The eastern Mediterranean has witnessed two coups in the last three years: Egypt’s on July 3, 2013, and Turkey’s on July 16, 2016. In both, the military opposed a president committed to the steady centralization and Islamization of the country’s government.
Egypt’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) had their roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, and both were accused of hidden agendas. But the coups had widely different outcomes and implications for the Middle East.
The FJP made quick political inroads in post-Mubarak Egypt. It won the most seats in the 2011 parliamentary elections. Mohamed Morsi, its nominee, won the 2012 presidential election with 51.7 percent of the vote to become the first democratically-elected president of Egypt.
Morsi’s term as president was controversial. His opponents called his moves to consolidate power a de facto “Islamist coup.” By June 2013, anti-Morsi and pro-Morsi counter protests were daily rituals in Egypt’s principal cities. On July 3, the Egyptian military placed Morsi under house arrest.
The head of the Egyptian armed forces, Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, was subsequently elected as the sixth president of Egypt.
That signalled a return to the military-dominated governments and the military economic cronyism that have marked Egypt’s politics since the 1952 revolution. El- Sisi, however, has moved to defuse religious partisanship; has called for the reform and modernization of Islam; and banned sermons and school textbooks that “incite violence and intolerance.”
He has cracked down on Jihadist groups in Egypt and is fighting an Islamic State-affiliated insurgency in the Sinai. El-Sisi has also introduced long overdue economic reforms. Egyptian polls put his approval rating around 80 percent.
Turkey’s Justice and Development Party was founded in 2001. It has governed since winning the 2002 parliamentary elections. From 2002 through 2014, Recep Tayyip Erdogan was the leader of the AKP. In August 2014, he was elected president of Turkey.
Erdogan’s critics have accused him of making the government increasingly authoritarian; of orchestrating the steady Islamization of Turkish society; and of being heavy-handed in using the courts to punish critics. At last count, Erdogan had initiated more than 1,500 lawsuits against critics for “slandering” his presidency.
On July 15, 2016, a group of Turkish officers launched a coup against the Erdogan government. The officers claimed they were forced to act by the erosion of secularism in Turkey, the government’s disregard for human rights and its steady reduction of democratic rule.
The coup proved short-lived. Erdogan urged his supporters to take to the streets. Turkish military leaders quickly denounced the coup. Over the next day, the military and police rounded up the rebels. Three hundred people were killed and 2,100 injured.
Erdogan accused Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric and political activist living in the United States, of organizing the coup. Gulen was one of the founders of the AKP and once a close ally of Erdogan.
On Aug. 2, Erdogan accused the United States and Europe of supporting the coup plotters. Turkish newspapers blamed the CIA for the abortive coup and attempting to assassinate Erdogan.
Gulen has accused the Erdogan government of staging the coup to carry out further purges of the judiciary, schools and military, all centres of anti-Erdogan opposition, and to impose further curbs on civil liberties.
Since the failed coup, more than 50,000 people have been detained or arrested, including 2,839 senior military personnel and 2,745 judges. The government has also ordered three news agencies, 16 TV stations, 23 radio stations and 45 newspapers, 15 magazines and 20 publishers to close.
Two coups, two very different outcomes – both consequential for Middle East stability. In Egypt, the el-Sisi government is rationalizing the economy and improving social services. The cronyism that gives Egypt’s military lucrative government contracts, however, is unchanged.
In Turkey, on the other hand, the AKP is consolidating its power at the expense of civil liberties and a more pluralistic and secular society. Whether Erdogan will abandon Turkey’s official secularism is uncertain. The path Turkey is following, however, will put it at odds with its NATO allies.
For Washington and its allies, trying to keep the anti-Islamic State coalition intact while dealing with a hostile Turkey, the war against the IS is about to get even more complicated.
Joseph Micallef is a historian, best-selling author and, at times, sardonic commentator on world politics.