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The Unintended Side Effects of the Legacy of Ataturk


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Early in the 20th century Kemal Mustafa rescued the remnants of the Ottoman Empire from the dustbin of history. The Turkish empire had been in slow but steady decline since its failure to take Vienna (Hitler must've conveniently forgotten that it was Polish reinforcements who rescued his hometown). Following its defeat in WWI, it looked like the sick man of Europe might be terminally ill, but Kemal Mustafa, better known as Ataturk (Father of the Turks), secured his country's independence. He did everything possible to modernize the state, taking Islam out of gov't, adopting western script and dress, and creating state-run industries. By all accounts, his policies were tremendously successful.

His legacy provided a blueprint for Arab nationalists in the aftermath of WWII. Arab movements in the 50s and 60s were largely secular. The co-founder of the Baath party was Christian. Prior to Arafat's emergence, one of the most celebrated advocates for the Palestinian cause was George Habash. Military rulers staged coups in Arab countries and dreamed of being their generation's Pan-Arab leader.

The most notable of these was Egypt's Nasser. Like Ataturk, he nationalized much of the country's industry, and was perhaps even more fervent in establishing state corporatism. Unlike Ataturk, he was not quite as shrewd in international and military affairs, and his forces were humiliated in two wars with Israel. Lost wars and bad economic policies took their toll, and after his passing, Sadat managed to land a peace deal brokered by the US which would secure billions in foreign aid from America.

One problem remained, and still remains. Nationalization of industries may have made sense in undeveloped nations in the 20s and 30s, when steel and textiles were the industrial staples of the day, but in a modern world of semi-conductors, software, and precision machinery, it is an albatross around the neck of a nation's economy. It is the root of incompetence, inefficiency, and corruption...and it is an epidemic among Arab despots.

It is the abject failure of such policies combined with the humiliating defeats in 67 and 73 that led the populace to seek an alternative. Unfortunately, that alternative ended up being Islamic fundamentalism, initially advocated by Sayid Qutib and the Muslim Brotherhood, and later championed by Khomeini. It is also these failed economic policies that have unleashed the current wave of protests in the wake of a spike in gloabl food prices.

Fortunately, the failure of Islamic fundamentalists to achieve anything in the last 25 years may have disillusioned much of the Arab youth of its allure. One must hope that the youth movement apparently driving much of the protests in Egypt manages to organize itself into a cohesive political entity to counterbalance an already organized but smaller Muslim Brotherhood.

Still, whatever unravels, the 800 pound elephant in the room remains. Egypt and most of the other Arab countries will never see significant progress without economic reform, but economic reform would likely bring more short term pain than most are willing to accept (think of how much hub-bub there is now in our country about cutting a 1.5 trillion dollar deficit by a meager 100 billion), and economic reforms would also mean dispossessing several industries from the military elite. What are the odds of that ever happening?

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Great post. I think it highlights the primary fallacy in the idea that the recent events in the M.E. were caused by Bush's folly in Iraq. The real reason is that as you pointed out, most of those governments pursued the Soviet economic/political model which was/is bound to eventually fail.

As to your final question about the possibilities for change in the economic system, in Egypt I'd say there are two chances of that in the near term, slim and none....and slim just left town. The military pretty much controls all the industry in Egypt. So the politics may change, but in the short term the economics won't. My hope is that the political change combined with the eventual turnover from the older Soviet trained govt/military staff results in a more open society that ends up bringing in more foreign goods. That will then force the military to compete or even better, simply get out of the business of industrial production. Egypt's private interests would then be able to create economic growth--the real catalyst for the massive protests that eventually swept Mubarak from power.

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Only tangentially related, but care to offer a opinion on this?


A Turkish court ruled Friday that 133 current and former military officers must be jailed pending the outcome of their trial on charges of plotting to overthrow the government and issued warrants for the arrests of 29 other officers, Anatolia news agency reported.

Security forces immediately closed all courthouse doors and detained the defendants, including the former air force and navy chiefs, broadcaster NTV reported. The officers began chanting military songs to protest the court's decision, the TV station reported.

The officers, including several high-ranking generals, are on trial accused of conspiring to topple Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's government in 2003. All but one officer had been free until Friday's hearing.


More than 400 people — including academics, journalists, politicians and soldiers — also are on trial on separate charges of plotting to bring down the government. That case is based on a conspiracy by an alleged gang of secular nationalists called Ergenekon.

Critics say the Sledgehammer and Ergenekon cases are built on flimsy evidence and designed to silence Erdoğan's pro-secular opponents. The government denies the cases are politically motivated and says it is just trying to work to improve democracy

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I'm not an expert on that case, but I do believe it is a power play.

The military has staged coups when the gov't starts to Islamicize, and I'm sure they considered doing so when Erdogan was in power (He was head of the Islamic party). I do not believe, however, that they would've blown up mosques and such to create a causus belli, because they never resorted to such methods in the past, nor do I see any reason for them to have done so. In the past, the military has flexed its muscle to keep the elected powers secular. Now I think Erdogan is flexing back, and trying to intimidate the army from taking action should he begin to pander to religious fundamentalist elements within Turkish society. The added charges of plotting to terrorize Turkish citizens is likely to prevent the defendants from pleading that they were only exploring accepted precedents of intervention.

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