The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Erdogan vs. Egyptian Islamists

Among the interesting things that came out of Recep Erdogan's visit to Egypt (a topic on which I'm writing a longer piece) was the furore he caused among Egyptian Islamists when he endorsed secularism. Erdogan had a busy schedule, and did spend some of it meeting with religious figures such as Pope Shenouda and Sheikh al-Azhar Ahmed al-Tayeb, as well as Islamist politicians, including MB General Guide Mohamed Badie, former MB and presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh (for some, the MB's stealth candidate). I think that's a first for any foreign head of government.

In his keynote speech at the Opera House, he reportedly made a statement in favor of a secular state as the only basis for social progress and economic development. I don't have a transcript of the speech to verify (and besides don't understand Turkish), but this bit in Erdogan's speech is causing quite a stir. The Muslim Brothers slammed Erdogan for "foreign intervention" — the classic infantile Egyptian reaction to any foreign leaders' statement on their country, as if saying something meant interfering — and the new Salafist party al-Fadila attacked him for favoring secularists over Islamists. Other Islamist leaders said  that the Turkish model is not reproducible in Egypt, but some talking heads think Erdogan's statement boosted the secularists' chances in the current debate over "Egypt's identity" and the future constitution.

Considering that Egyptian secularists have already conceded Islam as the region of state, Sharia as a source of legislation, and personal status law according to religion, I'm not sure what the debate is about aside from the implementation of the above. 

Erdogan says the Egyptian reaction was due to a translation error, according to Zaman (via @blakehounshell):

Erdoğan also offered an explanation for the Muslim Brotherhood's anger at his words in Cairo, where he told Egyptians not to be “afraid of secularism.” The prime minister said: “My words were misunderstood because of a translation mistake. In Arabic, there is a word for ‘irreligiousness,' and the translator used that word for secularism. Secularism is not about being an enemy of religion. It is about the state maintaining the same distance from all religions and acting as a custodian of their beliefs. This is what we mean when we say don't be afraid of secularism.”

He also said a person who expressed anger at Erdoğan's words was going to make a new statement and offer a correction to the misunderstanding. Erdoğan also said rumors that the person who made the statement on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood was not their presidential candidate. “This person is someone who left the Muslim Brotherhood. Plus, if the Muslim Brotherhood had any problems with us, they would have told us so during our contacts in Egypt. They didn't even imply any discomfort [with the secularism statement].”

It doesn't really look like Erdogan is walking it back fully, but rather talking about a misunderstanding. He's giving a lesson about secularism not being the opposite of piety, something many Egyptian secularists and quite a few Islamists have advocated. But in Egypt's current culture wars, to have the prime minister of the most (politically, democratically, economically, socially) successful Islamist party in the world advocate a secular system in which he has thrived seems to be a bit much.

The Brothers, in particular, have always resisted the idea of a Turkish model — in the sense of a secular system in which Islamits can exist — and said Egypt will have its own model. That's an easy nationalist line to take (we won't imitate anyone!) but if Egypt's Islamists say they don't want to be like Turkey, they still haven't quite explained what kind of model they are envisaging. I suspect that, over the next decade, we may see some Egyptian Erdoganists rise among them.