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Obama’s Turkey

The president’s favorite Muslim democrat is turning into just another Middle Eastern despot

Gareth H. Jenkins
June 03, 2013
Protestors clash with riot police between Taksim and Besiktas in Istanbul, on June 1, 2013, during a demonstration against the demolition of the park.(GURCAN OZTURK/AFP/Getty Images)
Protestors clash with riot police between Taksim and Besiktas in Istanbul, on June 1, 2013, during a demonstration against the demolition of the park.(GURCAN OZTURK/AFP/Getty Images)

Last weekend, years of pent-up fury and frustration erupted into anti-government demonstrations as tens of thousands of Turks took to the streets of Istanbul to protest the increasing authoritarianism of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The protests quickly spread to more than a dozen cities across the country. In Taksim Square in the center of Istanbul, the police repeatedly tried to disperse the demonstrators with pepper gas, pressurized-water cannons, and plastic bullets. Dozens of demonstrators were injured, many of them critically. But the number of protesters continued to grow. Finally, on Saturday afternoon, as the world watched on television, Erdogan was forced to admit defeat and withdraw the police, allowing the demonstrators to occupy Taksim Square.

Ironically, the protests came just two weeks after Erdogan paid a visit to Washington, where U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry described the relationship between their two countries as being “rooted in democratic values, freedom, pluralism, and justice.” Kerry’s paean was just the latest in a series of eulogies lavished on Erdogan and the moderate Islamism of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) by the Obama Administration, which appears to have singled out Turkey as a role model to which other predominantly Muslim countries should aspire. Erdogan himself has made no secret of his hopes that, as new regimes emerge in the Arab world, they will look to Ankara for leadership—and enable him to realize his ambition of creating a neo-Ottoman sphere of Turkish influence in the Middle East.

Yet it seems fair to say that this hopeful description of the values that Erdogan and the AKP represent, which are intended to serve as a beacon for Arab countries that have sunk into turmoil since the 2011 outbreak of the Arab Spring, is largely a fiction. Far from serving as an example of the leader of a Muslim country with democratic values, Erdogan has increasingly begun to resemble the authoritarian potentate of popular caricature. Nor has Turkey shown much of an ability to influence events in the rest of the Arab world, beginning with its flailing intervention in the Syrian civil war. The question of why the “Turkish model” appears to be failing is therefore an urgent one. Is there something wrong with the model of Islamist democracy that Obama and his predecessor George W. Bush have both championed so ardently? Or is the problem Tayyip Erdogan?


Erdogan’s bludgeoning rhetoric and ability to connect with the average voter have made him the most successful politician in modern Turkish history. His party, the AKP, first took office in November 2002. It has since been re-elected twice, most recently in June 2011, when it won 49.8 percent of the popular vote. Opinion polls suggest that support for the AKP is currently running at around 53-54 percent. The opposition parties remain weak and divided and appear unconvinced of their own chances of ousting the AKP.

The AKP’s electoral success is largely attributable to the energy, cunning, and raw political charisma of Erdogan himself. While some party members resent Erdogan’s abrasive self-confidence and autocratic management style, few are bold enough to confront him—not least because they know how much their own political careers owe to his electoral appeal among the Turkish masses. As a result, Erdogan has increasingly concentrated political power in his own hands. Relying on a small inner court of trusted advisers rather than the career bureaucrats in the civil service, Erdogan has the final say on every aspect of AKP policy, with the result that Turkish politics and policy-making have become both deinstitutionalized and highly personalized.

Disturbingly, the longer Erdogan has remained in power—and particularly since the election of June 2011—the more he has appeared to regard himself as the embodiment of the national will and to identify his own views, values, and prejudices as those of the entire Turkish population. Over the last year, this has led him increasingly to try to re-shape Turkey according to his own personal tastes. For example, in November 2012, the makers of a popular television series set in the 16th-century reign of Suleyman the Magnificent were forced to change both its script and its costumes after Erdogan publicly complained that it failed to reflect the piety of the Ottoman court and focused too much on palace intrigues rather than military campaigns. In April 2013, Erdogan abruptly announced that he had decided that ayran or “buttermilk” was now Turkey’s national drink. No one else was consulted.

