Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

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Man in the Middle

by Steven A. Cook
March 28, 2014

Turkey's President Abdullah Gul (C) is applauded by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan (R) and his ministers as he arrives to address the Turkish Parliament (Umit Bektas /Courtesy Reuters). Turkey's President Abdullah Gul (C) is applauded by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan (R) and his ministers as he arrives to address the Turkish Parliament (Umit Bektas /Courtesy Reuters).

This article was originally published here on ForeignAffairs.com on Thursday, March 27, 2014. 

Many observers, both in Turkey and abroad, believe that this is Turkish President Abdullah Gul’s moment to shine. In recent months, Turkey’s democracy has careened wildly off its democratic path, as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has resorted to increasingly authoritarian measures — including a ban on access to Twitter and YouTube — to suppress what he believes is an existential threat posed by his onetime ally Fethullah Gulen, a charismatic Turkish cleric who has followers in positions of influence throughout the government. Erdogan seems intent on trying to excise Gulenists from Turkish society entirely. Erdogan’s paranoia has also moved the AKP toward becoming an authoritarian cult of personality.

This is where many Turks, Europeans, and Americans have hoped that Gul would step in to steer Turkey back onto a democratic course. In mid-February, Gunay Hilal Aygun, a columnist for the Gulen-affiliated Today’s Zaman, asked, “Will President Gul let the Turkish people down?” The Financial Times picked up on this theme a few weeks later when the editorial board called on Gul “to take a stand” against Erdogan. What these observers seem to want is for Gul to come down from the apolitical confines of his presidential office and directly challenge Erdogan for leadership of the AKP, with a promise of restoring the party’s original coalition, which included pious Muslims of all stripes, Kurds, secular liberals, and the business elite. These hopes aren’t entirely fanciful, but they are far too optimistic. In fact, they have fundamentally missed Gul’s broader reading of Turkish politics.

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