Erdogan’s Moment

16 minute read
Bobby Ghosh / Istanbul

Red carpets, honor guards and gun salutes are for garden-variety visiting politicians and monarchs: for Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Cairo put on the kind of reception usually reserved for rock stars. Turkey’s Prime Minister was greeted at the airport by thousands of cheering fans, many holding aloft posters of their hero. Fusillades of flashbulbs turned night into day. Journalists eager for a quote thrust microphones into Erdogan’s face, but he was drowned out by the chanting throngs. “Erdogan! Erdogan! A real Muslim and not a coward,” went one incantation. Another: “Turkey and Egypt are a single fist.”

Totalitarian regimes routinely orchestrate massive, faux-spontaneous welcomes for visiting dignitaries, but the beleaguered interim administration in Cairo didn’t need to rent a crowd for Erdogan: the Turkish leader is genuinely popular across the Arab world. He was ranked the most admired world leader in a 2010 poll of Arabs by the University of Maryland in conjunction with Zogby International. His stock has soared higher still since the Arab Spring. In countries where young people have risen against old tyrannies, many cite Erdogan as the kind of leader they would like to have instead.

(Read “Prime Minister Erdogan: Turkey’s Man of The People.”)

A good politician knows how to milk his moment: the Cairo visit was the first leg of Erdogan’s triumphant mid-September sweep through the newly liberated North African states. There were tumultuous welcomes, too, in Tunis and Tripoli. Then it was time for Erdogan to take a bow on the biggest stage. The trip culminated at the U.N. General Assembly in New York City, where President Obama, ignoring Erdogan’s recent criticism of U.S. policy in the Middle East and his flaming diplomatic row with Israel, lauded him for showing “great leadership” in the region.

It’s not every day that a U.S. President and the Arab street are of one mind. But like the throngs chanting Erdogan’s name (not all of them aware it is pronounced Erd-waan; the g is silent) in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, Obama is hoping that the new governments emerging from the ashes of old dictatorships will look a lot like the one the Prime Minister has built over the past eight years. Erdogan has greatly enhanced Turkey’s international reputation, has reined in its once omnipotent military, has pursued economic policies that have trebled per capita income and unleashed new entrepreneurship, and has for the most part maintained a pro-West stance.

He has, it is true, also displayed an occasional autocratic streak, running roughshod over political rivals, tossing enemies into jail and intimidating the media. Many political analysts, in Turkey and the West, suspect his desire to rewrite the constitution is designed to amass more executive power. But to his admirers, these failings pale against his successes. Democratic, economically ascendant and internationally admired: as political templates go, Turkey’s is pretty irresistible to people shaking off decades of authoritarian, impoverishing rule — and for Westerners worried about what those people might do next.

(See pictures of homelessness in Istanbul.)

But perhaps its greatest virtue, in the eyes of many Middle Eastern beholders, is that the Turkish model was forged by an Islamist: Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party — better known by its Turkish acronym, AKP — have traditionally drawn support from the country’s religious and conservative classes and are regarded with suspicion by secular absolutists. For Arab Islamists, Turkey’s success is proof that they can modernize their countries without breaking away from their religious moorings. Erdogan’s Western admirers see it the other way around: proof that political Islam needn’t be an enemy of modernity. And if any evidence were needed that Erdogan’s way leads to political success, the AKP won its third general election in June, by a landslide.

But can Erdogan’s way lead Egypt, Tunisia and Libya to the political stability and economic strength Turkey now enjoys? Erdogan claims to be ambivalent whether Arab states seek to emulate his success. “If they want our help, we’ll provide any assistance they need,” he told TIME in an interview during his visit to New York. “We do not have a mentality of exporting our system.” But he doesn’t deny reaching out to the potential leaders of the Arab Spring states: “I intentionally wanted to talk to the presidential candidates, the new political parties there, and I had the opportunity to get together with lots of people in order to grasp the situation.”

See photos of the Kurdish rebels.

Should Recep Tayyip Erdogan be TIME’s Person of the Year 2011? Cast your vote here.

