Is Recep still a model? Erdogan's burdens in 2014

Bassem Aly , Thursday 2 Jan 2014

Amid a widening corruption scandal and troubled regional relations, is Turkey's AKP model on the wane?

Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan arrives at the cabinet meeting in Ankara December 30, 2013 (Photo: Reuters)

If you live in the Middle East, you must have envied the Turks at some point for having as resourceful a prime minister as Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

It is hard to expect that an Islamist leader could expand his popularity in 11 years within a theoretically secular state and society, but Erdogan's accomplishments surpass this.

A flourishing economy, a socially and politically satisfied population, and a "zero problems" foreign policy outlook are among the markers of his era in power. But is the momentum still there?

Some suggest that Erdogan will meet further tough times in 2014, including tensioned relations with regional neighbours and the consequences of a corruption scandal that put his regime in question.

Under these circumstances, Turkey's strongman and his Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) will likely be obliged to exert more effort in restoring its image, whether on the domestic or external fronts.

Inside Turkey

A ruler's credibility surpasses anything else. Turkey saw last month a graft scandal, which led to the resignation of three cabinet ministers, and two of them after their sons were taken into custody.

One of the most eye-catching resignations was that of environment and urban planning minister, Erdogan Bayraktar, who called on Erdogan to resign to "ease the turmoil" in the country. Thousands of anti-government protests also called for the same.

Mohamed Abdelkader, Turkish affairs expert at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, said that Erdogan has an "authoritarian tendency."

"The resigned ministers will run as AKP candidates during the coming elections; Erdogan himself will not easily leave power as he attempts to finalise a new constitution to stay in power in 2023," Abdelkader said.

What counts are not the details of the crisis, but rather the way Erdogan dealt with it, especially that Turkish media outlets stated that his son might be the "next target" of the corruption investigation.

Players on the ground

Erdogan opted to reshuffle almost half of his cabinet after a closed-door meeting with President Abdullah Gul.

"They said 'Gezi' and smashed windows. Now they say 'corruption' and smash windows. These conspiracies will not succeed; their concern is not corruption, law or justice. Their only concern is damaging this nation's power," Erdogan told a cheering crowd in western Manisa province.

Last Tuesday, the government claimed it was defending itself against a "mini coup attempt" by police and judiciary elements who serve the interests of foreign and domestic forces.

The government also accused loyalists of US-settled Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen of pushing the corruption investigation to weaken Erdogan in the run-up to local elections in March.

Despite Gulen denying the accusations, the government sacked dozens of police chiefs linked to Gulen.

Ironically, Gulen and Erdogan were former allies who worked together in dismantling much of the military's political weight, with the latter gaining Gulen's Hizmet Movement support in three consecutive elections.

Meanwhile, the old "protector of secular principles" — the military  said it would not get involved in politics. Historically speaking, the army carried out three coup d'états, in 1960, 1971 and 1980, and forced Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan of the Islamist Welfare Party to leave office in 1997.  

Aykan Erdemir, member of opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), told Ahram Online that military intervention is "'no longer an option in contemporary Turkey."

Erdemir noted that there is a powerful and vibrant civil society, and that citizens will continue to utilise democratic channels to struggle against "Erdogan's corrupt rule."

"In the near future, Erdogan will have to bow either to public protests or to the ballot box," he claimed.

Outside Turkey: Even tougher

The two-level interaction between internal and external always pops up.

Erdemir accused Erdogan of "ruining foreign policy by turning the so-called 'zero problems with neighbours' policy into 'zero neighbours' policy." He believes this has been a source of growing opposition against Erdogan inside Turkey. Bulent Arinc, deputy prime minister, said in televised remarks that political turmoil cost the country over $100 billion.

Turkey's relationship with many regional partners, such as Egypt, Iran and Syria, witnessed severe deteriorations during 2013. Though political relations with Israel were restored after the Mavi Marmara crisis in 2010, the deployment of NATO Patriot missiles on the Turkish borders with the war-torn Syria brought clashes on other fronts.

Syria's, allies mainly Iran and Russia, opposed the deployment, fearing that it could spark regional conflict, though it was justified by NATO as aimed to "protect against spillover."

Zenonas Tziarras, a scholar specialised on Turkey at Warwick University, said that Turkey is trying to manage a "fragile balance" in terms of Iran and Syria.

"Erdogan's policies towards Iran express Turkey's efforts to strike a balance between its pro-Western Syria policies and its need to maintain good relations with an Iran that is not fond of Turkey's management of the Syrian crisis," he said.

Tziarras believes that Ankara doesn't want confrontation with Iran, hoping that the recent nuclear deal between world powers and Tehran could "provide dynamics of better cooperation."

The loss of Egypt

A friendship lost for Turkey came with Egypt after the Turkish ambassador was asked to leave and Cairo recalled its envoy in Ankara, accusing Turkey of aiming to "incite the international community against the interests of Egypt."

The conflict between Egypt's interim government and Turkey's AKP arose following the ouster of Mohamed Morsi who struck up a close alliance with Turkey after his election in June 2012.

Egypt's interim government accused Turkey of "falsifying facts about the situation in Egypt" and "defying the will of the people."

Tziarras said that Erdogan's stance towards the Muslim Brotherhood derived from "an ideological affinity" between the Brotherhood and the AKP.

He expects that any improvement now in relations will depend on Turkey's increasing need to "befriend Egypt" in the midst of an unstable region.

"Domestic changes in Turkey [could] result in a more pro-Western government," says Tziarras. "Turkey and Egypt [rapprochement] is not impossible, but it is difficult to foresee soon," he added.

Short link: