do not think it is any more prone to absolutism than its Abrahamic cousins and other religions.

I would say that, in much of the region, it is more a product of the legacy of Ottoman and European imperialism, the authoritarian tendencies of post-colonial leaders, both former masters and subjects, and how “modernization,” even if triggered by popular uprisings, eventually became a top-down process that did not involve the masses sufficiently.

For example, the region’s first stabs at modernization, which of course took place in Turkey and Egypt, were pretty authoritarian endeavours, whether undertaken by Muhammad Ali and his dynasty in Cairo, or the Tanzimat of reformist sultans Mahmud II and Abdülmecid I in Istanbul.

Moreover, later republican projects to eradicate royal absolutism, foreign meddling and to modernize and impose secularism often began as popular movements but led to varying degrees of military-backed secular authoritarianism, from the toxic Young Turks to the relatively benign Kemalism of Ataturk in Turkey and the Nasserism of the Free Officers in Egypt.

With some variety of authoritarianism rearing its ugly face whether in the guise of a caliphate, revolutionary republicanism, monarchism, secularism, socialism, liberalism, conservatism and Islamism, along with the region’s loss of global status, it is unsurprising that millions of Middle Easterners seem not only to have lost their faith in their leaders but have abandoned the sinking vessel of leadership altogether.

The Middle East is in desperate need of a new generation of leaders who not only rise to power by the people, but are of the people and govern for the people.

Khaled Diab is an Egyptian-Belgian journalist, blogger and writer who has spent about half his life in the Middle East, including nearly two years in Jerusalem, and the other half in Europe. Follow him on Twitter @DiabolicalIdea

Paramilitary police stand at the entrance of a road leading to the prime minister's office as Turkish youths shout " Tayyip, resign! " in Ankara, Turkey, Saturday, June 1, 2013.Credit: AP

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