His message to them: be good Muslims, but make sure your constitution is, like Turkey’s, secular. “Do not fear secularism, because it does not mean being an enemy of religion,” he said in an interview on Egyptian TV. “I hope the new regime in Egypt will be secular.” This came as a shock to some in the Muslim Brotherhood, who retorted that they didn’t need lessons from the Turk. Feathers were soon smoothed, but the episode was a reminder that Turkish Islamism, rooted in a secular democratic tradition, is not so easily transplanted to societies where neither secularism nor democracy is well understood. The template, says Michael Werz, a Turkey expert at the Center for American Progress, “can be inspirational for Arab Islamist parties, but it can’t be a model.”

All the same, many politicians in the Arab Spring countries are plainly modeling themselves after the Turkish leader. “Erdogan wears a business suit, but he prays in the mosque. That is something we can identify with,” Essam Erian, a top leader of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, told me in Cairo in the summer. (There’s an obvious echo in the name of the Brotherhood’s new political arm: Freedom and Justice Party.) Abdelhamid Jlassi, a leader of Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda party was just as starry-eyed when I met him in Tunis a few days later. “Erdogan speaks our language,” he told me. “When he speaks, we listen.”

(Watch TIME’s video “Turkey’s Unconventional Muslim Minority.”)

Ennahda has since won a large plurality in Tunisia’s first free elections, on Oct. 23, to form an assembly that will write a new constitution. The Muslim Brotherhood is expected to do just as well in elections scheduled beginning in late November. Libya is not expected to hold elections until the middle of next year, but there, too, Islamist groups are expected to be significant players. Where — and to whom — they look for inspiration could change the way the world views them.

The Ideal Islamist
for some western observers, the rise of political Islam conjures up visions of extremist, reactionary states, like Afghanistan under the Taliban or Iran. That limited view informed the anxiety that greeted the AKP’s 2002 election victory. Even Turkish secularists feared Erdogan would seek to undo the separation of mosque and state that is the foundation of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s Turkey. They pointed to comments Erdogan made in the 1990s, as mayor of Istanbul, like this one: “Democracy is a tram that gets you to your destination, and then you get off.” Turkey’s decision not to participate in the 2003 Iraq war led to fears that Erdogan would take his country out of NATO and turn away from the West.

But AKP’s critics were wrong: Turkey didn’t become another Iran. Apart from a quiet repeal of a long-standing ban on the Islamic headscarf in universities last year, Erdogan’s policies have hardly been an assault on Ataturk’s secular legacy. (Domestic critics complain, however, of an Islamist agenda in the steep hiking of taxes on alcohol and cigarettes.) And far from drifting away from the West, Erdogan pushed harder than his secular predecessors for the ultimate Western endorsement: admission into the European Union, whose repeated cold-shouldering of Ankara says more about European hangups than Turkey’s qualifications. Erdogan tells TIME he is “still determined” to pursue E.U. membership but can’t help smiling at the irony that his country, once described as “the sick man of Europe,” is now economically ascendant, while many members of the club that won’t admit him are all but bankrupt.

From Zero Problems …
For all its Islamist leanings, the AKP government also reached out to Jewish Israel and the secular Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad; previous governments in Ankara had at best cool relations with Damascus. There were overtures, too, to neighbors in the Balkans and around the Black Sea, and even to Armenia, with which Turkey has long-standing historical hostilities. These were all consistent with a doctrine Erdogan and his Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, dubbed Zero Problems: Turkey would mend fences with all neighbors and make friends anew in the wider world.

(Read “Why Syria and Turkey Are Suddenly Far Apart on Arab Spring Protests.”)

It worked: Erdogan seemed to form a close bond with Assad, even inviting the Syrian dictator to vacation in Turkey. And Turkey quickly became Israel’s best friend in the Islamic world — that bar was, admittedly, low.

Zero Problems also served Turkey’s economic ambitions. Turkish entrepreneurs, nudged along by the government — but without the overwhelming financial backing of the state enjoyed by, say, Chinese companies — were able to rapidly grow business in the immediate neighborhood and farther afield, notably in Africa. Turkish construction companies in particular fanned out across the Middle East, Africa and Asia, competing with (and often beating) Chinese rivals.

Read “Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan Faces Many Challenges in Third Term.”