Erdogan has long inveighed against the use of alcohol. Since it came to power, the AKP has more than doubled the taxes on alcoholic beverages and effectively banned it from all state and municipal premises. On May 24, 2013, the government tightened legislation still further by banning all advertisements for alcohol and forbidding the issuing of new licenses to sell alcohol to any premises located within 100 meters of an educational establishment or place of worship. Turkish law now also requires all depictions of alcohol in movies or on television to be obscured by being blurred, on the grounds that they would otherwise encourage people to drink.

Erdogan has disingenuously dismissed suggestions that the new restrictions on alcohol are religiously motivated, arguing that they are prerequisites for public health—despite the fact that similar strictures are not applied to other items that are generally considered to be harmful to the public, like, say, guns. On May 28, 2013, in an alarming demonstration of his apparent belief that the AKP now owns the public space, Erdogan blithely dismissed criticism of the new alcohol law. “We have not outlawed the consumption of alcohol,” he told a meeting of the AKP parliamentary party. “People can still buy alcohol and drink it in the privacy of their own homes.”

While it is possible to dismiss Erdogan’s war on alcohol as a personal preference, or a pious foible, it is harder to dismiss the use of the police and the courts to stifle dissent. In recent years, more than one thousand actual or suspected opponents and rivals of the Turkish Islamist movement have been charged in a series of highly politicized trials, such as the notorious Ergenekon and Sledgehammer investigations. Much of the evidence in the trials has clearly been fabricated and planted in the homes and offices of the accused. In September 2012, a total of 331 serving and retired members of the Turkish military, once the dominant power in Turkish politics and social life, were sentenced to lengthy jail terms for alleged involvement in plans for a military coup. Prosecutors claim that plans for the coup were saved to a CD on 5 March 2003—even though the judges in the trial accepted forensic analysis showing that the documents in question had been written using Microsoft Office 2007. Faced with such blatant manipulation of the judicial system, it is hardly surprising that most Turks are now afraid of publicly criticizing Erdogan, the AKP, or other members of the Turkish Islamist movement.

Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism comes at a time when he is attempting to change the Turkish constitution and replace the country’s parliamentary system with one in which all political power is concentrated in the office of the presidency—without, as is the case in countries such as the United States, any system of checks and balances. It is unlikely to be a coincidence that Erdogan plans to introduce the new system in 2014, when he will stand as a candidate in Turkey’s presidential elections.

Erdogan’s Putin-esque ambitions come amid an epidemic of nostalgia for the Ottoman Empire among Turkey’s conservative ruling elite—or, more accurately, nostalgia for a highly sanitized version of the Ottoman past. Turkey’s current outbreak of Ottomania permeates not only the speeches of AKP ministers but also popular culture, from cinema and television dramas to the worlds of fashion and design, “rediscovered” traditions, and even a penchant for Ottoman vocabulary and grammatical constructions. Most perniciously, it also informs the worldviews of both Erdogan and his foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu. What neither man appears to realize is that their vision of the Ottoman state as a paradigm of tolerance and social harmony to which everyone would naturally wish to return is not shared by the empire’s former subject peoples in the predominantly Christian provinces of southeast Europe or in the mainly Muslim Arab world.

