Democracy’s dangerous decline in Egypt and Turkey

The US can no longer afford to remain mute on the erosion of freedom in these two key Mideast powers. While certain interests may tempt Washington to emphasize stability over democracy, this is a mistake. A look to Russia shows the fallacies of engaging with autocratic regimes.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
Egypt’s military chief Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (left) and Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy walk with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, right, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov before talks in Moscow Feb. 13. Gen. Sisi is on his first trip abroad since ousting Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, and in Russia as part of a shift to reduce reliance on the US at a time of friction between the longtime allies.

The future of democracy in Egypt and Turkey is under threat. Developments in these important countries bring into sharp relief two key trends at play in the world today: the reversal of post-cold-war democratic gains and the decline of American will to positively influence democracy around the world.

Egypt and Turkey are large states with the ability to project power beyond their borders. Internal developments in both places are closely watched by outsiders, especially neighbors. Egypt and Turkey are also central to US foreign policy. Turkey is a member of NATO, hosts a US military base, and is a candidate for European Union membership. Egypt receives more than $1 billion a year in US military aid, has an important peace treaty with Israel, and controls the vital Suez Canal. 

Both Egypt and Turkey have also seen democratization derailed recently. This has entailed an open assault on the media, the rule of law, civil society organizations, and civil liberties. And it has been accompanied by a rising tide of official and popular anti-Americanism.

Journalists have been among the main victims in the (re)turn to authoritarianism in both countries. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that Egypt was one of the deadliest places for journalists in 2013, even though there is no war there. A journalist friend tells us that the situation is worse than it was under former strongman Hosni Mubarak. The arrest warrants for 20 Al Jazeera journalists on questionable charges confirm authorities’ broadening attack on free speech. 

Turkey is equally inhospitable to reporters. Until recently championed as a regional “model” for its blend of democracy and moderate Islam, Turkey has sunk to the bottom of the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, ranking 154 out of 179 countries.

Press freedoms have eroded because these countries increasingly lack the legal structures to protect free expression. Since the Arab Spring uprisings three years ago, the rule of law has been absent from Egypt. And the Muslim Brotherhood and Egyptian military alike have continually maneuvered to prevent its establishment. The recent spate of terrorist attacks is only likely to further undermine due process and strengthen the authoritarian hand of the state. 

Judicial independence is also being threatened in Turkey. Initially Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan cleverly cloaked his illiberal undoing of the rule of law in liberal rhetoric. Arrests and trials that would have come under heavy scrutiny elsewhere were marketed as a “democratic deepening.”

Scapegoating NGOs

Ruling regimes in both Egypt and Turkey have also set their sights on externally funded or affiliated nongovernmental organizations (especially those connected with the United States), accusing them of being foreign agents. In Egypt, NGO offices have been raided, accounts frozen, branches permanently closed, and staffs given long jail sentences. In Turkey, Mr. Erdogan has repeatedly accused civil society groups with foreign ties of fomenting popular unrest and trying to undo his government.  

Such scapegoating of foreign-funded NGOs and independent associations, using nationalism and anti-Americanism as well-tested authoritarian tools of distraction, not only weakens civil society groups but also severs valuable ties with their Western counterparts. Research consistently notes the importance of “linkages” with the West as a determinant of democratization.

A serious US mistake

It is becoming increasingly apparent that the US and other Western powers like the EU lack the power and will to influence events in a democratic direction. The US did engage the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood after its election victory in 2011, but the party failed to establish inclusive, liberal policies, and President Mohamed Morsi was removed from office and the party banned from politics. The US has been unwilling to call this clear military takeover a “coup.”

The US can no longer afford to remain mute in the face of assaults on democratic norms in countries as vital to regional and global security as Egypt and Turkey. While certain strategic interests – such as military partnership with Egypt and its peace treaty with Israel – may encourage Washington to emphasize stability over democracy, this is a mistake.

Russia’s warning to the US

To understand the fallacies inherent in trying to strategically “engage” with autocracies, one should look to Russia. It is another country that has suffered a tragic degradation of the rule of law, media freedoms, and civil liberties over the past decade. In this context of democratic backsliding, President Obama’s efforts to “reset” relations with the Kremlin have yielded few victories. An autocratic Russia has proved to be a major liability to US foreign policy, such as with Syria.

A failure to speak out against the erosion of liberty in Egypt and Turkey, which seem to be following in Russia’s authoritarian footsteps, not only damages America’s ideals and image but it harms long-term strategic US interests. 

What is needed is an approach that convinces these two countries of the benefits of reengaging with the West and rectifying democratic backsliding, rather than taking the Russian route. Otherwise, when it comes to dealing with some of the most pressing foreign-policy concerns, the US will find itself struggling to broker partnerships and negotiations with yet two more unreliable authoritarian states that are home to resentful, disempowered citizenries.

Mieczyslaw P. Boduszynski, a former US diplomat, is assistant professor of politics and international relations at Pomona College. Kristin Fabbe, an expert on Turkey, is assistant professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.

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