A failed coup left the Turkish president even more powerful
BY JARED MALSIN
When a rogue faction of Turkey’s military moved to seize control of the country on the night of July 15, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was on vacation in the Mediterranean city of Marmaris. Alerted to the coup attempt, he escaped his hotel just ahead of commandos sent to capture or possibly kill him, clinging to power by a thread. Yet in response he flew not to the capital, Ankara, where warplanes were bombing the parliament building, but to Istanbul, where he had come of age and begun his career in politics, and is still remembered as the mayor who brought running water to the city’s slums. The capital was slightly closer and contained the levers of power that the putschists scrambled to control. But Erdogan placed his bet on the people who had known him longest—and who he knew would fight for him.
For much of that night, doubt clouded the one thing that had been clear for close to 14 years in Turkey: who was in charge. A turning point came when Erdogan—unable to address the public on TV stations commandeered by coup plotters—connected to a private Turkish newscaster over the iPhone app FaceTime. As the anchor held her phone up to the camera, the President urged his supporters to take to the streets. It was after midnight. In the hours that followed, more than 265 people would be killed, but by dawn, troops participating in the coup were fleeing. Later that day, a triumphant Erdogan appeared before throngs in Istanbul, calling for prosecution of the plotters. “We want execution!” the crowd chanted back. The President had emerged from his near-death experience stronger than ever—and ever more determined to tighten his grip on power.
Watershed moments have not been scarce in the Middle East lately, but in recent decades it has been rare for one to take place in Istanbul, the city that reigned over the entire region for 400 years. The sultans of the Ottoman Empire ruled from palaces overlooking the Bosporus Strait, but when their empire collapsed after World War I, what followed was not royal drama but process—the methodical construction of what would replace empires in organizing the world: a nation-state. The new Republic of Turkey, founded by the indomitable Kemal Ataturk, was democratic and oriented to the West, which in the early years of the Cold War made it the easternmost member of NATO. And the hope ardently voiced by visiting U.S. diplomats—and by the Turkish generals who repeatedly succeeded in deposing elected governments deemed too religious or unpredictable—was that it would inspire secular, democratic imitators in nearby lands.
It never did. Not even, as it turned out, in Turkey. Erdogan, 62, had survived, and with him, his grip on power. In the neighborhood around Erdogan’s house, one group pushed through the crowd, carrying the Turkish flag—the banner of what surveys count as one of the most nationalistic nations on earth—and chanting “Allahu akbar!” or “God is great!” “We believe,” said Ayse Kol, 20, on a corner two blocks from the President’s home, “that Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a world leader.”
The president had emerged from his near-death experience stronger than ever
He is that, if only by dint of how much of the world gathers around him, awaiting his decisions. The strands of crises from both Europe and Asia now collide in Turkey. The European Union has all but outsourced its refugee crisis to Erdogan and, with it, the future of Europe’s own elected leaders, if not the E.U. itself. The democratic leaders of Western Europe now implore and bargain with the Turkish autocrat to cease the flow of Syrian refugees and other migrants into a continent whose politics is increasingly defined by backlash to outsiders. At the same time, Erdogan has inserted Turkey directly into the wars raging on its borders—sending troops into Iraq, whether they are welcome or not, in the assault on ISIS-held Mosul, and crossing the border into Syria’s inferno. In both countries, Turkey’s goal is both to suppress the radical extremists of ISIS—the jihadists who have repeatedly drawn blood on Turkish soil—and also to check the military might of Kurdish guerrillas who are fighting ISIS within Syria even as their brothers battle the state inside Turkey.
And just as authoritarianism surges back onto the world stage, Erdogan shows all the signs of a strongman in full. He has company. To the north lies Russia, the massive threat that Turkey has mistrusted since the days of competing empire, through the Cold War to the chilly equilibrium Erdogan now maintains with Vladimir Putin. The Turkish leader clashed with President Obama, but now Erdogan has welcomed the election of a fellow populist in Donald Trump. The President-elect’s first conversation with the Turkish leader, however, made news for Trump’s raising his own business interests in Turkey, quoting his business partner to Erdogan as “your great admirer.” In a speech in Ankara on Nov. 9, Erdogan said Trump’s election would bring “a new era” in U.S.-Turkey relations.
“Half of the country adores Erdogan, and half of the country loathes him,” says Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Cagaptay says he expects Turkey to remain, “in the best-case scenario, in a perpetual state of crisis.”
