Egypt’s coup was not just a major shock for Mohamed Morsi, but also for West Asia’s most successful Islamist party: Turkey’s AK party. When news of the Egyptian army’s deposing of Morsi broke, Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, cut short his holiday on the Aegean coast and convened a crisis meeting of senior ministers. Over the following days, Erdogan strongly condemned the coup, calling it the “killer of democracy and the future” and referring to Egypt’s “so-called administration”. Why does the coup matter so much to Erdogan’s AK party?
One problem is that the Egyptian coup upsets the AKP’s vision of exporting its brand of populist democratic Islamism throughout West Asia. The AKP saw the Islamist parties that were elected after the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt as following its lead, and cemented this connection with aid — including training and equipment for Tunisia’s police and a $1bn loan to Egypt.
Erdogan has cultivated an impressive profile in West Asia, and now tweets in Arabic more often than in Turkish. Meanwhile, Morsi held up the AK party as the model for a democratising Arab world in his address to the party’s congress last autumn. Erdogan’s role as self-appointed mentor chimed with the AK party’s “neo-Ottoman” approach to foreign policy that positioned Turkey as a regional power.
The AKP also downplayed the scale of popular opposition to Morsi, and presented the coup as a plot hatched by the Egyptian generals. It used the coup as a metaphor to discredit Turkey’s Gezi Park protest movement. Some drew a direct connection: Hatam Ete of the pro-AKP thinktank SETA tweeted that “what was attempted in Turkey has succeeded in Egypt”.
Such conspiracy theories are the legacy of years of oppression of Turkish and Egyptian Islamists by the military-backed secular establishments. But the problem for the AKP and the Muslim Brotherhood is that their paranoid style is now losing its resonance outside their bases. The narrative of victimhood stopped attracting broad sympathy once they moved from persecuted opposition to power.
The uncomfortable truth the AKP does not want to accept is that the massive protests that preceded the coup represented a broad-based rejection of Morsi’s policies. It should acknowledge this fact, and recognise that it was not political Islam the protesters rejected. Neither do the Gezi Park protesters want to exclude Islamism from Turkish politics. What both movements reject is an aggressive majoritarian understanding of democracy, according to which the election winner takes all and imposes his agenda on the rest of society.
The protest movements, by contrast, insist that opposition is as important a part of democracy as an elected government. The protesters’ key demand was to be listened to. The demonisation of opposition as the work of mysterious foreign forces, by both the AK party and the Muslim Brotherhood is therefore not just a misdiagnosis of the problem, it is the problem.