Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Steven A. Cook*

-Analysis-

Over this past weekend one of my Economist-devouring, Washington Post-reading, New York Times-gobbling buddies who does not work in the field of foreign affairs asked me, “Hey, what’s up with Erdogan and the Turks?”

I’ve been asked this question so many times this summer by so many people that I've lost count. It’s been a long summer in Turkey, starting in May with the Gezi Park protests that revealed a depth of anger toward Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which seemed to surprise the Turkish leadership. Then in early August there were the Ergenekon verdicts, which brought to a close a five-year investigation and trial in an alleged plot to undermine Erdogan and his government.

The trials may be over (excluding appeals), but the controversy around Ergenekon continues. In between these two bookends have been the deteriorating situation in Syria, the coup in Egypt, a slowing economy, and the beginning of a peace process with the Kurdistan Workers Party. The combined pressure of all of the events seems to have gotten to the prime minister, who has been bullying domestic critics, engaging in conspiracies about “interest rate lobbies” intent on bringing down the Turkish economy, and generally finger-pointing at everyone but himself for the difficulties Turkey now confronts at home and abroad.

As the Gezi Park-inspired protests have faded somewhat, the July 3 military intervention in Egypt that brought down Mohamed Morsi seems to be the issue that is currently consuming Prime Minister Erdogan. In language that was once reserved only for Israelis, the Turkish political elite is lashing out at the Egyptians. Prime Minister Erdogan is alone among world leaders in advocating forcefully on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi. He has blamed the coup on the Israelis and the Gulf countries while wrecking Ankara’s ties with Egypt as well as blowing Turkish soft power.

It would be a logical fallacy to suggest that because Erdogan is virtually alone (the Ecuadoreans recalled their ambassador in Cairo over the coup) in this issue that he is thus wrong, but the Turkish leader tends to have trouble with context, though more about that down below. Regime mouthpieces like Taha Ozhan of the unofficially AKP-affiliated advocacy organization/think tank, SETA Foundation, have gone so far as to link Egyptian Major General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in some sort of new axis of evil.

In the end, however, Egypt’s present tribulations are, according to Ozhan, the fault of the United States. What is new? On the face of it, Ozhan’s missive should not be taken seriously, but for the fact that it reflects the dominant political thinking within the AKP. There are any number of shills who are all too willing to explain away the convulsions in and around Turkey as some sort of “Zionist-provocateur, interest rate lobby, American conspiracy against Muslim democrats,” rather than a serious examination of the pressures, interests and issues that have led to a range of dramatic developments in the Middle East recently. The Turks, it seems, are the last Orientalists.

So why have the Turks reacted this way? Someone recently suggested — I can’t remember where — that perhaps Erdogan’s overwrought response to Egypt, which seems to serve no purpose other than alienating yet another major Middle Eastern country, was the result of an allegedly undisclosed health problem. This is the same kind of silliness some people used to explain Vice President Dick Cheney’s behavior during the Bush years. Allegedly, the vice president’s heart condition made him do it. A more analytically sound argument for the behavior of the Turkish prime minister and his minions revolves around three issues:

1) It should not be a surprise that Prime Minister Erdogan would react strongly and negatively to a coup d’état. Turkey’s history of military interventions is hardly worth repeating, but suffice it to say that in the coups of 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997 political forces representing pious Muslims suffered. The Turkish military was responsible for the development of a political system that was geared specifically to prevent the accumulation of Kurdish, Islamist and at one time Communist political power. The result was that many, especially in the West, saw the Turkish armed forces as a “moderating force” that ensured what people considered a democratic system.

To Islamists, however, the military enforced a Jacobin-like secularism that repressed them because they took their religion seriously and wanted to live in a truly secular system where government did not control religion, but rather protected religious rights. Even as Erdogan has become the sun around which Turkish politics revolves, bringing the military to heel, presiding over an economic boom, and bringing new prestige and influence to Turkey, he remains deeply concerned about the next coup even if circumstances suggest it is unlikely to happen. Against the backdrop of the Turkish Republic’s history, Erdogan could not possibly let al-Sisi’s coup go. He is correct that there is nothing democratic about the Egyptian military’s actions, but the Turkish prime minister seems to have willfully overlooked the fact that Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brothers hardly distinguished themselves as democrats over the course of the last year.

It was clear from what the Brotherhood-dominated Shura Council was doing that Morsi and the Guidance Office were seeking to institutionalize the power of their organization with little regard for the principles of democratic politics. Erdogan simply refuses to see the Egyptian dilemma or recognize that the Brothers had no intention of forging a democratic system.