There was prosperity at home too: since the AKP first came to power, Turkey’s GDP has trebled, the budget deficit has fallen by two-thirds. From 2002 to ’10, GDP grew by a compounded annual rate of 4.8%, more than Russia, Brazil and South Korea. In 2010, Turkey’s GDP grew 8.9%; the E.U.’s grew 1.9%. Already the world’s 17th largest economy, behind South Korea, Spain and Canada, Turkey is expected to slow this year, and some analysts warn that its economy is in danger of overheating. But compared with much of Europe, it is a picture of health.

Emboldened by economic and foreign policy successes, Erdogan grew more ambitious abroad. With U.S. support, he sought to turn Turkey into a moderator of other regional rifts, bringing Syria and Israel as close as they have ever come to peace talks. That dream was dashed in December 2008, when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert ordered the start of Operation Cast Lead, a three-week assault on Gaza that left more than 1,300 Palestinians dead. Israel said it was provoked by rockets fired from Gaza; Syria withdrew from Erdogan-brokered negotiations.

(Read “Turkey Crisis: Unconditional U.S. Backing Has Helped Israel to Isolate Itself.”)

Associates of the Turkish leader say he was personally affronted. Olmert, he felt, had left him holding the bag. His anger boiled over at a panel discussion in Davos, when he stormed off after telling Israeli President Shimon Peres, “You know very well how to kill.”

Relations with Israel limped along for a while before breaking down completely in May 2010, when Israeli commandos halted a Turkish-led aid flotilla bound for Gaza. In international waters, the commandos rappelled down into the Mavi Marmara, a ship belonging to a Turkish charity. In the fighting that broke out, eight Turks and one Turkish American were killed. Israel says its soldiers were attacked on board.

Turkey has since all but broken off relations with Israel. Erdogan says nothing short of a formal apology and the lifting of Israel’s blockade of Gaza will repair a once promising friendship. “The Israeli government is not being honest at all,” he tells TIME. Israel has responded with angry rhetoric of its own: Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman suggested one way to get back at Erdogan would be to support the Kurdish terrorist group known as the PKK, which has recently stepped up attacks against Turkish military and civilian targets. (Turkey accepted Israel’s aid after a devastating Oct. 23 earthquake in Van province killed over 600, but Davutoglu said that would not soften Turkey’s position.)

… To Plenty of Problems
The Arab Spring finally made the Zero Problems doctrine untenable. Although Erdogan was ahead of many Western leaders in calling for Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak to step down in the face of a popular uprising, he was hesitant to send the same message to Syria’s Assad and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi: Turkey had sizable business interests and expat populations in both countries. Erdogan initially resisted pressure to join the NATO campaign against Gaddafi and maintained that his relationship with Assad would allow him to coax the Syrian leader into implementing political reforms. “Erdogan thought of himself as Assad’s tutor,” says F. Stephen Larrabee, an expert on Turkey at the Rand Corp. “He overestimated his ability to persuade Assad.”

(Read “How Syria and Libya Got to Be Turkey’s Headaches.”)

Erdogan belatedly changed his mind and then acted decisively: Turkey backed Libya’s transitional council against Gaddafi, and once Assad had reneged on his promise of reforms (another slight Erdogan took personally), it began calling for regime change in Damascus. Whereas once he had invited the Assad family to holiday in Turkey, Erdogan grew openly contemptuous of the Syrian strongman. “It is impossible to preserve my friendship with people who are allegedly leaders when they are attacking their own people,” he says. Turkey now provides shelter not only to refugees from Assad’s crackdown but also to opposition groups that are actively plotting his downfall.

The break with Israel and Syria may have dashed Erdogan’s hopes of being a regional peacemaker. It also greatly complicates matters for the U.S., which had hoped Turkey could gradually draw Syria away from the Iranian sphere of influence. Nor does it help that the U.S.’s two closest allies in the region, Turkey and Israel, are now at loggerheads. Pro-Israel Congressmen have threatened to block military supplies to Turkey, giving the White House yet another brush fire to put out.

Read “Israel and Turkey: How a Close Relationship Disintegrated.”

