I had just finished a panel discussion on Turkey and the Arab Spring at a regional conference in Istanbul. As I was leaving, a young Egyptian woman asked me: “Who should I vote for?”
I thought: “Why is she asking me about Obama and Romney?” No, no, she explained. It was her Egyptian election that she was asking about. Should she vote for Mohammed Morsi, the candidate of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood? Or Ahmed Shafik, a retired general who served as Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister and was running as a secular law-and-order candidate?
My heart went out to her. As Egyptian democracy activists say: It’s like having to choose between two diseases.
What happened to the “Facebook Revolution”?
No doubt Facebook helped a certain educated class of Egyptians to spread the word about the Tahrir Revolution. Ditto Twitter. But at the end of the day, politics always comes down to two very old things: leadership and the ability to get stuff done. And when it came to those, both the Egyptian Army and the Muslim Brotherhood, two old brick-and-mortar movements, were much more adept than the Facebook generation of secular progressives and moderate Islamists – whose candidates together won more votes than Morsi and Shafik combined in the first round of voting but failed to make the runoff because they divided their votes among competing candidates who would not align.
To be sure, Facebook, Twitter and blogging are truly revolutionary tools of communication and expression that have brought so many new and compelling voices to light. At their best, they’re changing the nature of political communication and news. But at their worst, they can become addictive substitutes for real action.
Unless you get out of Facebook and into someone’s face, you really have not acted.
Let’s be fair. The Tahrir youths were up against two well-entrenched patronage networks. They had little time to build grassroots networks in a country as big as Egypt. That said, though, they could learn about leadership and the importance of getting things done by studying Turkey’s Islamist Justice and Development Party, known as AKP. It has been ruling since 2002.
What even the AKP’s biggest critics will acknowledge is that it has transformed Turkey in a decade into an economic powerhouse with a growth rate second only to China’s. And it did so by unlocking its people’s energy – with good economic management and reformed universal health care, by removing obstacles and creating incentives for business and foreign investment, and by building new airports, rail lines, roads, tunnels, bridges, wireless networks and sewers all across the country.
But here’s the problem: The AKP’s impressively effective prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been effective in eliminating any independent judiciary in Turkey and in intimidating the Turkish press so that there are no more checks and balances.
If Erdogan’s “Sultanization” of Turkey continues unchecked, it will soil his truly significant record and surely end up damaging Turkish democracy. It also will be bad for the region, because whoever wins the election in Egypt, when looking for a model to follow, will see the European Union in shambles, the Obama team giving Erdogan a free pass and Turkey thriving under a system that says: Give your people growth, and you can gradually curb democratic institutions and impose more religion as you like.