The Fall of the Turkish Model: How the Arab Uprisings Brought Down Islamic Liberalism by Cihan Tugal, Verso Press, 2016.

In The Fall of the Turkish Model, Cihan Tugal, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, uses an economic framework to examine where Turkish democracy went wrong. He argues that, as paradoxical as it may seem, the increasing authoritarianism of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is the result of “successful liberalization in Turkey during the last three decades.” Tugal is not just referring to political liberalization, but the neoliberal economic system that was implemented in the wake of the 1980 military coup.

In his previous work, Tugal has largely focused on economics, capitalism, and the market economy, and this book is no different. In the Fall of the Turkish Model, Tugal compares Turkey and the AKP’s economic institutions and political trajectory to those of Egypt, Iran and, Tunisia. His purpose is to highlight how the “Turkish Model” is distinct to its particular context and never going to work beyond the Turkish border, despite the hopes of Western governments immediately after the Arab Spring. In these ways, Tugal’s book fills a critical gap in analysis on Turkey’s current political trajectory.

Tugal’s analysis begins with a definition of Turkish Model, which he describes as a combination of conservative, Islamically-based values, formal democratic institutions, and neoliberal economics. Tugal does not believe that the model’s Turkish or Islamic roots are to blame for its turn toward authoritarianism. He also does not believe that democratic institutions, in Turkey or elsewhere, are a good predictor of a country’s ability to maintain liberal democracy in the long term. Instead, Tugal turns his focus to the third aspect of the Model, and questions “whether democratization is sustainable under the conditions of neoliberalism (emphasis in the original).” For Tugal, the answer is no.

From the outset, Tugal makes clear that he is, to put it mildly, a skeptic of the neoliberal, globalized economy. For some, this critical stance may irrevocably taint his book. It also, however, helps Tugal pick apart the still largely praised Turkish economic “miracle” that took place under the AKP’s watch. Tugal quite convincingly shows that “the economic model [the AKP] has adopted has led to a phenomenal increase in wealth, but not to a better life for the citizenry at large.” As Tugal demonstrates, when compared to Egypt, Iran, and Tunisia (countries that have not experienced the same level of explosive growth as Turkey),  Turkey does quite poorly on a number of human development indicators and levels of public expenditure. On life expectancy, years of schooling, educational expenditures, and wealth inequality, Turkey ranks no better or even significantly worse than the three comparative cases. Clearly, the Turkish government has prioritized other areas of investment over those that would directly benefit its citizens.

Tugal is not completely pessimistic about Turkey’s future prospects. He sees the failure of the country’s Gezi protests as rooted in the protesters inability to present an alternative to the current regime. Similarly, he views the region’s other aborted protest movements as resulting from a failure to undo the old regime’s institutions. While he offers no solid predictions about how the Gezi demonstrations, or the other regional protest movements, might ultimately impact their respective countries, Tugal elegantly observes:

The path of global revolution is neither smoothly integrated nor divided up into states, Rather the world revolution comes in jolts. It does not arrive as a global event, but through uneven combinations of the most modest and the boldest demands and actions in sometimes the least-expected corners of the globe.

Like the revolutions of 1848, what might immediately appear a failed revolution may slowly, over decades and even centuries, change the course of political history – even in Turkey.

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