Practicing Politics by Proxy: Turkey and Egypt

As the preliminary results of the Turkish parliamentary elections were announced in early June, the people gathered in a downtown café appeared to be divided into three distinct groups. There were those saddened by the failure of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to secure a parliamentary majority, those overjoyed, and those who continued to smoke indifferently, showing little reaction to the long-awaited results. This scene did not take place, as one might expect, in Istanbul, but rather was seen in a café on Ramses Street in the heart of Cairo.

Many Egyptians, for whom parliamentary elections have been repeatedly postponed, projected their own feelings and political biases, on Turkey’s elections. The clear divisions within Egyptian domestic politics—along an Islamist-secular divide—played out in Egyptian reactions to Turkish domestic politics.

While Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has said parliamentary elections will take place before year’s end, it remains uncertain when exactly that will happen. Egypt’s Constitutional Court ruled on March 1, 2015 that a clause in the election law governing the division of constituencies in parliamentary was unconstitutional. Without a law in place, the electoral process remains far from clear. The president, backed by several small parties, also asked non-religious and secular political parties to form a united list of parliamentary candidates that would have his personal backing. Many analysts see this development as a blow to democratic competition.

Meanwhile Turkey’s parliamentary elections, held on June 7, saw a significant setback for the President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP. Erdogan, the former AKP leader, had aspired to secure a 65 percent majority, which would have enabled him to push an amended constitution directly through parliament to a public referendum. Had this happened, Erdogan would have replaced the parliamentary system of government with a more centralized presidential system, giving himself wider authorities. The results disappointed the AKP, which secured only 41 percent of the parliamentary seats and must now enter into a coalition government by the end of July.

The Lead up to Elections

Some Egyptians followed the elections closely, discussing Turkey’s developments on social media and treating the country’s politics as their own.

For the three days preceding the elections, the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters in Egypt predicted a landslide victory for Erdogan and the AKP. Erdogan’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood—most notable in his affinity for Egypt under ex-president Mohamed Morsi’s rule and his repeated strident public criticism of his military ouster in 2013—has turned Turkey into a safe haven for scores of the banned group’s members fleeing a crackdown in Egypt.

More liberal and secular Egyptians remained mostly silent in the days leading up to the elections. Of those that voiced an opinion, some expected the secular groups to win the election—noting the Gezi Park demonstrations, in which more than 2.5 million people took part in nationwide protests against Erdogan’s rule. The government’s heavy-handed response to the demonstration, in which eight people died, more than 8,000 were injured, and almost 5,000 arrested, reinforced fears of Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies.

The Results are Announced

As soon as the election results were announced, accusations from the two sides—both Islamist and secular—began to fly.

Egypt’s Islamists and AKP supporters who had spoken about the imminent victory of Erdogan’s Islamic experiment said the results were indicative of an Islamist respect for the democratic process. They charged the secular camp with unfairly accusing them of authoritarianism. The peaceful transfer of power in Turkey, they said, stands in contrast with events in Egypt, where the army intervened to depose Morsi. Mahmoud Murad, an Al Jazeera anchor known for his Islamist leanings, posted on his Facebook page, “After they [Islamists] lost the landslide majority and maybe the government in Turkey, we say that Islamists like all other political groups can be defeated via ballots with no need for military tanks. The more important point is that they accept the rotation of power and accept the choices of their people.”

Secular Egyptians considered the results a downright defeat for Erdogan—and the Muslim Brotherhood by extension. Journalist Yahia Wagdy wrote, “For a week the Muslim Brotherhood hysterically predicted Erdogan’s victory, but today the results showed otherwise. They ask us to look to them as they accept defeat because they are not ‘coup supporters’ as we are. I want to tell those people: didn’t we beg you to accept early elections as a solution to the crisis [in 2013]? But you refused and threatened a blood bath in the streets, such as that in Algeria [in the 1990s], and destruction, such as that in Syria and Libya. You are the ones responsible for this situation… It would be better if you simply shut up.” In some cases, the celebratory tone on social media also took on a strong sense of gloating.

In contrast, Egypt Director of the Andalus Institute for Tolerance and Anti-Violence Studies Ahmed Samih reflected the opinion of several revolutionary forces when he said, “Dear Mr. President, the Turkish parliamentary elections proved that Islamists can be defeated through ballot boxes… When will we have a parliament then president?”

Secretary General of the Egyptian Democratic Party Ahmed Fawzy, argued that Egyptian reactions to the results in Turkey reflect a society that cannot embrace democracy and does not understand the concept of democratic elections. “The way things are here is that whoever wins the elections keeps the post forever,” Fawzy told EgyptSource. “We do not realize that the core of democracy is rotation of roles; today’s majority is tomorrow’s opposition, and so on. Many Egyptians view the results of the Turkish parliamentary elections as if it is the end of the road. We also do not realize the difference between losing a landslide majority and losing the elections. It is no surprise we find politicians who say Erdogan has lost the elections,” he concludes.

With civilian politics in Egypt at a standstill, Egyptians used the Turkish elections as an opportunity to voice their own view of Egypt. Sadly, much remains unchanged politically since Morsi’s time in office: some see political Islam as the solution to the country’s ills; others see Islamism as the precursor to a theocracy. If the café represents a microcosm of Egypt’s streets, far more political discussion will be needed to heal a divided nation that has yet to come to terms with the role of religion in governance.

Maged Atef is a journalist for Buzzfeed and a columnist for Al-Masry al-Youm

Image: Photo: Then Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech at Cairo University after his meeting with the Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi during the first day of his two-day trip to Egypt, November 17, 2012. (Asmaa Waguih/Reuters)