2) As I have written elsewhere on any number of occasions, Tayyip Erdogan is an extraordinary politician. He has an innate capability to connect with the average Turk and the vital center of the electorate. Sure, he’s been in power for a decade and seems isolated from society, but he is still the guy from KasımpaÅŸa. When Erdogan rails against interest rate lobbies, blames foreign hands, blasts Gulf leaders, assails Egyptian generals, and ostentatiously weeps over Palestinian blood, he is connecting with his constituency.

Everything the prime minister does is directly related to domestic politics, so it does not matter that his rhetoric contributes to the erosion of Turkey’s strategic position in the region, because this type of rhetoric resonates deeply. The domestic turbulence as a result of the Gezi protests, in particular, has given Erdogan an opportunity to play on Turkish sensitivities about the predatory role of external powers. These ideas crystallized — for good reason — in the immediate post-WWI era, but remain potent almost a century later. The tough rhetoric also insulates Erdogan from setbacks because he has framed the terms of debate in a way that no matter what happens to the economy, it is not his or his government’s fault, but rather the responsibility of foreign bankers. In an unintended way, Turkey’s troubles may actually help Erdogan politically.

3) Erdogan’s visceral response to what has happened to Morsi is a function of the Turkish leader’s own (more successful) efforts to do what the former Egyptian president tried. If you strip away the lore of a politically and economically liberalizing Turkey, the AKP has done what the Egyptian armed forces did not permit the Muslim Brotherhood to do. The Justice and Development Party has consolidated its power and in the process has made it exceedingly difficult to challenge the party in the formal political arena. The party’s members and their allies have used the last decade to exploit economic opportunities that are recycled through the political system, further institutionalizing the power of the party. Coming on the heels of the Gezi protests, Erdogan cannot allow anyone to draw parallels, however abstract, between the dynamics that led to the coup in Egypt and the political-economic circumstances that prevail in Turkey. This is not to suggest that Turkey is ripe for a coup or even that the Turkish military could pull one off, but rather that the illiberal drift in Turkish politics renders the country’s political environment more like Egypt than, say, any of Ankara’s Western partners.

The end result is a Turkey that is more insular, less democratic and pricklier than at any time during Erdogan’s tenure. In other words, the new Turkey looks a lot like the old one.

* Steven A. Cook is the Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council On Foreign Relations.
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January 15-16

  • Kazakhstan’s vicious circle of strongmen
  • COVID school chaos around the world
  • The truth behind why we lie to ourselves
  • … and much more!

🎲 BUT FIRST, A NEWS QUIZ!

What do you remember from the news this week?

1. What extreme measure did the Canadian province of Quebec take to encourage people to get vaccinated?

2. What caused a massive power outage in Argentina’s capital Buenos Aires, leaving 700,000 in the dark for hours?

3. Norwegian soldiers were asked to return what piece of clothing at the end of their military service, so that future recruits can reuse them?

4. What news story have we summed up here in emoji form? ❤️ 🐖 🏥 👨 👍

[Answers at the bottom of this newsletter]

⬇️  STARTER

Djokovic, BoJo, Xi Jinping: rules & power in pandemic times

It was the phrase of the week down on Fleet Street, the historic HQ of the London press corps: “Bring your own booze” — BYOB — the instructions secretly sent around for the garden party held at 10 Downing Street in blatant violation of the first coronavirus lockdown, back in May 2020.The revelations of the event (the second such scandal to emerge in the past two months) has left British Prime Minister Boris Johnson barely holding on to his job after his admission to Parliament this week that he was there … and he was, well, quite sorry.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the former British empire, Australians are following how their public representatives will resolve the latest twist in pandemic policy that has captured the sporting world’s attention. Back and forth, like a tennis match. By the end of the week, Australia had reversed a Monday court decision, and canceled Novak Djokovic’s visa that would have allowed him to defend his Australian Open title. Immigration Minister Alex Hawke said the visa was revoked on the grounds that the presence of the unvaccinated Serbian star risks fueling anti-vax sentiment on home soil.

This is high-stakes political gamesmanship indeed. The unprecedented health crisis, and associated restrictions to limit the spread of the virus, requires our elected leaders to react to ever-changing information and a chain of lose-lose public policy choices. COVID continues to make the hard job of being a public representative that much harder. The best, we can agree, are doing the best they can. The worst, well … are the worst.

The British public has rightly taken offense to the idea that the very people charged with making and enforcing COVID rules, were also busy breaking them. In the Djokovic saga, skeptics of vaccination mandates — in Australia, Serbia and beyond — will have new ammunition if the world’s top tennis player is kicked out of both tournament and country.

The good news is that in our eternally flawed democracies, the public eventually (though not always!) finds out what goes wrong, and ultimately has the final say of who’s in charge. The same can’t be said everywhere, including the country that has been cited for having the most successful methods for controlling the virus and limiting death tolls. That is, of course, China … where it all began.

