Happy Turks

Real democracy is an intricate everyday process, as Turkey has found and continues to learn, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

First published in AL-AHRAM

It had been at least 10 years since my last visit to Istanbul, the capital of the Byzantine Empire since the fourth century, the capital of the Ottoman Empire since the 15th century, and the effective commercial, economic and even political capital of the Turkish Republic since 1923. In that decade the city has totally changed. It has become more vibrant and elegant than it was at the turn of the millennium and, more importantly, it has grown more composed and reconciled with itself. Ten years ago, it seemed gripped by a kind of schizophrenia, its personality torn between the East and West and between Europe and the Islamic world. The condition was evident in women and men’s clothing, in politics and the economy, in the divides between the military and civilians, secularists and the religious, and moderates and extremists, and in so many other social and cultural traits. Even with respect to the outside world, Turkey stood seething at the EU doorway as other lesser countries were allowed in one after the other while it was kept waiting in the queue. At the same time, its relations were tense with virtually all its neighbours: Syria, Iraq, Iran, Armenia, Russia, and of course Greece and Bulgaria. This is no longer the case now that it has adopted a foreign policy based on the principle of “zero conflict”, a term one hears from every politician from the president to petty officials.

My latest visit was occasioned by an invitation from the Council of Europe. One of Europe’s oldest institutions, the Council was established in 1949 in Strasbourg, France, before the European drive to create other cooperative organisations that eventually evolved to become the EU. Although the Council of Europe and the EU share the same flag, the former is more comprehensive, with 47 member states (nearly all European countries with the exception of Belarus) with a combined population of 800 million. The primary focal areas of the council are human rights, rule of law and democracy, and cultural cooperation. Although it has similar bodies to the EU, such as an executive secretariat, ministerial council and parliamentary assembly, its decisions are not binding on its members. However, in its field of specialisation, namely human rights, anyone has the right to file a complaint against his government before the European Court of Human Rights, which formulates its rulings on the basis of international conventions on human rights.

The Council had invited me to participate in a discussion that included some 50 participants, most of who came from the Greek and Turkish parts of Cyprus. This was the last of a series of meetings that aimed to foster rapprochement and mutual understanding between younger representatives of the two peoples of this island through education and promoting liberal democratic means and approaches to handling conflict issues. My role, together with other professors, was to discuss various experiences in democratic transformation and, naturally, the “Arab Spring” was the subject of my lecture on the causes, problems and future of the current wave of transformation in the Arab region. Subsequent lectures would cover the experiences of countries that preceded us in this process, such as Ukraine, Serbia and other Eastern European countries.

It was no coincidence that Turkey was chosen as the host country for this seminar. This was not because Ankara was an early member of the Council of Europe, but because Turkey had undergone such a profound transformation over the past decade and because it is on the threshold of yet another fundamental change. Following forthcoming elections on 12 June, the Turks will begin to draft a new constitution, which will crown the country’s progress and probably propel it further forward. In addition to its historic status and the cultural diversity it passed through, it is also likely that Istanbul was chosen as the venue for this event because it embodies Turkey’s transitional process, which has freed it from the tensions referred to above. Now the city appears at peace with itself, as pictures of Recep Tayyip Erdogan proliferate preparatory to the forthcoming polls. All political parties have staked as much ground around the city in the run-up to the polls; even the Turkish Communist Party has a tent in one of the major streets. The call to prayer is sounded at the stipulated time, confirming that this city is not like other European cities. However, a European city is not characterised by the absence of the call to prayer, but by the presence of industriousness, enterprise, an open market and advanced technology.

Tension has ended between the veil and the non-veiled, or at least that was my impression. At any rate, during my three days in Istanbul, I did not see a single woman wearing a niqab, but I did observe headscarves and generally modest attire plus a noticeable tolerance for the country’s guests whose customs and cultures differ from their Turkish counterparts. Ultimately, freedom of choice is there, as it should be. After all, the success of a government is contingent upon its proficiency in managing the country’s resources and on its ability to come out ahead in the international race. There is no need for those displays that hail from Afghanistan and similar places, and that feed tension and fear.