Erdogan’s authoritarian impulses—on display for years as he jailed journalists, critics and perceived rivals—have intensified. In the month following the coup, up to 36,000 people were detained, including so many F-16 pilots that the U.S.-led coalition attacking ISIS had to scramble to pick up the slack, according to U.S. Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James. Since the coup, human-rights groups have documented an increasing use of torture by security forces, but Turkish officials are unrepentant. “In a state of emergency, we’re not in a situation to compete with Sweden or Denmark in terms of human-rights issues,” says Egemen Bagis, Turkey’s former chief negotiator in talks to enter the E.U.
Instead of providing a model for democracy, Turkey’s leader represents a throwback: an elected autocrat, tolerated by the West for maintaining a certain stability within and without, overseeing a procedural democracy with a pliant press and a dominant political party that serves only his wishes. His housing reflects his indispensability. The presidential mansion completed in 2014 that Erdogan calls home has more than 1,000 rooms, including one with a lab dedicated to detecting poison in the President’s food. The decor, heavy on red carpets, marble and chandeliers, suggests a return to Ottoman glory.
From Islamist to Populist
Erdogan is a deeply religious man in a country where the elites are staunchly secular. It is a tension that defines both Erdogan’s place in his nation’s history and his country’s complex place in the world.
When Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (known by its Turkish acronym AKP) swept into parliament in an election in 2002, its leader was still barred from office for espousing Islamism. (Erdogan even spent four months in jail in 1998 for reciting a religious poem—one likening minarets to bayonets.) Turkey is so secular that female civil servants were banned from wearing headscarves until 2013. Since taking office, Erdogan has survived mass protests and a devastating corruption scandal, along the way sidelining anyone in Turkish politics who could conceivably challenge his hold on power.
After Erdogan moved from the Prime Minister’s office to the presidency in 2014, his party briefly lost its majority in parliament in 2015. But it prevailed again in a snap election later that year, which followed the resumption of a long-running civil war with militants from the country’s Kurdish minority. The renewed fighting undermined a pro-Kurdish party that had lured away many AKP voters. In early November, authorities jailed Selahattin Demirtas, the leader of the party, a former human-rights lawyer noted for his opposition to Erdogan’s bid to amend Turkey’s constitution so that the presidency, his new office, would hold unprecedented powers. Thanks to the coup attempt, Erdogan is poised to push through the change, cementing his rule for years to come.
Through the early years of Erdogan’s premiership, Turkey’s economy grew and the middle class expanded, while his government moved to make peace with some of the nation’s internal contradictions. It granted more rights to the minority Kurds—an ethnic group in southern Turkey as well as in surrounding countries—and entered into talks with the outlawed guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. Erdogan occasionally alarmed liberals with retrograde proposals, like a 2004 plan to criminalize adultery, but he rarely followed through. For years his government also had a nasty habit of jailing journalists and critics. But Turkey had its first government grounded in the mutual regard of voters from the Anatolian heartland—religious and conservative, but also intensely nationalistic.
There was even talk of exporting its success. If Erdogan is a survivor, he is also a political operator who adapted his message to match the shifting winds of international politics. In 2011, as the Arab Spring toppled despots and left populations in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere casting about for a system of government, the AKP’s brand of moderate Islamism appeared to offer a model. In those days the party’s vision was outward-looking, seeking to establish Turkey as a leader of the Sunni Muslim world, yet keeping alive the hope of one day joining the E.U.
This is the Erdogan paradox. In 2011, he cast himself as an exemplar for the Arab Spring. Five years later, he stands as an icon of both populism and repression. In the aftermath of the failed July coup, he oversaw the arrest of dozens of journalists and opposition leaders—including many with no apparent tie to the coup’s alleged ringleader: the onetime Erdogan ally turned nemesis Fethullah Gulen. The moderate Muslim cleric, 75, is regarded as a cultlike figure who operates a global educational and religious empire from exile in rural Pennsylvania. Erdogan has demanded the extradition of Gulen, whom he considers a terrorist. The Obama Administration says it is reviewing the request.
Erdogan is attuned to the brutish mood of politics across the world
The postcoup clampdown has not isolated Erdogan internationally. In Europe, the right is gaining. In the Middle East, authoritarian leaders are snuffing out what remains of the Arab revolts, presenting themselves as the only alternative to the chaos in Syria, Iraq and lawless Libya. And in the U.S., Trump is rewriting the rules of politics, ushering in a new era of chauvinism.
Istanbul born and raised
Erdogan was born in Istanbul to a father who migrated to the city from the Black Sea coast and at one point worked as a ferry captain in Istanbul. It was the era of Prime Minister Adnan Menderes, whose coalition of poorer, slightly more conservative, more overtly religious people prefigured the AKP, and likewise chafed at the rule of the so-called White Turk Western-facing elites. Toward the end of his rule, Menderes turned increasingly to authoritarian methods, and he was overthrown in 1960 in the first of Turkey’s military coups. Erdogan advisers say he remembered hearing his father weep while listening to the news of Menderes’ execution by hanging. “Erdogan is basically the result of Turkish political evolution in the last 90-plus years, which has always been a game of rough politics,” says Burak Kadercan, a political scientist at the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island.
