By Saeed Naqvi
31 Oct 2014
It was a tossup between Brazil’s President Lula da Silva and Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan. In fact, compared to Lula’s two terms as President, Erdogan completed three glorious terms as Prime Minister.
With the downturn in the global economy in 2009, Turkey towered above regional economies. One comparison was particularly galling for the West. Greece, the mother of Western civilization was on its knees while the “Turk”, a despised figure in Western literature, was towering over it.
Remember how tersely Valery Giscar d’Estaing dismissed Turkey’s application for membership of Europe: European civilization is Christian civilization. For a leader like Erdogan there was sympathy and admiration. He looked like a transformed leader who had come out of his narrow, provincial Islamism, outgrown his Madrasa roots. But alas it turns out that he had only disguised his strong Ikhwan ul Muslimeen, Muslim Brotherhood, background. My disappointment is that he pretended to be something he could not play out to the end.
To explain the tragedy of Erdogan, the backdrop is important. Mustafa Kemal Pasha Ataturk disbanded the Caliphate and thereby Islamism in 1924 and imposed a secular constitution. The Turkish army became a jealous guarantor of this constitution. Turkey remained a quasi police state during the cold war. Even during the rule of Itruk Ozal, who was feted as a great libertarian, you could not stand on the Bosphorus bridge without a man in a long coat appear from nowhere, demanding your papers.
The end of the Cold War came riding on the wings of the global 24X7 media, which brought Operation Desert Storm into our drawing rooms. Saddam Hussain’s rout divided the world: Iraq’s defeat came across to the Muslim world as Muslim humiliation. Turkey was no exception. For the West, it was triumphalism.
The two Intefadas also impacted on the world’s Muslims and non Muslims in a diametrically opposite way. But what affected Turks the most were the brutalities of the Bosnian war played out on live TV over four years. Balkans are part of the Turkish historical memory. Sarajevo derives from the Turkish word “Sarai”. Turkish Islamism was reignited. Refah party came to power under Necmettin Erbakan. Tayyip Erdogan and Abdullah Gul were his under studies then.
When the army ousted Erbakan, the Refah party discarded its Islamic garb. Demonstrating practical sense, the party reinvented themselves as the Justice and Development party and rode a crest of anti Americanism when they refused the Americans the right of passage for their troops to Iraq in 2003. There has been no looking back for Erdogan, Prime Minister for a record three terms. He had arguably exceeded even Ataturk’s popularity.
There emerged a regional contrast which was something of a status reversal for the West. In the wake of the global financial crisis, Greece was out on the street with a begging bowl. Turkey meanwhile had zero problems with neighbours, a booming economy. To create a constituency in the Arab street, Turkey stood up to Israel on several issues. This was drastic change from the days of Ozal, when Turkey and Israel coordinated all their policies.
The Arab Spring in 2011 coincided more or less with Erdogan’s last term as Prime Minister. The Turkish constitution does not permit a fourth term. As Erdogan began to dream of a larger democratic role in the Arab world, the Syrian civil war opened up for him an option. So he thought. He faced a contradiction. Turkish constitution demanded that he remain on the secular straight and narrow. But a greater role in Syria and Libya, where he turned up for prayers in the Tripoli square, dictated a reversal to his Muslim Brotherhood past. He is in the process of falling between two stools.
A Turk who supports an Arab cause is welcome from a distance. But a Turk casting himself in a regional role scares the Arab as a potential Ottoman. That is where Erdogan is stuck at the moment. His maximalist aspiration to play a larger regional role will be challenged by the Arabs. His minimalist position to keep internal order by keeping the Kurds under his jackboot will lead to civil unrest. His instinctive support for the Brothers component in the IS will bring him into conflict with the Americans. In brief, he is in trouble. This is without taking into account the restless Alawis, who is an eruption waiting to happen.
A metaphor for all his woes is the Syrian enclave of Kobane abutting Turkey. He is aching to weaken Syrian and Turkish Kurds by any means, even by enabling ISIS to win. The internal situation is by no means stable. Already 40 Kurd protesters have been killed in police firing. It may one day soon be said of him: nothing became him less than the leaving of it.