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The future of democracy in the Arab world: how relevant is the Turkish experience?

22 February 2011
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The Jasmine revolution in Tunisia and the popular uprising in Egypt have opened the way for these Arab countries to initiate their transitions to democracy. The burning question, however, is what sort of democracy will they be? The fear of power falling into the hands of political Islamists has been a recurrent theme of global commentary on these momentous events. Yet some experts have argued that there is the potential for a different, more positive outcome – pointing in particular to Turkey’s experience. So, what lessons can the aspiring democracies of the Arab world learn from Turkey?

The fundamental lesson is that the sustainability of democracy depends largely on the quality of democratic institutions. The focus in Arab countries should be on the consolidation of these institutions. There is no time to lose if democratic transition is to succeed. Establishing effective political parties, independent judiciaries, bipartisan election boards, unhindered media and functional parliaments should be the key objectives. It was only after consolidating these institutions that Turkey was able to shed itself of the influence of the military. For that, Turkish society had to develop confidence in the institutions’ ability to protect a pluralistic democratic order from its potential detractors, including political Islamists. It will therefore only be after consolidating essential democratic institutions that Arab countries will learn to successfully combine Islam, democracy and modernity.