Nevertheless, both Erdogan and Davutoglu saw the uprisings that swept the Arab world as an opportunity to restore what the Turkish foreign minister has described as “the natural flow of history”—namely, Turkish domination of the Middle East. Syria was to be Turkey’s first neo-Ottoman dependency. After initially aligning himself with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Erdogan turned against him in summer 2011 and became the most outspoken supporter of the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA), which he allowed to operate freely along the Turkish-Syrian border, even helping to facilitate supplies of arms bought with Qatari and Saudi Arabian funds. Erdogan’s expectation was that Assad would swiftly be overthrown. He believed that not only would this demonstrate Turkey’s growing power but that, in gratitude for Ankara’s support, the subsequent FSA-dominated government would become the first member of a Turkish sphere of influence in the Middle East.

But Erdogan now appears to have severely miscalculated both the terms of his support and his likely reward. In his rush to topple Assad, Erdogan made no attempt to prevent Syrian rebel ranks from being swelled by the arrival of salafi jihadists, such as the militant Al-Nusra Front, which has gradually become one of the dominant members of the coalition of forces fighting the regime in Damascus on the ground. The jihadists appear to have no particular interest in belonging to the Turkish Islamist party’s idea of a renewed Ottoman empire, preferring their own dreams of a pan-Islamic caliphate. In turn, Erdogan’s failure to maintain any semblance of Turkish authority inside the rebel ranks has made it difficult for the West to provide meaningful military assistance, which has weakened the rebels and made Erdogan’s decision look even worse.

With Assad still in power after two years of fighting, the Syrian Civil War has demonstrated not Turkey’s strength but its weakness. Erdogan threatened retaliation when Syrian downed a Turkey F-4E Phantom reconnaissance aircraft on June 22, 2012, and retribution when 52 people were killed in a double car bombing, which he blamed on Assad, in the border town of Reyhanli on May 11, 2013. But, fearful of Syria’s Russian-supplied air defenses, and with the overwhelming majority of Turks opposed to any direct military intervention, Turkey has done nothing, which has hardly made the Turkish leader look good inside his own country, or to a wider Arab audience. Nor have Erdogan’s blustering attempts to champion the Palestinian cause paid off with either renewed peace talks or concessions from the Israelis: Instead, they have reinforced the Turkish leader’s regional profile as a hot-head who fails to back up his words with coherent actions.

Erdogan has now turned his attention to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, defying both the central government in Baghdad and the United States and signing a string of energy deals. Publicly, Erdogan maintains—with justification—that Turkey needs to diversify its energy supplies and that imports of oil and natural gas from the KRG would reduce its current dependence on Russia and Iran. However, privately, AKP officials admit that—by providing the KRG with a conduit for energy exports to international markets—they hope to increase its political dependence on Ankara.

The rapprochement with the KRG coincides with a hiatus in Ankara’s long-running, low-level civil war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which in March 2013 announced a ceasefire while it negotiated with the AKP government. The negotiations are expected to take several months. Publicly, Erdogan insists that he will not make any major concessions. In reality, major concessions—including the granting of a degree of autonomy to the predominantly Kurdish southeast of Turkey—are the only way that the conflict can be permanently resolved. Consequently, the choice facing Erdogan is between a renewal of the PKK insurgency and a reduction in the authority of the central government in Ankara, which effectively also means a decrease in his own power. Similarly, even if Turkey were to succeed in bringing the KRG into its sphere of influence, there appears little prospect of extending its influence any farther. Indeed, far from drawing them closer, the AKP’s continued neo-Ottoman rhetoric seems more likely to drive the Arab states away.

Growing international expressions of concern—particularly in Europe—about Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic authoritarianism and his repeated failures as a regional leader appear to be having little effect. In fact, such is Erdogan’s almost hubristic self-confidence that he seems to regard them as mere jealous snipes to try to prevent Turkey’s inevitable rise to superpower status in the Middle East. Ironically, given that the United States in particular has cited Turkey as a democratic model to which the Muslim world should aspire, Erdogan’s government is increasingly beginning to resemble the authoritarian regimes that the Arab uprisings overthrew.


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Gareth H. Jenkins is a writer and analyst based in Istanbul.

Gareth H. Jenkins is a writer and analyst based in Istanbul.