With Friends Like These... Erdogan's Assault on Freedom and Democracy

REUTERS/ Presidential Palace

Part 3: All or Nothing

The upshot is that Erdogan's motivation for remaining in office goes beyond merely wanting to hold onto power. Opposition politicians have said that, should Erdogan ever be voted out of office, the corruption cases would be restarted. The president and his family members could quickly end up behind bars.

That's yet another reason that he keeps such a tight grip on the country: For him, it's all or nothing. He is omnipresent in Turkish television. No matter when one channel surfs, it is always possible to find Erdogan delivering an address somewhere. Every day. He talks about how he envisions the role of the Turkish woman, he discusses the latest monumental project he has undertaken or he insults his opponents. Since he has been president, he has also taken to inviting even the most unimportant regional leaders from remote areas of Anatolia to Ankara. During such visits, the president holds forth at length while his audience feels honored at the opportunity.

The personality cult surrounding Erdogan has begun to take on increasingly absurd contours. Recently, a young Istanbul politician published a photo on Twitter of a water glass on a lectern. He wrote: "This is the glass our president drank from while delivering his speech." It was as though the water glass was a relic and Erdogan was the saint.

According to the Osman understanding of politics, the sultan must be kept happy. Because when "Baba," the father of the nation, is doing well, he will do things that are beneficial to his subjects. In such a system, many Turks are willing to forgive their ruler his errors, whether it be corruption or his volatile temper. The danger, however, is that the ruler will begin to feel unassailable.

Erdogan governs as though the entire world were Kasimpasa. When someone makes trouble, violence is the answer. The president sees himself as the embodiment of Turkey. Those who criticize him, are "acting against Turkey and against the Turkish people," he says.

His power is also supported by devout Muslims who were discriminated against for decades in secular Turkey. Women in headscarves were not allowed to enroll in university and were shut out of state jobs.

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the Republic of Turkey, violently installed secularism at the beginning of the 1920s. He also replaced Arabic writing with the Latin alphabet and banned Osman dress. Atatürk and his followers, the Kemalists, believed they could implement Western culture, Western lifestyle and secularism in Turkey in just a few years.

Two Pillars of Success

Under Erdogan, the Muslim faithful once again feel respected. He himself is considered devout, even if some critics accuse him of simply using Islam as an instrument of power.

Erdogan's success is based primarily on two pillars: Religion and economic growth. Before he rose to power, both politics and economics were firmly in the hands of the Kemalists. Islam and economic success, it seemed at the time, were incompatible. To his credit, Erdogan has disproven this preconception and under his leadership, large state-owned companies have been privatized, including ports, airports and energy sector conglomerates.

New industries have arisen and exports have grown. In the initial years of his rule, Turkey's gross domestic product grew by up to 9 percent annually: It was Erdogan's economic miracle. A new god-fearing middle class developed, one which has Erdogan to thank and supports him as a consequence. They are businesspeople like the steel and iron manufacturer Mahmut Hicilmaz, a friendly, bespectacled gentleman. As head of the chamber of commerce of Kayseri in central Anatolia, he represents the interests of around 17,000 companies, many of which wouldn't exist without Erdogan.

A gold-framed calligraphy of the word "Allah" and a photo of him with Erdogan hang in Hicilmaz's office. The people of Kayseri are religious, he says, which is also the secret to their success: "For religious reasons, it is important to us to work hard." Erdogan and the AKP, he says, have brought the country forward and given the Turks a new self-confidence. They have invested in infrastructure, building streets and bridges that have connected cities and made trade easier.

Erdogan's origins in the world of workers and the faithful could explain his aversion to intellectuals. When academics demanded an end to the violence in southeastern Turkey three months ago, Erdogan insulted them as a "dark, ignorant mob" and "traitors." Disciplinary proceedings were launched against 109 scientists and 15 of them lost their jobs. Thirty-six were arrested.

Journalists who write critical stories, by contrast, tend first to be overwhelmed with threats. Then, like Can Dündar, editor-in-chief and capital bureau chief of the government-critical daily Cumhuriyet, they land in court -- charged with spying, which can be penalized with a sentence of life in prison.

