Norman Stone Explains Why Egypt Isn't Turkey

A portrait of Ataturk, the founder of modern secular Turkey, hangs in a store window in Istanbul, Turkey in 2007. Q. Sakamaki / Redux

A hundred years ago, Egyptians looked down on Turks: etrak bi itrak, ran the pun. "Turks are clods." Egyptians had Westernized first, had a modern Army that defeated the Turks twice, and then got a huge amount of money from the tolls of the Suez Canal. Cairo had resplendent mosques and religious schools, whereas the Turks, speaking a Central Asian language the grammar of which was tortuous and the vocabulary limited to physical activities of a rudimentary nature, did not rate. Egyptian money was all over the Turkish capital, and there are still splendid buildings to mark that era.

How things have changed. On any measure Turkey is now so far ahead as to be out of sight—11,000 local translations of books from Western languages every year, to 300 in Egypt, for a start, but that is only a symbol. Turkey has twice Egypt's GDP per capita, and Turkish businessmen (and women) are all over the world. Their country is also quite famously democratic—though usually you can say, as Turkish historian H. A. Karasar sets as an exam question, "Islam, politics, economics: choose two." Istanbul, like Cairo, suffers from megalopolitan overpopulation. But in Cairo the problem is ungovernable—sewage, electricity, schools, rubbish collection. Istanbul is closer in every sense to Barcelona than to Cairo, and it is a great tribute to the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, that this is so. He was Istanbul's mayor, and was far better at the job than his predecessors, however secular and modern they claimed to be. One measure of Turkey's uniqueness is that it is the only country between Athens and Singapore that attracts immigrants.

The "Turkish model" is now often invoked for other Muslim countries, the more so given the recent Arab crises. The essential figure is Mustafa Kemal, later called Atatürk, father of the nation. This invocation is not new: in the 1930s, as Turkey modernized, rulers from Afghanistan or Iran would come by, and others, from Egypt to Iraq, already had palaces and family in Istanbul. They came to see how Westernization was carried out. Atatürk's symbol was simple enough: a hat, replacing turbans and fezzes. But there were other reforms, the greatest of which by far was to change the alphabet. The Turkish language has eight vowels, Arabic (a guttural language) only three, though four versions of "z." Under the Ottoman Empire, there were only a few hundred readers for any newspaper, and of the few books printed, almost all were religious. Changing the alphabet has meant that Turks can read, even if it is only the football results. The language has been vastly coarsened as a result: I myself, with not very good Turkish, regret that wonderful old words such as gipta, meaning "envy without malice," are no longer understood. But there we are.

Could Egypt turn democratic by the Atatürkist route? Difficult to imagine. The very first thing with which Atatürk is associated is simply national independence. At the end of the First World War, Turkey might have been partitioned between the victors or their Greek and Armenian and other Christian associates. As things were, Atatürk saw them all off and established a republic pledged to Westernization. There is nothing in the Egyptian scenario that matches these Turkish ingredients. Gamal Abdel Nasser might have been an Atatürk, but he blew it, making the wrong friends and enemies. Turkish Islam contains modernizing elements, some "brotherhoods" (tarikat) well to the fore with education, even for girls, and there are millions of Alevis, a sect so heretical in terms of gender equality and alcohol as not to count as proper Muslims at all (some are even said to be, by origin, Armenian). In the '30s, when the reforms were launched, there was therefore not much resistance in Turkey beyond the ultrareligious Kurdish regions, and not always there either. The difference in the end is that Turkey was an empire, never a colony, whereas Egypt was taken over by the British, and dominated by Greek or other Western diasporas. It freed itself through the Army, as did Turkey with Atatürk, but the Turkish Army had both a hinterland and foreign supporters.

Not so long ago, Egypt was ruled by the Turks, and there always has been a problem: Egypt's modernizers have come from without, pretty much since Alexander the Great. Mubarak has (with dignity) gone, but I have a suspicion that his soul will go marching on.

Stone, a professor at Bilkent University in Ankara, is the author of Turkey: A Short History, to be published next month by Thames & Hudson.