Yet the authoritarian regime's “Zero COVID policy” comes with deeper questions that largely mirror the downside of authoritarianism in general: ruthless enforcement, quelled dissent and the sometimes blind following of the masses. It’s hard to imagine that Xi Jinping has had any “BYOB parties” in the past two years. But if he did, you can be sure we’d never know.

— Jeff Israely


🎭  5 CULTURE THINGS TO KNOW

• Makar Sankranti 2022: The Hindu festival of Makar Sankranti is celebrated on January 14 and 15 in almost all parts of India and Nepal in a myriad of cultural forms. The festival marks the end of winter, the beginning of a new harvest season, and has ancient religious significance.

• Parthenon fragment returns to Greece: A marble fragment from the Parthenon temple has been returned to Athens from a museum in Sicily. Authorities hope the move will rekindle efforts to force the British Museum to send back ancient sculptures from Greece's most renowned ancient landmark.

• 400 years of Molière: France honors its seminal playwright on the 400th anniversary of his birth. His influence, comparable to that of Shakespeare in the anglophone world, is such that French is often referred to as the "language of Molière."

• Vinyl surpassed CDs sales for the first time in 30 years: For the first time since 1991, annual sales of vinyl records surpassed those of CDs in the U.S, according to MRC Data and Billboard, with an estimated 41.72 million vinyl records sold in 2021 (up 51.4% from 27.55 million in 2020). This means that vinyl is now the leading format for all album purchases in the U.S.

• Kendrick Lamar teams up with South Park creators: Grammy-winning rapper Kendrick Lamar and his former longtime manager Dave Free are working with South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone to produce a live-action comedy for Paramount Pictures.

📚😷 COVID SCHOOL CHAOS AROUND THE WORLD


The decisions to close schools have been some of the toughest choices made during the pandemic, with students suffering both academically and socially from online learning or no education at all. It’s universally acknowledged that children most succeed with in-person classes, but the question still remains whether the health risk to students and those around them is worth it.

The Omicron wave has only caused this debate to heighten, with teacher strikes in France, rising drop-out rates in Argentina and shortages of staff in South Africa. But there are signs of hope: Uganda has finally reopened schools, ending the world’s longest shutdown, and some American parents have decided to offer more personalized education with homeschooling.

Read the full story: COVID School Chaos, Snapshots From 10 Countries Around The World

🇰🇿  KAZAKHSTAN’S VICIOUS CIRCLE OF STRONGMEN


The real transition of power in Kazakhstan was supposed to have taken place in 2019. Former President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had ruled the former Soviet Republic with an iron first since its independence in 1991, finally stepped aside to allow his successor, Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev, to take power.

However, Nazarbayev retained enormous influence behind the scenes. The real transfer of power is in fact happening only now, following large-scale unrest and protests around the country. Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev promises a new way of doing things, but his methods are strikingly similar to his predecessor. For Russian daily Kommersant, Vladimir Soloviev and Alexander Konstantinov ponder why strongmen are able to keep power in Kazakhstan — but can't ensure its peaceful transfer.

Read the full story: Kazakhstan, When One Strongman Replaces Another

🐟 DENMARK, A SMALL FISH IN THE SALMON INDUSTRY’S BIG POND


Things are getting fishy over Nordic fishing regulations, as the Danish government has banned further growth in sea-based fish farming, claiming the country had reached the limit without endangering the environment. In Danish newspaper Politiken, marine biologist Johan Wedel Nielsen explained why Demark’s policy has given Norway a de facto monopoly on the lucrative salmon industry. This is particularly significant as changing diet habits are increasing demand for the nutritious pink fish, and Norway has taken advantage, accounting for about half of the world’s salmon production.

Nielsen argues that environmental concerns aren’t warranted, as fish have an inherently small impact on the environment. Denmark has the potential to establish 150 salmonid (a family of fish including salmon and trout) farms in the Baltic Sea, producing some 500,000 tons of trout per year with a value of 2.7 billion euros and employing tens of thousands. But the Danish government has so far given no indication of allowing any addition to Denmark’s 19 existing farms.

Read the full story: Norwegian Salmon v. Danish Trout: Lessons On Ecology And Economics

💡  BRIGHT IDEA

French start-up Airxôm has unveiled its unique respiratory device at Las Vegas’ CES tech event. Their plastic and silicon face mask is the first capable of destroying particles of all sizes and has inbuilt decontamination properties, hence protecting against pollution, bacteria and viruses including COVID-19. Oh and, as a bonus, it also prevents your glasses from fogging.

#️⃣ TRENDING


Boris Johnson memes flooded social networks this week, mocking the UK’s prime minister's excuse for attending what was quite obviously a party at the height of the pandemic: “I believed implicitly that this was a work event.” The quote was shared alongside a toe-curlingly bad 2013 video of BoJo dancing to Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long” which resurfaced on Instagram, while Irish low-cost carrier Ryanair puts its own spin on the lame explanation.