Insulting the President

In the case of Cumhuriyet, the paper published photos and videos supporting accusations that the Turkish secret service had delivered weapons and munitions to Muslim extremists in Syria. Erdogan personally filed the complaint against the journalists. They were released provisionally in late February after the country's constitutional court ruled that their pre-trial detention violated their "right to personal freedom and security." But Erdogan raged: "I will say this openly and clearly, I don't accept the decision nor will I obey it." Should such rulings be repeated, he threatened, it would call into question the legitimacy of the court.

There are some 2,000 cases pending against people accused of insulting the president. Bloggers have been prosecuted and writers threatened. SPIEGEL correspondent Hasnain Kazim also became intimately acquainted with the president's rage. Back in 2014, he began receiving threats from Erdogan's followers, with hostile messages coming via email, Facebook and Twitter, including such threats as: "If we see you on the street, we will cut your throat."

Two years later, the Turkish government declined to renew Kazim's journalist accreditation and residency permit. The documents of several German correspondents were delayed early this year, to the point that Chancellor Merkel got involved by repeatedly addressing the hold-ups. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu promised her several times that German correspondents would receive the accreditation, but Kazim's wait was in vain. In mid-March, he and his family were forced to leave Turkey.

The laws of the street, the rules of the docklands, the thinking in terms of friend and foe have likewise led Erdogan astray in the two significant conflicts in the region: In Syria and in the Kurdish regions.

To get the best of his enemy, Syrian President Bashar Assad, Erdogan long threw his support behind Islamist rebel groups, even including Islamic State. Even as rebels and Kurds in Syria had long since begun fighting side-by-side against IS out of sheer necessity, Turkish security officials continued to ignore the IS extremists traveling through their own country. They would fly in from all over the world to Istanbul before crossing the border unchallenged into Syria. They even put down roots in Turkey itself.

Erdogan the Savior

Erdogan's reversal on his approach to the Kurds has likewise been destructive. In the winter of 2012, his government began negotiating with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) with the aim of establishing peace in southeastern Turkey. Erdogan himself launched the peace process and the two sides were making progress -- until the elections in June 2015, when the moderate Kurdish party HDP won 13 percent of the vote and Erdogan lost his absolute majority. He promptly put an end to the peace process and the country slid into chaos and unrest. Yet Erdogan's risky strategy bore fruit once again. After months of unrest, including terror attacks in Suruc and Ankara, he was able to present himself as the savior.

He promised that the AKP would bring back peace and security and blocked the creation of a new government with HDP. When new elections were held last November, he got his absolute majority back. It was a ruthless maneuver, but it was effective.

Now, the army and police force are once again fighting the Kurds and the senseless civil war has proven beneficial to Erdogan. The state has imposed curfews in several cities in the region and heavily armed soldiers have surrounded city quarters or entire villages, such as the Syrian border town of Nusaybin. Anyone who is seen on the street during the curfew is considered a terrorist. According to the president's logic, that means they may be killed.

In late March, Erdogan said that 300 members of the security forces had thus far fallen victim to the fight, but added that the number of enemy deaths was at least 10 times as high. The opposition Kurdish party HDP says that hundreds of civilians have been killed since the beginning of the military operation.

Erdogan said last year that he intends to annihilate the PKK and fight until the "region is cleared of all terrorists." He has also noted in recent months that no European governments are doing anything to stop him from doing so. And he knows that Merkel is keeping quiet because she needs his help in the refugee crisis.

"Erdogan has a plan to destroy everything," says an HDP parliamentarian. The opposition, he says, has no chance to intervene politically. Although the HDP won almost 11 percent of the vote in the new elections and has a robust faction in parliament, capriciousness and repression have almost completely paralyzed the party. Erdogan accuses the HDP of being the political arm of the PKK.

And he says: "The anti-terror operations will continue with resolve." It is once again his approach from early in life, it is the law of the streets of Kasimpasi: friend and foe, black and white. You can hit hard, but you can never yield an inch.

By Onur Burçak Belli, Markus Brauck, Clemens Höges, Hasnain Kazim, Katrin Kuntz, Ralf Neukirch, Ann-Katrin Nezik, René Pfister, Maximilian Popp, Gordon Repinski, Christoph Reuter, Christoph Schult and Samiha Shafy


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