Will Erdogan ever overreach?

When will his reach finally exceed his grasp, resulting in it all coming crashing down around him?

By Seth J. Frantzman

There are many cliches for ‘Biting off more than you can chew”: “Burning the candle at both ends,” “spreading oneself too thin,” “overextended,” “overstretched,” “his reach exceeds his grasp”; yet Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan never seems to obey the laws of this hallowed wisdom.

On March 6 Erdogan appeared to threaten Facebook and other online media with censorship. “We will not let Facebook, YouTube or whatever capture the nation,” he said. It isn’t a coincidence that Youtube was at the center of a scandal in which recordings alleged to be of Erdogan discussing how to hide money were released. The recorded conversation on the site received 2 million hits within a day.

On March 1 Erdogan’s government sponsored a bill to shutter thousands of private preparatory schools, many run by the Gulen movement, a group Erdogan is now in a political struggle with. As part of a personal political battle, the Turkish prime minister has sought to close schools reported to cater to millions of students.

And to add to tensions in the country, on March 11 Berkan Elvan, a 15-year-old boy, died of wounds received during a protest last year against the government. His death will galvanize protesters, angry over a laundry list of Erdogan’s heavy-handed policies.

What is extraordinary is the degree to which Turkey’s leaders seem to feel there are no checks on their power. Boasting on March 6 to AT V, Erdogan claimed: “I told [US President Barack] Obama that the person who is responsible for the unrest in Turkey lives in your country, in Pennsylvania. I told him this clearly.” And then he ordered the president of America around: “I told him… I expect what’s necessary… you have to take the necessary stance if someone threatens my country’s security.” In response, Erdogan claimed Obama said: “We got the message.”

The source of the current “unrest” is a scandal that broke in mid-December last year when police arrested the sons of three ministers and 34 others closely allied to the top echelons of government and Erdogan’s AKP party. The government lashed out, blaming an exiled cleric named Fethullah Gulen, the “person in Pennsylvania” that Erdogan lectured Obama about. Gulen and his movement, known as Hizmet, are estimated to have over a million supporters in Turkey, many of them professionals, teachers, policemen and journalists. The movement’s supporters run the popular English daily Today’s Zaman and its Turkish sister publication.

The movement, which is religious, was supportive of the Islamist AKP party in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But as Erdogan began to grow stronger tensions grew. The police raids were seen as an attempt, perhaps a last hurrah, by Hizmet to challenge Erdogan. He claimed that “they can use whatever ugly methods they like or turn to dirty alliances, but we will not bow to any threats. Neither the nation nor we will give permission to those who seek to settle their scores outside the ballot box. Turkey is not a banana republic.”

Ironically, Erdogan and the families of the AKP elites were accused of precisely that – of operating the country like a personal bank account, using shady construction deals to gain fabulous wealth, and using government influence to conquer corporations and aggrandize themselves.

In revenge for the corruption raids, the government lashed out and removed 14 top police officials from office. But evidently it was not enough to stymie the probes, and some officials were forced to step down.

Zafar Caglayan, the economy minister, left office and claimed a secret cabal was after him. “The nation sees very well what kind of mentality we are fighting against,” he said, adding, “There are many things that I can tell you. But I would understand if a Jew, an atheist, a Zaraoastrian would all do these things to us. Shame on them if these things are done by those who claim to be Muslim. How can a Muslim do this?”

Anti-Semitism and blaming “international conspiracies” is not new as a method the regime uses to silence its opponents. After the corruption scandal broke in December, newspapers allied to Erdogan blamed “international groups” and claimed the US ambassador, Francis Ricciardone, was behind the conspiracy.

“Get out of the country” shouted one headline.

Back in June, during youth protests against development in Gezi park in Istanbul, the mayor of Ankara, Ibrahim Melih, claimed that AIPAC , “the Jewish lobby,” was behind the protests. He claimed a vast international conspiracy involving the American Enterprise Institute, and former Bush administration neo-cons Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton, Elliot Abrams, Richard Perle and William Kristol were plotting against the government.

WHAT IS at the root of Turkey’s flailing government’s vicious struggles against so many people in Turkey and its view that the whole world is against it? Serkan Demirtas, a commentator for Hurriyet Daily, which tends to be connected to the more secular Turkish nationalists (i.e., not an AKP mouthpiece), described the battle with Gulen as erupting over a minor issue. An Istanbul prosecutor sought to investigate Hakan Fidan, the undersecretary of Turkey’s intelligence organization, for meeting members of the Kurdish PKK, a socialist resistance group, in Oslo, Norway.

Demirtas claimed that “today’s picture shows the government is in fights with almost every important segment of society; teachers, students, Alevis [a minority Muslim group], professional groups of architects, engineers, trade unions, academics, journalists.” Gulen was just one more nail to be hammered down, and the decision by a prosecutor was an excuse to dismantle the organization’s power structure, beginning with its preparatory school system.

But the real root goes deeper. The AKP is the latest in a string of Islamist-style parties that have sought to conquer Turkey democratically. Since modern Turkey was founded on the notion of secularism, challenges to that secular manifesto of founding father Ataturk have been seen as challenges to the country. Islamist-style parties operating under various titles associated with an ideology called “National View,” or Milli Gurus, have come and gone over the years, usually due to army coups or official bans: the National Order Party (banned 1971), National Salvation Party (banned 1981), Welfare Party (banned 1998), Virtue Party (banned 2001). The AKP is the modern incarnation of this.

When it swept to power in 2002, the Turkish army, the bastion of Ataturk secularism, was reported to have plotted another coup. In 2010, claiming to have uncovered the coup plan code-named “Sledgehammer,” police began rounding up generals and army officers; eventually putting 365 people on trial, mostly members or former members of the armed service. On March 10 a court in Turkey ordered the release of some of those accused of being plotters, including a journalist and leftist politician.

With the release of several of those convicted in the coup plots, it seems as if the steamroller of Erdogan’s power play is grinding to a halt. One columnist at Zaman noted that, “the core matter is that after Erdogan’s desperate gamble for survival, by abusing the outdated judicial system’s weaknesses…we now enter a very delicate phase, with possibly gruesome consequences.” These are dangerous words that indicate unsettling times. Michael Rubin at Commentary called Turkey “Pakistan on the Med” in January.

But Turkey isn’t Pakistan – yet. It has troubles with the Kurds, and problems with the large minority Alevi population, exacerbated by the Syria conflict.

The government has attempted to cow the military and has now launched a jihad against the police, transferring thousands of officers reportedly, in the wake of the corruption scandal. It blames social media, Jews, Americans and students for its troubles.

Is it a surprise that the show Muhtesem Yuzyil, or “Magnificent Century,” a soap opera launched in 2011 about an Ottoman sultan’s harem, is one of the more popular shows in Turkey? After all, some call Erdogan a modern Sultan attempting to revive the country’s Ottoman greatness. (Erdogan himself is not a fan, claiming it “attempts to show our history in a negative light.”)

It is Erdogan who is putting his country in a negative light, not conspiracies involving Facebook, “international Jewish cabals” and “secretive Muslim sects.” He has shattered free speech and democracy in his quest to wrest control from the country’s secular and military elites; he has aggrandized economic power for his friends and family. When will his reach finally exceed his grasp, resulting in it all coming crashing down around him?

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