And, indeed, Erdogan started in a progressive direction – by stabilizing the economy under the tutelage of the International Monetary Fund, by obtaining the status of candidate for Turkey’s accession to the European Union, by successfully exploiting the export opportunities for the Turkish economy in Europe and the Middle East, and by winning elections to lead an inclusive and modernizing coalition. Starting from his base within the near majority core group of devout and historically “left behind” Anatolian Turks, Erdogan was able to enter and exit alliances with traditionalist Kurds, Islamist modernizers of the Gülenist faction, secular and pragmatic Turkish nationalists . entrepreneurs, while isolating Westernized secular liberals centered in Istanbul and other cities, who managed to appear both too tied to the military-dominated old regime but also too cosmopolitan. These liberals grappled with a secular Westernizing political party inherited from the Atatürk system, the Republican People’s Party, or CHP, which had conspired in military coups, corrupted state support for industrial enterprises, and banned the port of the headscarf to block the professional advancement of pious women. Militant organizations that took in foreign money to support secular rights were also too easily dismissed as tools of the liberal West.
Since the AKP positioned itself as the most natural coalition partner for most other factional constituencies in Turkey, Erdogan was able to switch to an illiberal strategy as needed. When his regime proved too corrupt, too abusive of free speech and Kurdish rights, and perhaps too Turkish or Islamist to qualify for full EU membership, Erdogan tried to maintain economic benefits with fiscal patronage for its base of support. He combined this with the crackdown on Turkey’s restive Kurdish minority and Gülenist technocrats, who were seen by the AKP as insufficiently loyal allies of convenience and became Erdogan’s rivals for power and patronage. These divisive moves, amid various economic failures, have coincided with a rise in Erdogan’s nationalist rhetoric and the AKP’s reliance on a tighter coalition government.
The mounting costs of this reckless strategy under Erdogan have opened the door for progressives in Turkey to organize a potential winning coalition after all his years in power. Secular liberals, Kurds, and the generally wealthy, dispersed, and persecuted Alevi religious minority began to coordinate on strategic voting. Erdogan and the AKP’s responsibility for skyrocketing inflation and crushing corruption is a unifying issue for his opponents, despite the lack of strong network ties within this eventual opposition coalition. However, even if such a coalition were to defeat Erdogan, consolidating progress towards more rights in Turkey could be a challenge without a highly professionalized civil service, a cohesive reform party and a synchronized mass social movement.
Pragmatic coalition strategies are more difficult in countries that lack even more of the conditions that facilitate democratic success than Turkey. In Egypt, liberal and secular factions that support democracy and human rights have been disorganized and manipulated since the fall of Mubarak in 2011. In the last days of his rule, although there were some professionalized NGOs to protest abuses, there were no crosses – cutting elite networks to forge compromises with other moderate factions, and no pragmatic reform parties. A labor movement among factory workers in the Nile Delta helped spark the early protests, but it did not lead to broader political organization in the form of a unified political party.
The potential constituencies for reform in Egypt after its popular uprising, although constituting 49% of voters in the first round of the 2012 presidential election, remained divided and disorganized with the military and the Muslim Brotherhood. The third-place candidate, leftist Hamdeen Sabahi, got 21%; the moderate democratic Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh 17%; and veteran diplomat and former foreign minister under Mubarak, Amr Moussa, 11%, all independent candidates without the support of an organized party. Secular and reform-minded citizens shared the anti-regime protest space in Tahrir Square with the Muslim Brotherhood, but the Muslim Brotherhood commanded a strong social movement that could win the vote and a more disciplined leadership that barred rival Muslim Brotherhood candidates to compete in the same district. This eventually won them presidential and parliamentary elections. But the Muslim Brotherhood lacked a pragmatic ruling party and had no interest in cooperating with the reformists in an alliance to neutralize the common threat from the Egyptian army – which toppled Morsi in a coup l next year, even leading to a regime under Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. more authoritarian than that of Mubarak.
While expedient reform strategies must necessarily be tailored to local possibilities and the local vernacular, some general rules of thumb apply everywhere. Put those issues of democracy and human rights that are locally unpopular on the back burner. Instead, promote issues like anti-corruption that are already popular everywhere with potentially powerful majority constituencies. Roughly a third of mass protests worldwide recent years have focused on the fight against corruption. They were almost all initiated by local groups. International rights organizations joined late, if at all, and only to speak out against violations of the rights to freedom of assembly and expression. International advocates must take ownership of the problem of corruption and link it not just to the punishment of the guilty, but to the need for systemic rights reform that will prevent corruption in the future through an impartial rule of law. Given that international financial and tax systems are major catalysts for corruption, advocates can easily avoid appearing to shame the Global South for its corruption by highlighting the central role and complicity of states and the wealthiest corporations in the West.
More generally, let’s not pretend that we can make human rights happen in a vacuum. Instead, have a strategy that creates the institutional supports and economic preconditions for human rights in the right order. Advance human rights by opening the door to states willing to liberalize, not through a hard sell to reluctant and distrustful corporations. Do not abuse the tactic of shaming human rights violators, who can frame this condemnation as imperialist disdain and use it to mobilize illiberal and populist backlash. Above all, promote democracy and human rights by proving what they have traditionally been so effective at: producing economic growth and political stability.