The autocratic transformation of Erdogan

What we are seeing emerge through fog of confused Le­vantine politics is a very different Turkey, one far removed from what was initially hoped for.


2016/04/08 Issue: 51 Page: 15


The Arab Weekly
Claude Salhani



The image of Turkey that its president wanted to project — that of an open, secular and modern society in which concerns for an individual’s rights were on a par with Europe to the degree that the country could be invited to join the European Union — is rapidly fading.

What we are seeing emerge through the fog of confused Le­vantine politics is a very different Turkey, one far removed from what was initially hoped for.

Turkey is projecting a depressing glimpse of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s interpretation of demo­cratic principles.

Yes, the country governed by Erdogan looks very different from the one that was knocking on the European Union’s door not too long ago. When Erdogan rose to power in 2003, there were expecta­tions that he could serve as a role model of the modern and progres­sive Muslim leader who proved to sceptics that Islam and the West could coexist in peace.

Supporters of the notion that Turkey belongs in the European Union along with the rest of demo­cratic Europe argued — and contin­ue to say — that admitting Turkey into the group would propel the democratisation process in Turkey and that, within a relatively short time, the country would have come around to resemble its European partners more than its neighbours to the south, as now appears to be the case.

Those opposed to Turkey’s admission into the EU are saying that they were justified in oppos­ing Ankara’s ascension. They point to Erdogan’s two-faced policies in dealing with jihadists fighting in Syria and Iraq. On the one hand, the Turkish government helped funnel arms and fighters to the Islamists; on the other, it professed to clamp down on jihadists.

As a member of NATO, in princi­ple at least, Turkey is an ally of the United States and Western Europe. Turkey has even dispatched units to fight the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq.

The “democracy” that the Turk­ish president purports to be back­ing is in reality more of a gradual infringement on all levels of a free society. Scratch the surface of Turkish politics and you will un­doubtedly discover ugly truths.

Looking over the past few years, there is a clear transformation of the Turkish leader’s political stance and the shining light and breath of fresh air the Europeans had hoped for. The reality turned out to be something very different.

As more than one observer noted, Erdogan turned out to be a disappointment as the former prime minister became president and is now turning into a dictator.

As any self-respecting dictator would do, Erdogan went after the country’s free press. Erdogan had the editors of Zaman and Cumhuri­yet, two of the country’s largest newspapers, arrested. Zaman had devoted a number of articles to corruption in Erdogan’s family and government and Cumhuriyet repre­sented the opposition.

Erdogan also took on scores of university professors, members of the military and aid workers, send­ing dozens to prison

He erected a huge presidential palace for himself and called a ref­erendum, hoping to win the right to rewrite the constitution and give himself greater power.

Cumhuriyet published video footage showing trucks filled with weapons being delivered to rebel groups in Syria. Since the start of the war in Syria, Turkey had offered support to rebels fighting the Assad government, even arming extrem­ist groups closely affiliated with al-Qaeda. Two top editors of Cum­huriyet, Can Dundar and Erdem Gul, were accused of espionage and could be sentenced to life in prison. According to journalism watchdog groups, there are about 20 report­ers imprisoned in Turkey.

And because the United States needs Turkey’s support in the fight against terrorism, the White House and the US State Department have been reluctant to criticise the Turk­ish leader’s actions, even when his security detail beat protesters in Washington on March 31st when scuffles broke out between Turkish security and reporters.

While US authorities reiterated their position demanding that there be more media freedom in Turkey, ugly scenes erupted shortly before Erdogan’s arrival at the Brookings Institution, where Turkish security officials clashed with protesters, exchanging insults and scuffling, before police separated them.

During the scuffle one Turkish security guard aimed a chest-high kick at an American reporter at­tempting to film the harassment of a Turkish opposition reporter while another called a female foreign policy scholar a “whore”.


Claude Salhani is the Opinion section editor of The Arab Weekly.


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