Istanbul’s Kasimpasa neighborhood is draped on a hillside on the city’s European side. The rows of apartment buildings are wedged close to each other, and the roads slope vertically. Erdogan spent the latter portion of his childhood and the first part of his adulthood there. After he graduated from a religious school, he became a semiprofessional soccer player, a businessman and a leader in the emerging world of Islamist politics in the 1980s.
His associates often say Erdogan’s faith grants him a rare patience and self-assuredness. Can Paker, a businessman and intellectual who has known Erdogan for years, says, “In many talks, I have seen that he believed that whatever comes will come from God and is his destiny.” Even on the night of the coup attempt, the President later told Paker, he had been thinking, “Whatever will come is from Allah.”
But people who knew him in the early days of his political career say his real strength was retail politics: connecting with individual people. Semha Karaoglu, 50, who runs a convenience store across the street from Erdogan’s old apartment, remembers him as a polite man who worked long hours and bought sweets for the neighborhood children. Erdogan stayed in touch, even inviting the shopkeeper to his daughter’s wedding. On the night of the coup, she says, she felt a personal fear for Erdogan’s family. “But when I saw Tayyip Erdogan on TV, I relaxed and I knew everything would be O.K.”
Around the corner, the manager of a tea shop approaches. “I could write a book about Erdogan, but in a negative way,” he says. “The economy is going down; the sources of growth, industries like textiles, are shutting down.” He declines to give his name. “I don’t want to go to prison just because I talked to you,” he says before walking away.
After nearly 14 years in national office, Erdogan’s lifestyle is no longer his old neighbors’. But former speechwriter Huseyin Besli, who has known the President for some 40 years, said Erdogan makes a point of eating street food wherever he goes, cajoling his aides to join him. “When he’s going to a TV interview at night, if he has time he’ll go to a taxi stand and sit with the drivers and listen to them,” he says.
That charisma and political talent can veer into the realm of a personality cult. He appears keen to cast himself as the new Ataturk and has pushed aside any who would question him, even mild-mannered Ahmet Davutoglu, who resigned as Premier in May. By surviving the July coup, Erdogan also managed to vanquish two other powerful rivals: One was the military—already largely neutered by prosecutions of past coup plots and a 2010 referendum that allowed officers to be tried in civilian courts. The other was Gulen, whose vast network of loyalists insinuated themselves within the state for decades, at least according to the government and some experts. Erdogan has used the coup attempt to purge around a third of the military’s top leadership and decimate the ranks of the judiciary and other bureaucracies.
The crackdown didn’t stop there. Erdogan expanded the sweep to include political rivals who had nothing to do with the coup. In early November, police arrested the leaders of the People’s Democratic Party, a leftist, pro-Kurdish group that controls the third largest share of parliament. A week earlier, authorities rounded up the editors and top reporters of one of Turkey’s oldest and most respected newspapers, Cumhuriyet, joining dozens of papers, radio stations and websites closed after the failed putsch. “Erdogan has become so paranoid, so power-hungry, he doesn’t even allow institutions to flourish,” says Gonul Tol, a Turkey analyst at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “It has become a one-man show.”
And abroad? As Turkey’s “bad neighborhood” grows rougher still, it remains far from certain that Erdogan will ever exert anywhere near the same dominance over the Middle East that he has at home. Muslim but not Arab, Turkey also is handicapped by the burden of its Ottoman legacy—a source of pride among Turks, but of apprehension among those they once ruled. Yet that doesn’t mean Erdogan won’t try.
This was the year he mended fences with Russia after downing one of its warplanes, and with Israel after six years of strife, even as the chance that Turkey will ever actually join the E.U. became ever more remote. But Erdogan’s foreign policy was branded “neo-Ottoman” even before he justified sending troops to Iraq and Syria by questioning the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which set the borders of the state that followed the empire. “We cannot act in the year 2016 with the psychology of 1923,” he said on Oct. 18. Adding, “We did not voluntarily accept the borders of our country,” he urged that young Turks be taught that Mosul was once theirs. In another speech, he cast a growing regional conflict not in terms of nations but of sects. “What you call ‘Baghdad’ is an administrator of an army composed of Shiʻites,” he said.
“Peace at home, peace abroad” was the slogan Turkish schoolchildren learned from Ataturk. Under Erdogan, the country may end up with neither.