Turkish President Erdogan: Playing to the crowd

Sayed Abdel-Meguid , Thursday 24 May 2018

Turkey’s Erdogan is using every possible opportunity to enhance his standing ahead of June’s elections, though events out of his hands could challenge his presidency

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan poses with Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, Jordan's King Abdullah, Emir of Kuwait Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah and Iran's President Hassan Rouhani for a group photo during an extraordinary meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Istanbul, Turkey May 18, 2018. (Photo: Reuters)

Turkish Prime Minister Benali Yildirim appealed to Islamic countries that have relations with the “occupation entity in Palestine” to review those relations immediately in response to Israeli atrocities against Palestinian demonstrators at the Gaza-Israeli border.

It appears that in the height of his ardour, Yildirim forgot that his own country has long had very cosy relations with Israel, which has an embassy in Ankara and a consulate in Istanbul, and that the two countries are coordinating closely to “maximise interests” between them.

So, even after tit-for-tat recalling of ambassadors and charges d’affaires, the two countries are unlikely to downgrade relations again. They have a $4.5 billion volume of trade between them.

Even during that diplomatic freeze that followed the killing of nine Turks aboard the Mavi Marmara eight years ago, bilateral trade remained unaffected.

But the Turkish media, 95 per cent of which is controlled by President Erdogan and the ruling Justice and Development Party, do not bother to keep the Turkish public posted on such awkward details.

Instead, government-controlled television outlets broadcast the gruesome images of Israeli crimes against the Palestinians and host commentators and analysts to expose the “bloodthirstiness” of the Zionist enemy and drive home how Erdogan is the “only Islamic leader to take a firm stance against that barbarity”.

At the same time, Erdogan/AKP supporters are given permission to stage rallies to protest the “enemies of Islam”. In short, at a time when the AKP public approval ratings are dipping in the polls — in the run up to critical snap elections in June, no less — Erdogan seized at the demagogic life-line tossed to him by the events in Gaza and worldwide outrage at Israeli violence.

Accordingly, Turkish TV channels broadcast, over and over again, the footage of Israeli Ambassador to Turkey Eitan Naeh, being body searched in Istanbul airport after having been order to leave within 24 hours. Erdogan, simultaneously, notched up the stridency of his tirades.

At one of his rallies, he railed against the “people who were victims of all sorts of torture in the Nazi concentration camps during World War II who were attacking Palestinians today in ways that the Nazis would be ashamed of”.

He added a call to the UN to send an international peacekeeping force to protect the Palestinian people who are “losing their children daily due to Israeli terrorism”.

The cameras then shifted to Erdogan’s courageous call for an emergency summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which Turkey currently chairs.

After strenuous hours of telephone diplomacy to urge Arab and Islamic leaders to attend, the summit convened in Istanbul, although minus some of the most influential leaders.

It culminated in an eloquently worded “powerful message to the world” with no practical measures to back it up. Then the Turkish media did what it is paid to do which is to pass over the meagre results and trumpet the “triumph” of their great leader who summoned the representatives from 57 Islamic countries to Istanbul.

Apart from Erdogan’s cronies and the AKP base, millions of Turkish citizens took little interest in the summit.

How could they, when their energies are focussed on struggling to make ends meet in the face of soaring prices and the declining value of the Turkish lira? Against the backdrop of economic straits, if anything caught their attention it was the fallout from the corruption cases that rattled the highest echelons of government in Ankara several years ago and that came back to haunt the regime in Ankara in the form of the “Iran sanctions case” that was heard in a Manhattan court over several instalments last winter.

Last week, 16 May, the presiding Judge Richard Berman sentenced the chief defendant, Mehmet Hakan Atilla, “to 32 months in prison for his participation in a scheme to violate US economic sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic of Iran involving billions of dollars’ worth of Iranian oil proceeds held at ATILLA’s employer (“Turkish Bank-1”),” according to the press release of the US Department of Justice’s Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York.

Although the sentence against the Turkish banker had been anticipated, the timing could not have been worse for the Erdogan regime.

Also, while the sentence appears relatively light, compared to what Atilla could have received, this does not mean that the Turkish state bank will get off easy.

According to analysts, the minimum penalty that the Halk Bank could be asked to pay is $9 billion. It would be the highest fine ever imposed by the US Treasury Department on a foreign bank.

So, the curtain has yet to close on the tale of the Turkish-Iranian gold trader Reza Zarrab who facilitated international financial transactions to enable Iran to evade sanctions related to its nuclear energy programme.

Once much praised and encouraged by Erdogan, Zarrab possessed abundant inside information and turned state witness in the trial in Manhattan, causing Erdogan’s media machine to turn around and vilify him relentlessly.

Atilla was only one of the defendants cited in the case. Others are still at large. So, the Zarrab/Iranian sanctions case is likely to continue to cast a heavy shadow over already deteriorating relations between Ankara and Washington.

The other main source of tension between the two countries has been their conflicting approach to handling the Syrian crisis.

The White House’s insistence that the Kurds in Syria are a cornerstone of US regional policy in the Middle East continues to grate on Ankara’s anti-Kurdish nerves, which are growing tenser now that it has allied with the ultranationalist right.

It also appears that, as a Turkish columnist put it, “Washington has plans to mobilise Mideast countries, from Israel to Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt against Iran.

” If Ankara refuses to join this drive, which is most likely, and joins the opposing camp with the Iranian mullahs, a rupture between Ankara and Washington would be almost inevitable. Of course, all this and more depends on whether Erdogan remains president.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 May 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Playing to the crowd

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