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Lessons For Egyptian Elections From Turkey


And when Egyptians head to the polls this week, many will be looking to celebrate the end of military rule, which began some 50 years ago. Observers warn that it won't be easy to send a deeply entrenched military back to its barracks, and they point to Turkey's experience as an example.

NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Istanbul.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Egyptians may not see Turkey as a social or religious model for their new state. A recent Pew survey found 61 percent of respondents preferred Saudi Arabia. But most Egyptians do want an elected civilian government in charge - not the generals who have long been the power behind the scenes in Cairo.

Analysts say if Turkey's experience with the military is any guide, Egyptians will face some sobering realities.

MUSTAFA AKYOL: One lesson from the Turkish experience is that democracy is a very long process.

KENYON: Author and columnist Mustafa Akyol says Turkey shifted away from a one-party system more than 60 years ago, but it took decades to wrest political power from military hands.

AKYOL: Turkey had its first free and fair elections as early as 1950. But since 1950, we had four military coups, and a lot of internal chaos, and only recently have we been able to consolidate the rule that whoever wins the elections really, you know, has political power.

KENYON: Mehmet Ali Birand, who writes about the Turkish military, says, from 1950 until the end of the Cold War, the army and its allies permitted the civilian governments to manage day-to-day affairs, but no important decisions were taken without military approval - not if that government wanted to remain in power, anyway.

MEHMET ALI BIRAND: Until the end of the Cold War, let's say 1990, they were the power. They were the state. We called them The State, we called the civilian government Government.

KENYON: It's hardly a comforting lesson for Egypt, where a thoroughly entrenched military holds sway and none of the leading political contenders has experience in running a state.

But there are historical shifts that suggest Egypt's experience may be somewhat better - not least the crumbling of Cold War alliances since 1989, and increased efforts by the West to promote human and civil rights abroad. Birand says the Turkish military failed to grasp those changes and, when in 1997, it forced out yet another elected government the backlash led to the rise of the AK Party, the current government led by moderate Islamists who have aggressively prosecuted past military abuses.

BIRAND: Exactly. 1997 coup was the last coup. It was the biggest blunder, and at the end of this blunder, this government came to power, and this government finished the military's political power. Today, they have zero power.

KENYON: A complicating factor in Egypt's case is the military's deep involvement in the economy. Military-run companies are involved in the cement, petroleum, food and manufacturing sectors, and military holdings include large swaths of potentially lucrative public land. This has even some Egyptians who long for civilian rule urging today's political contenders to push reforms at a measured, non-threatening pace. Cairo media owner and human rights activist Hisham Kassem says the state desperately needs the military's vast wealth, but it cannot be seized outright without threatening chaos and economic collapse.

HISHAM KASSEM: The military has this huge economic empire, and this is national wealth. And a collision could bring it down. And the safe transfer of that national wealth is a process of five to 10 years. Even for people like myself, who've fought military rule practically for the last 20 years, I say slow down. Let's make the transfer nice and slow.

KENYON: In the short term, though, the prospects of anyone curbing the power of the Egyptian military seem slight. Istanbul analyst Mehmet Ali Birand says Egypt's new leaders must be careful not to force the army's hand too soon, before a civilian government has gathered allies and resources for the inevitable fight to establish true civilian rule.

BIRAND: So, my suggestion would be, with the Turkish example, please don't give them too much leverage. Be sure that one day you will be obliged to tell them thank you. Enough is enough. Go back to your barracks. Then the big fight will start.

KENYON: Until that day comes, analysts say Turkey's experience shows that the best way Egypt's new leaders could ensure their popularity is to focus relentlessly on the economy. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.