By Gautam Hathi.
It wasn’t too long ago that Turkey was ascending as the north star of the Middle East. At a time when regimes were collapsing and extremism was on the rise, Turkey presented itself as an economically successful, politically moderate, religiously secular, majority-Muslim country which could serve as a real counterweight to Israel in the region. Turkey was a founding member of the OECD and there was ongoing talk of accession to the EU. And, of course, the Middle East was in the process of reshaping itself as revolutions across the region brought democracy to previously autocratic states, giving Turkey an opportunity to mold the region with its leadership. Turkey was doing well internally and was in a good position to leverage its influence abroad.
The architect of this success was Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He spent a decade in power reforming the country, building its economy, and reclaiming it from intermittent military rule. Fresh off a 2011 election victory, his popularity in the region spiked after he pushed back strongly against Israel for its handling of the Gaza flotilla raid incident. When Erdogan toured Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia in September 2011, he was greeted like a rock star. As the Syrian conflict heated up, Erdogan was seen as a key player in the diplomatic struggle to resolve the conflict. It looked like he was the one holding all the cards.
And then things started to fall apart. The first sign of trouble was in Syria. Erdogan’s longstanding friendship with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad was proven to be worthless as Assad squelched a burgeoning opposition movement in a bloody crackdown. Instead of looking on from afar as it had done previously, Turkey got to see the Arab Spring up close on its southern border. Hundreds of thousands of refugees poured into Turkey, and the Syrian opposition movement pleaded with Erdogan to provide aid and shelter. However, Erdogan was able to give only minimal assistance. He could not convince western powers to intervene and Turkey itself was able to do little but try to cope with the massive influx of refugees. Suddenly, instead of being the key to ending the conflict, Erdogan was the man who couldn’t deliver. He couldn’t help the Syrian opposition, he didn’t expect the influx of refugees, and, most importantly, he could do nothing to stop Bashar al-Assad.
The Syrian debacle diminished Erdogan’s standing in the Middle East, but that was only the beginning. Much of the leverage Erdogan thought he had in shaping countries which had thrown off their old governments disappeared with the ouster of Mohammed Morsi in 2013. Erdogan had funneled large amounts of aid to the Islamist President of Egypt, but when Morsi was ousted in a coup last year, the new military government cut back on ties with the man who had backed the Muslim Brotherhood. Once again, Erdogan’s influence abroad diminished greatly.
After Erdogan’s international position crumbled in 2012, the internal solidity which Turkey had mostly enjoyed for years broke down rapidly in 2013. Earlier in the year, Erdogan faced a major backlash against his perceived authoritarian tendencies. Sparked by the planned demolition of a park in Istanbul, thousands of demonstrations across Turkey presented the most serious challenge to his rule that Erdogan had ever faced. By some estimates, 3.5 million people took part in the protests over several months. There were thousands of injuries amongst widespread accusations of police brutality. Erdogan had gone from denouncing tyrants in the Middle East to being called one himself by his own people.
To top everything off, a new corruption scandal is now boiling over in Turkey. In December, Turkish police raided offices of businessmen with ties to Erdogan and found millions of dollars in cash. As the investigation widened, it took down senior government ministers including several close to the Prime Minister. Erdogan fought back, seizing on reports that the inquiry may have been driven in part by an influential Sufi imam currently living in Pennsylvania with a particular dislike for Erdogan. He sacked police officials and prosecutors while also seeking to exert pressure on judges. These actions have led to serious questions, especially within Europe, as to whether Erdogan really has a respect for rule of law. They have also not helped to assuage concerns about his authoritarian tendencies.
As a result of all this, Turkey and its larger-than-life Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have seen a stunningly fast fall from grace. In the space of about two years, Erdogan’s position, both domestically and internationally, has gone from being redoubtable to dramatically vulnerable. Turkey’s hopes for joining the EU seem to have been dashed, at least for the moment, and Turkey has a much harder time setting an example for other Middle Eastern countries these days.
So where does Erdogan go from here? Obviously the immediate concern is the spreading corruption inquiry which is closing in all around him. If Erdogan himself is directly implicated, he may be forced to give up power, at least for now. Even if he escapes personally unscathed, though, Erdogan has already done a great deal of damage to his reputation and standing by suppressing the investigation so forcefully. If these investigations continue for much longer, or if there are broader repercussions to Erdogan’s heavy handed tactics, Erdogan may find it impossible to push through a new constitution he has backed, which would include a transition to a Presidential system. Erdogan’s chances in the 2015 elections may also be significantly worse.
There are, however, some opportunities left open for Erdogan. First among those may be Syria. With talks in Switzerland finally managing to bring both the government and the opposition to the table, Turkey may yet be able to play a constructive role in the peace process. There may also be opportunities for a reset of relations with Israel, although the road to reconciliation there remains bumpy. Finally, Turkey did manage to put one longstanding issue to bed last year. In March, the Kurdish rebel group PKK called a ceasefire and began peace talks with Turkey after years of fighting. Those talks have proven shaky, but have the potential to remove a major thorn in Turkey’s side.
Overall, the forecast for Turkey is cloudy at best. Between internal tensions and rapidly deteriorating regional position, Turkey’s leaders must guard against a retreat from the progress which the country has made over the past decade. Unfortunately, Turkey’s recent move to exercise China-like control over the Internet is a major step in the wrong direction. A big part of the regression in Turkey might be caused by the ambitions of the country’s Prime Minister. The strong will of Recep Tayyip Erdogan may end up putting individual or party concerns before national ones. That would truly be a shame, because the Middle East could use a country like the one Turkey dreams of being.