By Thomas L. Friedman
ISTANBUL — I had just finished a panel discussion on Turkey and the Arab Spring at a regional conference here, and, as I was leaving, a young Egyptian woman approached me.
“Mr Friedman, could I ask you a question? Who should I vote for?”
I thought: “Why is she asking me about Obama and Romney?”
No, no, she explained. It was her Egyptian election next week that she was asking about. Should she vote for Mohamed Morsi, the candidate of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, or Ahmed Shafiq, a retired general who served as Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister and was running as a secular law-and-order candidate?
My heart went out to her. As Egyptian democracy activists say: It’s like having to choose between two diseases.
What happened to the “Facebook Revolution”?
Actually, Facebook is having a bad week — in the stock market and the ideas market. As a liberal Egyptian friend observed, “Facebook really helped people to communicate, but not to collaborate.”
No doubt, Facebook helped a certain educated class of Egyptians to spread the word about the Tahrir Revolution. Ditto Twitter. But, at the end of the day, politics always comes down to two very old things: leadership and the ability to get stuff done.
And when it came to those, both the Egyptian Army and the Muslim Brotherhood, two old “brick and mortar” movements, were much more adept than the Facebook generation of secular progressives and moderate Islamists — whose candidates together won more votes than Morsi and Shafik combined in the first round of voting but failed to make the runoff because they divided their votes among competing candidates who would not align.
To be sure, Facebook, Twitter and blogging are truly revolutionary tools of communication and expression that have brought so many new and compelling voices to light. At their best, they’re changing the nature of political communication and news. But, at their worst, they can become addictive substitutes for real action.
How often have you heard lately: “Oh, I tweeted about that.” Or “I posted that on my Facebook page.” Really? In most cases, that’s about as impactful as firing a mortar into the Milky Way galaxy. Unless you get out of Facebook and into someone’s face, you really have not acted. And, as Syria’s vicious regime is also reminding us: “bang-bang” beats “tweet-tweet” every day of the week.
Commenting on Egypt’s incredibly brave Facebook generation rebels, the political scientist Frank Fukuyama recently wrote: “They could organise protests and demonstrations, and act with often reckless courage to challenge the old regime. But they could not go on to rally around a single candidate, and then engage in the slow, dull, grinding work of organizing a political party that could contest an election, district by district… Facebook, it seems, produces a sharp, blinding flash in the pan, but it does not generate enough heat over an extended period to warm the house.”
Let’s be fair. The Tahrir youth were up against two well-entrenched patronage networks. They had little time to build grassroots networks in a country as big as Egypt. That said, though, they could learn about leadership and the importance of getting things done by studying Turkey’s Islamist Justice and Development Party, known as AKP. It has been ruling here since 2002, winning three consecutive elections.
What even the AKP’s biggest critics will acknowledge is that it has transformed Turkey in a decade into an economic powerhouse with a growth rate second only to China. And it did so by unlocking its people’s energy — with good economic management and reformed universal healthcare, by removing obstacles and creating incentives for business and foreign investment, and by building new airports, rail lines, roads, tunnels, bridges, wireless networks and sewers all across the country.
A Turkish journalist who detests the AKP confessed that she wished the party had won her municipal elections, because she knew it would have improved the neighbourhood.
But here’s the problem: the AKP’s impressively effective prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has not only been effective at building bridges but also in eliminating any independent judiciary in Turkey and in intimidating the Turkish press so there are no more checks and balances here.
With the economic decline of the European Union, the aborting of Turkey’s efforts to become an EU member and the need for America to have Turkey as an ally in managing Iraq, Iran and Syria, there are also no external checks on the AKP’s rising authoritarianism. (Erdogan announced out of the blue last week that he intended to pass a law severely restricting abortions.)
So many conversations I had with Turks here ended with me being told: “Just don’t quote me. He can be very vindictive.” It’s like China.
This isn’t good. If Erdogan’s “sultanization” of Turkey continues unchecked, it will soil his truly significant record and surely end up damaging Turkish democracy.
It will also be bad for the region because whoever wins the election in Egypt, when looking for a model to follow, will see the EU in shambles, the Obama team giving Erdogan a free pass and Turkey thriving under a system that says: give your people growth and you can gradually curb democratic institutions and impose more religion as you like.