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Turkey

From Algiers To Ankara, A Warning To Authoritarian Leaders

In Algeria, the Bouteflika clan was driven out of power. In Turkey, Erdogan’s AKP has “only” lost ground in the big cities. In both cases, the government’s legitimacy is being deeply questioned, in a context of economic recession and democratic demands.

Anti-government protests in Algiers after long-serving president Abdelaziz Bouteflika resigned
Anti-government protests in Algiers after long-serving president Abdelaziz Bouteflika resigned
Dominique Moisi

-Analysis-

PARIS — Turkey. Algeria. It is perfectly artificial to compare the political events that have occurred in these two countries. A simple defeat in municipal elections for the AKP, President Erdoğan's party, in Turkey; the end of a reign, that of the Bouteflika family, in Algeria.

However, there are interesting comparisons and contrasts to be drawn between the two situations, especially on the respective roles of the army and Islam.

To begin with, the events that have just occurred send out a warning to authoritarian regimes, or to those that are going down the authoritarian path: They are particularly vulnerable to the political and social consequences of their economies' poor performance.

Settling scores

"Buying" the stability of its people, as the Algerian authorities have done during the so-called "Arab spring" period, and then waving the scarecrow of civil war was not enough to contain the anger of the streets. The ruling power in Turkey can drape itself in the banner of a conservative but moderate Islam, and play with the Neo-Ottoman nostalgia of a significant part of its population; still, the Turkish lira fell by more than 30%. Growth and prosperity are no longer present.

Twenty years is simply too much for both powers, for both countries. In Algeria, a stroke made the "Dying king" an object of pity, if not ridicule. In Turkey, Recep Erdoğan lost the confidence of his voters not only in the capital Ankara, but also in the city that had watched him grow politically, Istanbul. A page is turning.

AKP has called for new elections in Istanbul — Photo: Xinhua/ZUMA

The most dramatic change in Algeria is not necessarily the most significant or important one in the long term. What is happening in Algeria in 2019 can be compared with the events that Romania experienced in 1989 — though it has been peaceful for now: a coup d"état masked as a revolution. It is too early to say, but celebrating the victory of the people is at best premature, and at worst a dangerous illusion. The president was made to resign, his entourage chased away, and for good measure, the "business clan" was punished very selectively. However, we are witnessing more of a form of settling scores between supporters of the system under the pressure of the street, than the disappearance of said system. The army has made a scapegoat of the Bouteflika clan, hoping to save time.

In Turkey, the AKP will contest its humiliation for as long as possible, demanding a vote recount which — if done "according to the rules' — can only confirm the extent of its defeat. It is far too early, however, to politically bury Erdoğan. In the past, he has shown an ability to bounce back, a rare pugnacity. He is convinced that he is the only one who can embody a project of civilization, both Islamic and nationalist. He sees himself as Atatürk's "religious' heir.

Unlike Bouteflika, he is still relatively young and sound of mind. But the problem he faces is, ultimately, not so different from the one the Algerian authorities are facing. In the eyes of a significant part of the Turkish people, mainly in urban areas, power has lost its legitimacy. Erdoğan promised his people prosperity and glory. Prosperity is no longer there. Glory, through a decisive diplomatic role in the region, has never come. Ankara is more defensive — confronted as it can be by the rise of the Kurdish problem — than offensive.

Above all, there is a structural contradiction between Turkey's regional ambitions and its domestic policy imperatives. How can we rebuild an army that has been dismantled several times in its upper echelons, if not broken in its morale? Armament orders made to Russia, and no longer only to the United States, in addition to introducing an element of doubt about Ankara's loyalty to its allies, cannot remedy this. Erdoğan forced the army, through a series of purges, to become "the great silent". This expression, inspired by the French experience, does not adequately reflect the Turkish reality. The army, westernized by NATO, had become the main engine, if not the rampart, of the country's modernity and allegiance to the West. Even as the "temptation of the East" was increasingly embodied by Erdoğan​"s AKP.

It is far too early to politically bury Erdoğan.

If in Turkey the power of Islam has extended to the detriment of the army, the exact opposite happened in Algeria. Faced with the rise of radical Islamism — which became even more radical after the army seized power on the eve of the second round of the 1992 parliamentary elections that never took place — the Algerian army gradually shut itself off.

Unlike Erdoğan in Turkey, the Algerian government has not promised its people prosperity and glory, just "bread and security." Is the army, which continues to present itself as the only bulwark against Islamism, ready to give up the profits that accompany the exercise of power?, in a country suffering from the oil curse? For Algeria right now, el-Sisi's Egypt is as much a model for the army as it is a warning to the people.

Paradoxically, Turkey is perhaps closer to a real political turnaround than Algeria can be. In Turkey, the attachment to the democratic tradition has only been strengthened by the centralization of power and the attacks on press freedom and judicial autonomy under Erdoğan. Due to its recent history, Turkey is also culturally closer to the Western world than Algeria is. Will the latter succeed in finding the necessary momentum for the emergence of a democratic system? One can only hope so, cautiously.

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