Over this past weekend one of my Economist-devouring, Washington Post-reading, New York Times-gobbling buddies who does not work in the field of foreign affairs asked me, “Hey, what’s up with Erdogan and the Turks?” I’ve been asked this question so many times this summer by so many people that I have lost count. It’s been a long summer in Turkey, starting in May with the Gezi Park protests that revealed a depth of anger toward Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which seemed to surprise the Turkish leadership. Then in early August there were the Ergenekon verdicts, which brought to a close a five year investigation and trial in an alleged plot to undermine Erdogan and his government. The trials may be over (excluding appeals), but the controversy around Ergenekon continues. In between these two bookends have been the deteriorating situation in Syria, the coup in Egypt, a slowing economy, and the beginning of a peace process with the Kurdistan Workers Party. The combined pressure of all of the events seems to have gotten to the prime minister who has been bullying domestic critics, engaging in conspiracies about “interest rate lobbies” intent on bringing down the Turkish economy, and generally finger-pointing at everyone but himself for the difficulties Turkey now confronts at home and abroad.
As the Gezi Park-inspired protests have faded somewhat, the July 3 military intervention in Egypt that brought down Mohammed Morsi seems to be the issue that is currently consuming Prime Minister Erdogan. In language that was once reserved only for Israelis, the Turkish political elite is lashing out at the Egyptians. Prime Minister Erdogan is alone among world leaders in advocating forcefully on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi. He has blamed the coup on the Israelis and the Gulf countries while wrecking Ankara’s ties with Egypt as well as blowing Turkish soft power. It would be a logical fallacy to suggest that because Erdogan is virtually alone (the Ecuadoreans recalled their ambassador in Cairo over the coup) in this issue that he is thus wrong, but the Turkish leader tends to have trouble with context, though more about that down below. Regime mouthpieces like Taha Ozhan of the unofficially AKP-affiliated advocacy organization/think tank, SETA Foundation, have gone so far as to link Major General Abdelfattah al Sisi with Bashar al Assad in some sort of new axis of evil. In the end, however, Egypt’s present tribulations are, according to Ozhan, the fault of the United States. What is new? On the face of it, Ozhan’s missive should not be taken seriously, but for the fact that it reflects the dominant political thinking within the AKP. There are any number of shills who are all too willing to explain away the convulsions in and around Turkey as some sort of “Zionist-provocateur, interest rate lobby, American conspiracy against Muslim democrats,” rather than a serious examination of the pressures, interests, and issues that have led to a range of dramatic developments in the Middle East recently. The Turks, it seems, are the last Orientalists.
So why have the Turks reacted this way? Someone recently suggested—I can’t remember where—that perhaps Erdogan’s overwrought response to Egypt, which seems to serve no purpose other than alienating yet another major Middle Eastern country, was the result of an allegedly undisclosed health problem. This is the same kind of silliness some people used to explain Vice President Dick Cheney’s behavior during the Bush years. Allegedly the vice president’s heart condition made him do it. A more analytically sound argument for the behavior of the Turkish prime minister and his minions revolves around three issues:
1) It should not be a surprise that Prime Minister Erdogan would react strongly and negatively to a coup d’état. Turkey’s history of military interventions is hardly worth repeating, but suffice it to say that in the coups of 1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997 political forces representing pious Muslims suffered. The Turkish military was responsible for the development of a political system that was geared specifically to prevent the accumulation of Kurdish, Islamist, and at one time communist political power. The result was that many, especially in the West, saw the Turkish armed forces as a “moderating force” that ensured what people considered a democratic system. To Islamists, however, the military enforced a Jacobin-like secularism that repressed them because they took their religion seriously and wanted to live in a truly secular system where government did not control religion, but rather protected religious rights. Even as Erdogan has become the sun around which Turkish politics revolves, bringing the military to heel, presiding over an economic boom, and bringing new prestige and influence to Turkey, he remains deeply concerned about the next coup even if circumstances suggest it is unlikely to happen. Against the backdrop of the Turkish Republic’s history, Erdogan could not possibly let al Sisi’s coup go. He is correct that there is nothing democratic about the Egyptian military’s actions, but the Turkish prime minister seems to have willfully overlooked the fact that Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brothers hardly distinguished themselves as democrats over the course of the last year. It was clear from what the Brotherhood-dominated Shura Council was doing that Morsi and the Guidance Office were seeking to institutionalize the power of their organization with little regard for the principles of democratic politics. Erdogan simply refuses to see the Egyptian dilemma or recognize that the Brothers had no intention of forging a democratic system.
2) As I have written elsewhere on any number of occasions, Tayyip Erdogan is an extraordinary politician. He has an innate capability to connect with the average Turk and the vital center of the electorate. Sure he’s been in power for a decade and seems isolated from society, but he is still the guy from Kasımpaşa. When Erdogan rails against interest rate lobbies, blames foreign hands, blasts Gulf leaders, assails Egyptian generals, and ostentatiously weeps over Palestinian blood, he is connecting with his constituency. Everything the prime minister does is directly related to domestic politics so it does not matter that his rhetoric contributes to the erosion of Turkey’s strategic position in the region, because this type of rhetoric resonates deeply. The domestic turbulence as a result of the Gezi protests, in particular, has given Erdogan an opportunity to play on Turkish sensitivities about the predatory role of external powers. These ideas crystallized—for good reason—in the immediate post WWI era, but remain potent almost a century later. The tough rhetoric also insulates Erdogan from setbacks because he has framed the terms of debate in a way that no matter what happens to the economy, it is not his or his government’s fault, but rather the responsibility of foreign bankers. In an unintended way, Turkey’s troubles may actually help Erdogan politically.
3) Erdogan’s visceral response to what has happened to Morsi is a function of the Turkish leader’s own (more successful) efforts to do what the former Egyptian president tried. If you strip away the lore of a politically and economically liberalizing Turkey, the AKP has done what the Egyptian armed forces did not permit the Muslim Brotherhood to do. The Justice and Development Party has consolidated its power and in the process has made it exceedingly difficult to challenge the party in the formal political arena. The party’s members and their allies have used the last decade to exploit economic opportunities that are recycled through the political system, further institutionalizing the power of the party. Coming on the heels of the Gezi protests, Erdogan cannot allow anyone to draw parallels, however abstract, between the dynamics that led to the coup in Egypt and the political-economic circumstances that prevail in Turkey. This is not to suggest that Turkey is ripe for a coup or even that the Turkish military could pull one off, but rather that the illiberal drift in Turkish politics renders the country’s political environment more like Egypt than, say, any of Ankara’s Western partners.
The end result is a Turkey that is more insular, less democratic, and pricklier than at any time during Erdogan’s tenure. In other words, the new Turkey looks a lot like the old one.