From the moment you arrive at Ataturk Airport you find people ready to help you. Somehow you know that they are doing this both out of the goodness of their hearts and in order to help increase GNP. When a country ranks 15th in the world on the basis of a GDP per capita of $13,500 using the purchasing power parity method, or even 17th in the world on the basis of a GDP per capita of $10,400 using the current exchange rate method, you also know that happiness and efficacy are attributes that come closest to describing the state of the country and its people, and that their sense of pride before their admiring guests is well deserved.

Happiness, today, in Turkey is fed in part by what is happening in the Arab world. From the Turkish perspective, the Arab democratic spring found its inspiration in the changes that took place in Turkey and in its unique blend of religious culture and secularism. If Amr Moussa detected the powerful khamasin winds in the Arab Spring, the Turks see it more in terms of the inevitable birth pangs at a moment of momentous change. Which brings us precisely to the subject of the discussion circle in Istanbul.

Winston Churchill famously said that democracy is the worst form of government, aside from all the others tried from time to time. His remark was meant to underscore that complicated process that is set in motion by the tough choices that confront a society at moments when it needs to address difficult and complex issues and problems. This choosing process does not exist in non-democratic societies where a ruler or ruling clique, a political party bureau, a guardianship committee, a central guidance council, or some other narrow ruling body takes decisions on behalf of the people. In a democratic system, in which popular participation in government is the prime defining characteristic, the people have to make choices and to exercise responsibility.

Another difficulty with democracy is that the people and their politicians have to accept a government whose authority is limited. This is not just because the legislative and judicial authorities restrict its powers, but also because a democratic society must accept that the political majority and minority can change with every election and that all political forces must bow to a prevailing set of rules and tenets, namely the constitution and the fundamental principles of human rights. The problem then is not just that a government needs to be brought into power through democratic mechanisms, but also that this government has to be an effective one, capable of managing the state’s bureaucracy and resources efficiently towards the realisation of certain goals. Such a government is not the type that keeps its people’s hopes pinned on the results of a national mega project such as Toshka or the “Development Corridor”. It is one that can accomplish things now, make significant improvements in its standards of performance and levels of achievement, and solve the country’s social and economic problems in keeping with the programme it had set for itself at the outset. Politics, in the end, is the process of managing and allocating resources. It is a complex process that a government should not attempt to avoid by means of high-profile long-range mega projects, even if such projects might be part of its work. But nor should citizens try to evade the problem, because they too must bear responsibility, which they exercise through work, production, consumption and, more crucially, through their political participation which makes them part of the processes of choice and decision-making.

The Turkish participants in the seminar in Istanbul were certainly familiar with the complexities of the problem. Their country has come a long way in building the “infrastructure” of democracy in terms of education, the media, fundamental values and peaceful political practices. Yet in spite of all they have accomplished, the most important being reconciliation with themselves and their intricate history, they realise that they still have a number of complexes to overcome. In order to forestall political fragmentation, the Turkish electoral system introduced the condition that in order to be represented in parliament, a political party must obtain 10 per cent of the national vote. This election threshold effectively limits membership to only three parties, in spite of the fact that Turkey has 50 political parties. Also, in spite of the intellectual and cultural openness that produced a match between secularism and a ruling party with a religious outlook, everyone in Turkey is aware that one of the foremost obstacles to their country’s accession to the EU is their human rights record. According to a report by the Turkish Journalists Association, 58 per cent of Turkish journalists have been imprisoned at least once between 1998 and 2008. Also, during this period, some 1,600 cases have been brought before the European Court of Human Rights, most involving human rights abuses and torture.

Turks are very familiar with these figures. They are aware of the need to address this problem through major security reforms, which in itself is indicative of how difficult the democracy-building process is, and then through the promulgation of a new constitution and the addition of further improvements every day.

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About proverbs6to10

Interested in Byzantium and Patrick Leigh Fermor
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