Book Review: Erdogan, the ‘new sultan’?

Dina Ezzat , Thursday 5 Dec 2019

Dina Ezzat reviews a book by Turkish historian Soner Cagaptay that tries to explain the peculiar case of Erdogan and its impact on the future of his country as a modern state rather than a head of a 'political Islam' empire

The New Sultan?
File Photo: A policeman scans the crowd at a pre-election AKP rally in Istanbul in 2015, backdropped by posters of Turkish Republic founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (L) and Turkey's current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. AP

A “democratic” Muslim-majority country with notable ethnic diversity, a NATO member, and a former colonial power of the Arab and other Muslim countries, Turkey is a very complex state.

However, even by these standards over the past 15 years and since Recep Tayyip Erdogan first came to power as prime minister from 2003 to 2014 when he amended the Turkish constitution to allow himself to be president, Turkey has received an enormous amount of world and regional attention.

First, there was the world’s fascination with the ascent to power of an Islamist politician who had seen definite success as mayor of Istanbul and who had showed respect for the secular nature of his country, as this had been firmly, maybe even ferociously, established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk after the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1918.

Then, there were the endless political battles that Erdogan was going through at home, not just with his opponents, but also with the fellow members of his political group who had continued to drift apart as they battled with his political choices. There were also the political battles Erdogan has been engaged in throughout the Middle East and around the Mediterranean.

Over the past five years, the Erdogan phenomenon has seen considerable debate, and this has been added to by Turkish historian Soner Cagaptay’s The New Sultan: Erdogan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey, which first came out in 2017 and is shortly expected in a second edition.

The new Sultan

A historian and commentator on Turkish affairs, Cagaptay offers in his 12-chapter book an atypical profile of Turkey’s controversial ruler, as he contextualises Erdogan’s choices within a layered political and historical topography of Turkey.

He makes no secret of two essential facts: first, he is no Erdogan fan; second, he, like many other secular Turks, was not hoping to see a successful coup d’état in his country in summer 2016 because this would have further handicapped a democratisation process that Erdogan has not helped.  

“The country is polarised between supporters and opponents of Erdogan, who has won successive elections in Turkey since 2002 on a platform of right-wing populism,” Cagaptay writes. “Erdogan has demonised and cracked down on electoral constituencies that are not likely to vote for him, a strategy that has dramatically worsened polarisation in Turkey, which is now sharply split between pro- and anti-Erdogan camps: the former, a conservative and Turkish-nationalist right-wing coalition, believes that the country is paradise; the latter, a loose group of leftists, secularists, liberals, and Kurds, thinks that it lives in hell.”

This dilemma, Cagaptay adds, is unfolding against the backdrop of a regional battle against the Islamist militant groups, particularly the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group, a battle between Turkey and some militant Kurdish groups, and a wider regional conflict in which Erdogan is involved with leaders who may well wish to see the fall of the ruler of Turkey.

None of this, Cagaptay argues, is in the interest of the stability of Turkey or the furthering of its democracy and economic prosperity in the future.


On a recent visit to Cairo, where he talked about his book, Cagaptay argued that Turkey could well implode under Erdogan’s rule.

However, this scenario is not unavoidable, particularly if Erdogan reconsiders some of his political choices that have been inspired by his wish to be a “sultan” rather than just the democratically elected president of a modern state that stands at the epicentre of a highly conflicting political game in the Middle East and beyond.

“Just as Ataturk shaped Turkey in his own image following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Erdogan is shaping a new country, but one that sees itself as profoundly Islamist in politics and foreign policy to make it a great power once again,” Cagaptay said.

Cagaptay is not denying that unlike Ataturk, who came to power as a military leader, Erdogan has a democratic mandate to govern and a successful economic record to be proud of when history is written. However, he shares his worry that if Erdogan continues with his “sultan” style of politics, it might be difficult for him to continue his claim to be democratic, especially if the country becomes more torn apart than ever before.

“Here lies the crisis of modern Turkey: half of the country embraces Erdogan’s brand of politics, but the other half vehemently opposes it. So long as Turkey is genuinely democratic, Erdogan cannot complete his [anti-Ataturk] revolution,” Cagaptay argued.

According to the book, Erdogan is not unaware of the obstacles that hamper his schemes at home, which was why Erdogan has shown his “illiberal side” that is a threat to the country’s democracy. Cagaptay is worried about, or perhaps is warning against, the way Erdogan had been exploiting his popularity by eroding democratic checks and balances in Turkey, including through the media and the courts.

“Instead of delivering more liberties for all, he has cracked down on his opponents and locked up dissidents, providing disproportionate freedoms for his conservative and Islamist base,” Cagaptay said. He added that although Erdogan has been winning elections democratically, he has also “gradually become more autocratic”.

Erdogan, Cagaptay writes in his book, “has intimidated the media and the business community through politically motivated tax audits and by jailing dissidents, scholars, and journalists. And his police regularly crack down on peaceful opposition rallies.”