🤦‍♀️🛴🤦‍♂️ FACEPALM OF THE WEEK


A Belgian national was intercepted by the French police while riding his e-scooter on a highway in eastern France. The confused trottinette user said it was his first time riding in France, and that he’d failed to select the “no toll roads” option on his GPS.

👉   OTHERWISE ...

Climate, COVID, Costa Concordia: why humans are wired for denial

This past week marked 10 years since the sinking of the Costa Concordia cruise ship off the coast of Tuscany. Writing in Italian daily La Stampa, Guido Maria Brera sees connections between the way passengers and crew reacted in the minutes and hours after the ship ran aground to other calamities we face that may seem to be moving more slowly:

In 2012, the same year the Costa Concordia cruise ship sank off of Giglio Island, David Quammen published his book Spillover, which predicted that somewhere in Asia a virus would be attacking the human respiratory tract on its way to becoming a global pandemic. And so it was. This terrible shipwreck, which the world watched in slow-motion exactly ten years ago on January 13, 2012, now appears to us — just like the COVID-19 pandemic, like the trailer of a horror film we are now all living for real.

Millions dead, ten of millions sick, and the psychological collapse of entire generations, the youngest and most defenseless. In the meantime, climate change is spiraling out of control: sea levels are rising, land is drying out, ice caps are melting, not to mention hurricanes, storms, floods, droughts, famines, wars, migration.

The correlation between climate change and the pandemic has been demonstrated countless times by scientists. Soaring temperatures, intensive livestock farming, deforestation and the devastation of the natural animal kingdoms have led to zoonosis: Species-hopping, in which a bacterium or virus escapes from its host and spreads to another, creating a chain reaction with devastating results.

Finding the correlation between the sinking of the Costa Concordia and the current situation is more a subtle exercise: by looking at the decisions we made to respond to the disaster — or rather, how we failed to take action.

"The Concordia has become a maze of choices in the dark, deciding whether to open a door or not, whether to move or stay put, can be the difference between life and death,” Pablo Trincia said recently in his podcast “Il Dito di Dio.” (The Finger of God). A cruise ship with more than 4,000 people, including passengers, crew and ship personnel, is a microcosm in itself: it contains everything. And indeed, in these very long and slow moments, when time seems suspended, a tragedy was in the making.

There were reported many notable demonstrations of solidarity, as strangers helped each other. There were also those who fled as quickly as possible, seeking their personal safety at the expense of others. There were those who, between the ship crashing into the rocks and the dropping of the first lifeboats, seemed not to care.

If it is true that there are lessons to learn even from the worst tragedies, then we must make sure that the terrible wreckage of this small world can help us understand and identify the rocks we are heading towards today: the climate crisis and the pandemic. Time is the discriminating factor, as always. Director Adam McKay explains it well in his movie Don't Look Up, showing us how people react as they face slow-motioned tragedies.

In this scenario, the slowness of the film is the central narrative choice: there is initially plenty of time before the comet would hit the earth, ineluctably ending human life, and there remains plenty of time to live and love and enjoy.

Hence, we also have time to expect that the asteroid is still far away, to imagine that it will deviate from its course. We even have time to forget that the impact is inevitable, and to continue to live as if nothing is happening.

This is the most common reaction to pandemics and environmental disasters. Turn your head away, pretend you don't see, don't look up.

Denial is the work of politicians incapable of questioning the only development model they know, of the billionaires who built bunkers to survive in New Zealand, (where it seems that the crisis will have less impact), of the Silicon Valley gurus have already bought coolers to preserve their bodies for eternity by cryogenics.

On the Costa Concordia, refusal to look the disaster in the eye wasn’t just the work of those who were supposed to give the alert and manage the evacuation: we are all in the same boat when it comes to denial. When a disaster happens in slow motion, it feels as though there is still too much time to bother rushing for solutions now.

We tend to think about the time we have left, about the costs and benefits to our tiny lives, without even realizing that never has the need for salvation been more collective.

Ten years ago, as today, we convinced ourselves that we are absolved of responsibility precisely because we know that everyone shares the same responsibility.

⏩  LOOKING AHEAD

• Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov set next week as the ultimatum for a confirmation that NATO will neither expand nor deploy forces to Ukraine and other ex-Soviet nations.

• Next Sunday will mark two years since the World Health Organization declared during an emergency meeting that COVID-19 was a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

• On Tuesday, a 3,400-foot-wide asteroid will make a safe flyby of Earth, whooshing by our planet at the equivalent of five Earth-Moon distances (still pretty close from a cosmic point of view).

• Monday is Ditch New Year’s Resolutions Day, so you still have a few more hours to decide whether that gym membership really was a good idea.

News quiz answers:

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