We live in an era of resurgent, strongman leaders.
Some of them, like Russian President Vladimir Putin, carry an aura of invincibility, a sense that they effortlessly control the levers of power at every level of state activity, from parliament to intelligence operations to the military. Some of them cling to power even as the states they created crumble under the weight of corruption, mismanagement, political repression, and economic degradation; Venezuela’s leader, Nicolas Maduro, is a prime example of this. Still others cling to power through brute force and mass murder, propped up by outside allies. The most obvious case here is the Syrian tyrant Bashar al-Assad, who has lived another day thanks to his friends in Moscow and Tehran.
There’s another class of strongman leader, who accumulates more and more power by presenting himself as the innocent victim of murky outside conspiracies, spinning his unfortunate condition as an attack on the sovereign will of the people, and not just upon himself or his political party. Case in point? Enter Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
For a few hours on Friday, July 15, the world believed that Erdogan had been the target of a coup. Media attention that had been focused on the previous day’s terrorist atrocity in Nice, France, suddenly lurched towards Ankara and Istanbul, where tanks were in the streets, fighter jets were flying overhead, and state media was announcing the existence of something called a “peace council” that would henceforth manage the country’s crisis. Erdogan himself was rumored to have left the country, and there were even reports that he had requested asylum in Germany.
But by Saturday, Erdogan and his cohorts were back in control. We will perhaps never know the true story of what happened during those fateful hours, but it is striking that this coup appears to have been so incompetently executed, all the more so in Turkey, which has had its fair share of violent transitions of power in the recent past.
Certainly, Erdogan has reaped great rewards in the aftermath, which has seen him move several steps closer to the Sultan-like status he craves. Does that he mean he staged the coup? I’ve always been highly skeptical of “false flag operation” theories, but if you’re hunting for one, you’re probably on more solid ground with the attempted coup in Turkey than you are with 9/11 in America or the assault on the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris.
Erdogan has named and blamed his most hated enemy, the Pennsylvania-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, for the coup in which around 200 people were killed. The figurehead of a movement that blends fealty to Islam with a commitment to scientific inquiry and interfaith dialogue, Gulen was a close ally of Erdogan until 2013, following an enormous corruption scandal that was centered upon leading figures in the Turkish president’s ruling AKP Party, including Erdogan himself.
Rather like Leon Trotsky, the founder of the Soviet Red Army who was hounded and chased out of the USSR by Joseph Stalin, Gulen has become an all-encompassing explanation for the existential threats, as Erdogan perceives them, that are currently plaguing Turkey. Stalin saw the influence of “Trotskyite counter-revolutionaries” everywhere, and brutally purged every element of the Soviet apparatus. Erdogan is now doing much the same with the “Gulenist terrorists.” Since Trotsky himself was eventually assassinated in Mexico City in 1940, after more than a decade of wandering the globe, Gulen can be forgiven for wondering whether he will face a similar fate at his home in the Poconos—assuming, that is, that the Obama administration doesn’t accede to Erdogan’s demand that the cleric be extradited to his homeland.
In Turkey itself, Erdogan has embarked up on a rapacious state-wide purge. Around 60,000 soldiers, police, judges, civil servants, and teachers have been suspended or detained, or are under investigation by the regime. At Istanbul University alone, nearly 100 academics have been ousted from their positions and all academics are now banned from traveling abroad. Nearly 700 private schools have been summarily closed down. The crackdown on the media—long the subject of Erdogan’s hatred, which means that Turkey is at number 151 in the global press freedom rankings, just below Tajikistan—has been especially fearsome, with 24 broadcasters having their licenses revoked and dozens of Internet portals blocked.
Erdogan can, at this time, claim the support of around half of Turkey’s population. The other half detests him. There were many anti-regime Turks who laughed bitterly when they saw Erdogan, as the coup was underway, imploring his people to get into the streets and demonstrate. They remembered, of course, the defeated uprising against Erdogan in 2013, when more than 8,000 were injured in clashes with the authorities and thousands more were arrested.
Internally, Erdogan is far stronger now than in 2013, when more than 3 million Turks openly defied him. In terms of Turkey’s regional status, that is a slightly different matter. The regime has been humbled in its dealings with both Russia, with whom Erdogan has been at loggerheads over the war in Syria, and Israel, which endured his vulgar anti-Semitic rhetoric for more than a decade before reaching a reconciliation deal with Turkey in June. One might even marvel at the fact that Erdogan has purged more than 600 leading military officers at a time when you’d think he needs them, but remember that Stalin did exactly the same.
Erdogan has established himself as a dictator and Turkey—a NATO member and still a candidate for membership of the European Union—is dismantling what precious few civil liberties remain.
There was a time when Turkey’s apologists, particularly in the American-Jewish community, sycophantically described the country as “the only democracy in the Middle East besides Israel.” Only the most foolish of them would do so now. This is what fascism looks like.