He does not think that Erdogan will be able to force his vision of an Islamist Turkey or of himself as more of a sultan than the president of a democratic state on the whole of Turkey. Nor is he willing to see a successful end to Erdogan’s foreign-policy choices, which he says have largely benefitted from the regional and international divisions between leading Middle East and world players.

According to Cagaptay, Erdogan’s foreign-policy choices, designed to over-invest in every potential Political Islam group, cannot make Turkey the leading regional power he wants it to be. The author argues that it will be as difficult for Erdogan to impose his vision of Political Islam across the Arab countries as it has been for him to impose it at home, and that the sooner Erdogan comes to realise this the easier it will be for him to pick up the pieces.

Erdogan’s failed bet on Political Islam has denied him the opportunity to realise Turkey’s greatness as the head of a new Muslim empire, Cagaptay argues. He adds that to make things worse for Erdogan on the foreign front, he has also “played his hand poorly against Russia and Iran in the Syrian civil war and also against Iran in Iraq.” But he is aware that Erdogan’s urge to “Islamise” is still not stoppable, particularly on the home front.

“Having governed Turkey for 15 years, from 2002, Erdogan has amassed powers sufficient to undermine Ataturk’s legacy and, were they alive, make those original Kemalists question their absolute confidence in their system. He has dismantled Ataturk’s secularism in just over a decade and has done so with little mercy for his opponents. He has flooded the country’s political and education systems with rigidly conservative Islam and pivoted Turkey away from Europe and the West,” Cagaptay writes.


However, Cagaptay argues that when all is said and done Erdogan cannot reverse Ataturk’s introduction of secularism in 1923.

The harder he tries to force the country back, the tougher it will be for Turkey to keep its economic success or to keep its political profile as a democratic state and a moderate Muslim state that is also a member of NATO.

Perhaps the best part of Cagaptay’s book is not the analysis of the current dilemma of Turkey and of Erdogan, but rather his explanation of where Erdogan comes from and why he has such a solid constituency.

Cagaptay reminds his readers that “Erdogan’s rise to power was by no means smooth, and members of the secularist elite tried to block him every step of the way. In 1998, for example, he was forced to step down as Istanbul’s mayor and sent to jail for reciting an allegedly incendiary poem that judges concluded incited religious hatred,” he writes.  

He quotes Erdogan’s speech to a crowd in the south-eastern Turkish province of Siirt the previous year when he said that the “mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets, and the faithful our soldiers.”

“Although his original ten-month prison sentence was eventually reduced to four months and ten days, his imprisonment from March to July 1999 resulted in a ban from politics. This development, despite temporarily wounding Erdogan, actually empowered him by casting him as a martyr,” Cagaptay writes.

Today, the author argues, Erdogan is playing up this “martyrdom” to justify his crackdown on basic freedoms. Erdogan’s battle with the secular establishment has also not ended, and the failed 2016 coup in Turkey has empowered him to take it to a higher level.

“The failed coup of July 2016 ironically increased Erdogan’s power because the nefarious attempt to create a junta traumatised the entire Turkish nation. The plotters bombed the Turkish capital of Ankara, which had not come under military attack for 600 years,” he notes.

Cagaptay’s book is an important clue to the mindset of the Turkish people who, with or against Erdogan, chose to rally behind him after the failed coup and the failed attempt on his life that was supposed to be made by an assassination squad that descended on a hotel where he was staying.

This, Cagaptay explains, “is not because the opposition had suddenly decided that they liked their authoritarian ruler, but rather because the citizenry and Erdogan chose to unite their common trauma.”

Turkey, as the book underlines, is out of love with coups and is now on a democratic path, hard as that might be. However, the large question that Cagaptay’s 12 chapters do not really answer is whether or not Erdogan will finally succumb to this will for democratisation and whether he will stop playing the Political Islam card across the region to strengthen his position at home and abroad.

He proposes three scenarios for Erdogan and for Turkey. The first is for Erdogan to “continue with his polarising politics, in which case Turkey will be entrenched in a permanent state of crisis, accompanied by a deepening societal schism.”

Alternatively, Erdogan “could become completely authoritarian, forcing the country to bend to his powerful persona.”

The third scenario, the author suggests, is for Erdogan to continue making the same choices on the home and regional fronts, putting Turkey in a very difficult situation and possibly even a civil conflict of sorts.

“The president may continue to consolidate power by acting as a divisive figure, thereby exposing Turkey to deep tensions and further violence, in which case he will be crowned an ‘autocratic sultan’. Obviously, if that trajectory comes to fruition, his legacy will not be a positive one: about half the electorate will vehemently oppose his platform and work to undermine it. Add to this the influence of nefarious outside actors, including the jihadists, and Turkey could even descend into an unfortunate civil conflict,” Cagaptay writes.

In the final analysis, he argues, “I believe that Erdogan is truly interested in making modern Turkey a major power so that it does not meet the fate of the Ottoman Empire.”


*Soner Cagaptay, The New Sultan: Erdogan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey, London: I. B. Tauris, 2017 (first edition).

*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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