There is no denying that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was one of the most important progressive leaders of all time. Atatürk not only defeated Western imperialism and created an independent Turkish state, but also achieved to establish a modern secular state which would later transform itself into a multi-party democracy and reach European Union standards concerning democracy and human rights. Turkey remains still the only secular and democratic country in the Muslim world thanks to Atatürk’s successful reforms. However, the success of Kemalist Revolution and Turkish modernization is not only caused by Atatürk’s genius. There were many other factors such as the strong state tradition of Turks (as it was written by Prof. Metin Heper), semi-secular nature of Ottoman system (the presence of secular laws in addition to Islamic laws) and relatively developed sociological situation of Anatolia (the presence of a Westernized bureaucratic group). Regarding these features which do not equally exist in Egypt, it would not be wrong to assume that Atatürk might not have been very successful if he tried to implement his reforms in Egypt.
Starting from 1517, Egypt had long been a province of Ottoman state which was a major disadvantage of Egypt to develop its state tradition properly. Until the 1920’s, Egypt’s landed class, which was created by Mohammad Ali (Kavalalı Mehmet Ali) and his successors, constituted almost exclusively the country’s dominant and ruling group similar to south-eastern part of Turkey. The presence of a strong feudal class has always been a major disadvantage to Egypt unlike Turkey. But following the independence from Britain in 1923, a new industrial bourgeoisie developed. Faced the resistance of landed class in the beginning, the mutual interests had united agrarian and industrial bourgeoisie to form a single class that until 1952 constituted the Egyptian ruling elite. Because of the weakness and fragility of this class as a consequence of its shallow historical roots, there was a striking absence of strong political parties unlike Republican People’s Party (also previously Committee of Union and Progress) which created a strong rational bureaucracy and noticeable ties with rising bourgeoisie in Turkey. Moreover, unlike Turkey, Egypt was not able to cut its ties with Western imperialism completely. During the 1923-1952 periods, the major players in the Egyptian political arena were the King, the British occupation forces and lastly the political parties, of which the most prominent one was the WAFD (New Delegation Party). Much of this period was characterized by competitive oligarchic rule and corrupt clientelistic politics, which unfortunately left a bad reputation about democracy in people’s memory. What existed during that so-called “liberal era” was a fragmented political system dominated on the one hand by the King who exercised his arbitrary powers to dismiss the government and dissolve the parliament, and on the other hand, by the British who played the political parties against each other. In such a political atmosphere, social and economic problems went largely unattended causing a rising disaffection among the newly emerging urban middle class. Seeking upward mobility but frustrated by their inability to find adequate channels, many of the discontented were attracted to the Muslim Brothers (formed in 1928) with their ideology of unified thought and action under the potent symbols of Islam. The period of 1945-1952 witnessed an increasing decay of the regime’s legitimacy, as evidenced by the rise in the incidence of political violence and the inability of the ruling elite to maintain control. And finally, Egypt’s defeat against Israel produced additional cleavages in Egyptian society and helped eliminate whatever remnants of legitimacy the regime had retained till then. Finally, a military coup on July 23, 1952 swept away the monarchy and its regime.
The existence of a strong feudal class which later made a pact with rising bourgeoisie in order to preserve its privileged position, the regime’s links with Western imperialism with created unstableness in the country and decreased the legitimacy of the regime in the eyes of people, relatively weak state tradition and people’s strong commitment to Islam would be certainly major disadvantages of Atatürk to implement his reforms. Such a transformation could not be happened in Egypt in such a bloodless way (although Turkey had many problems too such as Sheikh Said revolt, Menemen event etc.). Moreover, because of the existence of a King and the force of Britain, Atatürk could not consolidate power in his hands solely. The success of Atatürk in Turkey was largely caused by the lack of important opponent political actors. It is not surprising to see that in Turkey even opponent parties (Progressive Republican Party, Free Party or Democrat Party) were mostly consisted of enlightened ex-RPP deputies. Atatürk created RPP as an umbrella organization and kept different factions and social groups within the party. This strategy increased the legitimacy of the party a lot. Opponent groups found a channel within the party to make their struggle against the regime (liberal Celal Bayar-Adnan Menderes faction, authoritarian Recep Peker group, Republican conservatives like Peyami Safa or socialism oriented Kadroists like Yakup Kadri and Şevket Süreyya). Atatürk eliminated the caliphate and the sultanate which increased his legitimacy and erased the legitimacy of the ancient regime. Sociological nature of Turks (the presence of Alevi-Bektaşi tradition as well as small Jew and Christian communities) and the semi-secular nature of Ottoman system allowed Atatürk to get rid of sharia demands in an easier manner. This would probably not the case in Egypt since Islam was the only channel left to rising bourgeoisie and opponent groups. Secular and modernist reforms in Turkey were encouraged and supported by the Western world and Turkey gained enormous emphasis during the Cold War as a neighboring country near USSR.
Looking at all these important points, as far as I am concerned Atatürk would probably fail if he would try to implement these reforms in Egypt. Egypt had a late modernization and urbanization process under Nasser rule in the 1950’s and 1960’s. But Egypt is still very weak concerning democracy compared to Turkey. It must be also noted that Egypt did not have a visionary leader like Atatürk which made the country’s democratization and liberalization much more difficult.