The consequences for Turkey are uncertain. Erdogan’s anti-Israel rhetoric plays well with the AKP voter base and Arab audiences. But by turning on Assad, says Rand’s Larrabee, Erdogan also risks antagonizing Syria’s sponsor, Iran. Relations with Tehran have already cooled since Turkey agreed in September to install new NATO radar systems designed to detect missiles launched from Iran. Erdogan long pushed back against the radars for fear of antagonizing the Iranians. Now Turkish officials are seeking cover behind the fig leaf that data from the systems will not be shared with Israel; NATO says that’s just not true. So much for Zero Problems.

The New Ottoman Empire
Inevitably, Erdogan’s new foreign policy doctrine, aimed at increasing Turkey’s political and economic influence in the Middle East and North Africa, has been dubbed “neo-Ottoman,” after the dynasty that ruled much of the Muslim world from Istanbul for 600 years until shortly after World War I. Erdogan doesn’t shirk from the comparison. “Of course, the empire had some beautiful parts and some not-so-beautiful parts,” he says. “It’s a very natural right for us to use what was beautiful about the Ottoman Empire today.” Turkish officials envision an arrangement similar to the British Commonwealth, with a constellation of Balkan, East European and Arab states all looking to Istanbul for benign guidance.

(See photos of the streets of Istanbul.)

But invoking a long-gone — and not especially lamented — empire is no basis for foreign policy. The competition for influence in the new Middle East emerging from the Arab Spring is bound to be fierce. Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are the region’s traditional powers; there are American and European fingers in the pie too. Relative newcomers China and India have a growing economic interest in the region. Turkey’s head start in the Arab Spring countries — it is already one of the largest investors in Egypt and Libya — will be difficult to maintain.

If there’s growing competition for Turkey abroad, for Erdogan there are also growing problems at home. That autocratic tendency has become more pronounced since June’s huge election win. Political rivals complain that he has never quite shaken off the bullying streak he developed in the mean streets of Istanbul’s Kasimpasa neighborhood. Despite his lofty position, he rarely misses a chance to rub his opponents’ noses in the dirt, often using crude rhetoric unbecoming of a leader who aspires to statesmanship. He is notoriously thin-skinned about criticism and paranoid about coups. (This last is perhaps understandable: the Turkish military overthrew four elected governments in the 40 years before the AKP’s 2002 victory.) For all its desire for Turkey to be seen as a modern state equal in freedoms to any in Europe, his government has jailed 68 journalists, accusing them of complicity in coup plots. On a recent trip to Istanbul, two top journalists agreed to talk with me about Erdogan only if I promised not to name them.

Erdogan’s treatment of Turkey’s Kurdish minority had fluctuated between promises of political compromise and old-fashioned military repression. Violence has flared in recent months after a series of tit-for-tat attacks between the PKK and Turkish forces. Sezgin Tanrikulu, deputy chairman of the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party, scoffs at Erdogan’s international popularity: “Before Turkey can be held up as a role model for the Middle East, it needs to sort out its own domestic conflicts.”

(Read “Why Turkey’s Erdogan Is Greeted like a Rock Star in Egypt.”)

Conflicts in the neighborhood will have an impact on Turkey’s economy: trade with Syria, a major partner, is imperiled by Erdogan’s open falling out with Assad. The longer the dictatorship lingers in Damascus, the greater the cost. Antagonistic relations with Israel have not yet had a great economic effect, mainly because trade between the two countries is relatively small.

In the political arena, Erdogan’s next challenge is to rewrite the Turkish constitution. Fears that he will dilute Turkey’s secularism have been replaced by a growing concern that he will push for executive power to be concentrated in the office of the President, and then seek that office himself. The Turkish presidency is currently a mostly ornamental position, held by Erdogan’s longtime ally Abdullah Gul. Istanbul salons are rife with talk of the two men switching roles after the constitution is rewritten, drawing inevitable comparisons to the Medvedev-Putin swap in Moscow. It’s a testament to how far the Islamist icon has come that his critics no longer worry that he may turn Turkey into another Iran. They now fear he will turn it into another Russia.

with reporting by Pelin Turgut / Istanbul

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