The Clash of Cultures from Istanbul to Cairo

Photo: http://blogs.aljazeera.com/liveblog/topic/turkey-protests-20176

My son Rumi and I are chasing protests across the Middle East. We spent a week in Istanbul as the protests there petered out and flared up in Ankara. We are now in Cairo and the country is gearing up for a massive protest on June 30, whose goal is to do to Muhammad Morsi what the revolution did to Hosni Mubarak. Oust him. I must confess at the outset that I supported Morsi when he was elected, now I am not so sure.

Both the similarities and dissimilarities between the two protests are fascinating. The key similarity is the fault line between Islamists and secular and liberal Muslims. The latter fear that the Islamists, gradually in Turkey and rapidly in Egypt, are destroying their lifestyle and threatening to impose a brand of Islam on everyone that is intolerant, narrow minded and antithetical to human rights and political freedoms.

The Islamists (Egypt) and Islamic leaning (Turkey) voices are full of righteous anger. They feel that their leaders, Prime Minister Erdogan and President Morsi are doing what is legitimate in a democracy, instituting the will of the majority. It is interesting to note how Islamists, now that they have the numbers to win elections have suddenly become advocates of democracy, albeit devoid of respect or tolerance for minority rights. They see the protests as betrayal of democracy.

Secularists in both Cairo and Istanbul are afraid that their governments are pandering to rightwing Islamic extremist ideas to advance an Islamic project that will curtail individual freedoms. Some in Egypt are openly calling for a military coup, many in Istanbul are nostalgic of the days when the military was the guardian of Turkey's secularism. They protest because they feel democracy is undermining freedom.

The dissimilarities are also interesting. The key divergence is the material condition of the two countries. Turkey is experiencing an economic boom and Egypt is experiencing economic gloom. Yet the battle lines are drawn across normative issues and what we see is a culture clash. Good or bad economy seems to matter not, the fear or even hatred of Islamism is driving the unrests.

In the twelve years that Prime Minister Erdogan and his party have governed Turkey, it has emerged as an economic powerhouse and become a regional power.

Turkey has prospered, personal incomes have risen, education is taking off, health care has become excellent and universal, retirement benefits are appreciable and the country has grown and developed, with much improved transportation, cheap airlines, fast trains, great roads and bridges and jobs are plentiful.

So why are so many Turks protesting so persistently. Part of it is the fear of the secular and Westernized elite that slowly the Islamization of Turkish culture will undermine their lifestyle, and part of it is the frustration at the gradual deconstruction of the social power structures of Turkey. For decades, the secularists were at the center of Turkish politics and shaped its identity and social values, they are now being displaced by Islamic conservatives who were on the margins. Additionally the governing style of Prime Minister Erdogan is coming across as authoritarian and has become a serious problem for those who do not support him. They feel that since he has the rural and the Islamic vote locked in he is dismissing the rest of the Turks and does not care for their cultural well being anymore.

The protests in Turkey however may not achieve their goals. They are angering many of the AKP supporters and are consolidating their support behind Erdogan. The protest may weaken Erdogan and undermine Turkey's image abroad, but at home they are strengthening the emerging Islamic vote bank and are also widening the secular-conservative fault line. The protests, in my opinion will not bring down Erdogan, on the contrary they might hurt Turkey's economy and make the society more polarized along cultural lines.

Egypt is also gearing up for a major clash between cultural disparate forces, being dubbed by locals as pro-Islamists and anti-Islamists. The protests in two days from now are a collective expression of rejection of the "rule of the Murshad" – rule by the spiritual guide of the Muslim Brotherhood – by secularists, liberals, the youth and the political and economic forces aligned with the former regime of Mubarak.

The government is painting the protests and opposition as a conspiracy – everything is a conspiracy in the Muslim World – to undermine Islam in Egypt and reverse the democratic revolution of 2011. The protests in Egypt, as in Turkey, may not succeed in achieving their primary objective, unseating the current democratically elected head of government. But what they might succeed in doing is ensuring that any and all projects of the current government will fail and the deteriorating economic and security situation may eventually separate the Muslim Brothers from their supporters.

The government of the Muslim Brotherhood has essentially done three things that seem to attract the ire of the masses. In spite of all their promises they have failed to provide good governance. The cities are dirty, the traffic unmanageable, security worse than ever, crime on the rise and economic opportunities steadily dwindling. There are fuel shortages and tourism has declined significantly. People feel neither safe, nor hopeful. The revolution was to restore dignity, but it has only eroded it.

The Muslim Brothers have concentrated more on grabbing power and consolidating their control over the government and its various institutions and in weakening the security setup in an effort to reduce the influence of the "deep state" on the economy and the society. The power grab has made them look like any other politicians rather than the spiritually motivated movement in pursuit of divine justice that they claim to be.

The Morsi government, remained focused on political machinations, getting the desired constitution passed without the participation of many of their opponents and in trying to tame the army. It did very little to improve the living conditions of ordinary people, making many nostalgic for the Mubarak era, where there was safety, stability and better economic opportunities than now.

It is hard to predict what the new wave of protests will achieve. What we have learned in the last two years is the political change does not necessarily translate into positive economic change. Even if Morsi was toppled and the liberals and secularists came to power, there is no guarantee that the economic conditions will improve. They too might spend their energies in taking back state institutions from the Muslim Brotherhood and extracting revenge on their supproters.

Both Erdogan and Morsi are democratically elected leaders and the attempt by liberal and secular groups to unseat them is seen by Islamists everywhere as a case of hypocrisy. When the secularists were in power they were neither for democracy nor for freedom of religion and they did not tolerate any protests. But now that Islamists are in power and are allowing democratic protests their opponents want to circumvent democracy. Interestingly this phenomenon is not limited to the Muslim World alone. Even in the US, to a lesser degree the conservatives have tried to make it impossible for the President Obama to govern by blocking everything in the Congress and demonizing him relentlessly in the conservative media.

Besides the crisis of governance and the crisis of legitimacy that prevail the specter of sectarian violence and escalation of hate-filled discourses against minorities from intolerant clerics threatens to further destabilize Egypt. The environment is so bubbling with violent rhetoric that it will drive away tourists and investors and may soon also trigger a massive brain drain.

The strength of Turkey's economy gives it a margin of error to endure the crisis, but in Egypt, you can practically see the bottom. There isn't more room for self-inflicted wounds. Even the Pyramids look tired.

Dr. Muqtedar Khan is an Associate Professor at the University of Delaware and a Fellow of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. His website is www.ijtihad.org.