A New Direction for Turkey? Erdogan Rides Wave of Popularity in Muslim World

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stormed off stage at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, earning him praise throughout the Islamic world. Is Ankara moving away from its Western course in favor of courting Muslim nations?
Palestinian Hamas supporters hold pictures of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a rally in Beirut.

Palestinian Hamas supporters hold pictures of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a rally in Beirut.

Foto: AFP

There are roles that the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan commands with flying colors. There is the Erdogan who is filled with concern for his people, a man who plays the role of the forgiving father. This Erdogan recently visited a repentant barber who had been sentenced to death for blasphemy in Saudi Arabia and was eventually pardoned. The prime minister picked up the man's young son and gave him a toy car.

And then there is the Erdogan who plays the protective brother. He is a man who takes his people by the hand and gives it new direction in difficult times. That was the Erdogan who flew to Germany last year after nine Turkish immigrants had died in a house fire in the southern city of Ludwigshafen. Speaking to 18,000 Turks in Cologne , Erdogan warned them against "assimilation," calling it a "crime against humanity."

Finally, there is the Erdogan who is best avoided. He is a proud, temperamental man with a penchant for the occasional outburst of rage. This man grew up as the son of a sailor in an Istanbul neighborhood that produces fighters: the Kasimpasa waterfront district.

This was the Erdogan that the world experienced at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, two weeks ago.

That was when Erdogan lost his cool during a heated debate over the Gaza conflict, after moderator David Ignatius had cut him off twice and then placed his hand on Erdogan's shoulder. Erdogan stormed angrily from the podium , threatened never to return to Davos and fled to his plane. It was a performance that the world is unlikely to forget anytime soon.

One critic ridiculed the 54-year-old premier for having behaved like a "delikanli," or "crazy blood." In Turkey, the word "delikanli" is used to describe young men in puberty who are no longer children, but are not yet adults either.

Erdogan reminded another critic of former Soviet Communist Party leader Nikita Khrushchev, who once pulled off his shoe at a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly and banged it on his desk.

But most were pleased. The prime minister had spoken from the heart and on behalf of his people. "I am not the chief of a tribe, but the prime minister of the Turkish Republic," Erdogan later said in Istanbul, in defense of his behavior -- to cheering fans who promptly hailed him as the "Conqueror of Davos." "I do what must be done," he said. "I would not have allowed anyone to violate the honor of my country."

What happened next was history in fast motion. Erdogan's performance was generally well-received, not just in his own country. Arabs and Iranians, in particular, could hardly believe their ears: a Turkish prime minister behaving more radically toward Israel than most of his Muslim counterparts? Centuries of Turkish-Arab mistrust seemed to have been flushed away in an instant. Hadn't Erdogan suggested earlier that Israel ought to be expelled from the UN, and hadn't he mentioned the "curse of God" that would descend upon the Jewish state?

Since then, demonstrators in Yemen and Syria have taken to the streets holding pictures of Erdogan, he has received congratulatory messages from the radical Islamic group Hamas and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the mayor of Tehran declared the Turkish prime minister an honorary citizen of his city.

Meanwhile, Western observers are rubbing their eyes in astonishment. Could this be the same Turkey that is the only Muslim member of NATO, has normal relations with Israel and is conducting accession talks with the European Union? Or could the most important Western ally in the Islamic world be about to embark on a radical change in direction?

No, say Turkish diplomats, seeking to reassure the West. There is, after all, a great deal at stake for Turkey, including Israeli-made unmanned spy aircraft and more than €2 billion ($2.6 billion) in trade between the two countries.

In addition Erdogan, a former Islamist, has consistently supported a "strategic partnership" with the Jewish state, and he was the first ever Turkish prime minister to meet with Turkey's chief rabbi, following an attack on an Istanbul synagogue in 2003. The Turks are also said to greatly value their role as an intermediary between Israel and Syria.

Nevertheless, the prime minister's unexpectedly sharp criticism of Israel has not gone unnoticed. The prime minister feels "stronger than ever before," says Metin Münir, a journalist with the Turkish daily Milliyet. But why, exactly? What is the source of this man's strength?

The AKP, Erdogan's conservative Islamic governing party, barely escaped being banned last summer. And the rift between the secular establishment and the newly powerful religious party has hardly narrowed since then. Indeed, the power struggle has entered a new round, and this time it revolves around a clandestine organization called Ergenekon .

The Turkish public prosecutor's office claims that Ergenekon is a terrorist network consisting of ultranationalist members of the military, academics, police officers and underground figures that had developed a plot to overthrow the government. Its alleged plan was to assassinate prominent politicians, religious leaders and prominent businesspeople, and thus plunge the country into fear and chaos. The plotters reckoned that the army, the "guardians of secularism," would have stepped into restore calm and order, installing a new regime controlled by the military. Erdogan would have been finished.

According to a recent survey, more than 60 percent of Turks believe in the existence of Ergenekon, and they support the AKP government's efforts to expose the ominous network.

Opposition politicians, however, question the purpose of the government's actions. They suspect that Ergenekon is merely a cover for an elaborate plan by the AKP to break the military's power over politics, destroy the secular camp and Islamize Turkey.

But things are not looking good for the Ergenekon deniers. The alleged conspirators have been on trial since October, and new arrests are made almost weekly. The most recent wave of arrests, the 11th so far, took place in January.

"It's a shame that we were unable to bring down this regime," Dogu Perincek, the mustachioed leader of the leftist-nationalist Workers' Party, one of the key suspects, said two weeks ago.

Ergenekon, established to oust Erdogan from power, now appears to be having the opposite effect, encouraging voters to support the AKP leader. When the police found weapons and hit lists, fear suddenly took hold among the population. "It looks as though we must be careful where we step. Ammunition could be hidden under every house or cemetery," says Sevda Türküsev, a journalist.

But there is one person whose mission, of course, is to protect the Turkish people: Erdogan.

The situation has proved to be embarrassing for the military. In mid-January, investigators in the Ergenekon case found two dozen hand grenades, guns and ammunition in the weekend house of a lieutenant colonel named Mustafa Dönmez. They also discovered a plan to assassinate the prime minister -- the ninth assassination plot against Erdogan known to police. Dönmez, a fugitive at first, quickly submitted to the jurisdiction of military courts, to avoid falling into the hands of the prosecutor in charge of the Ergenekon case.

The notorious General Veli Kücük used the same tactic to dodge legal investigations for years, and it wasn't until he retired that authorities were able to arrest him. Kücük, a seemingly good-natured grandfather who bears a striking resemblance to the comedian Groucho Marx, is believed to be one of the masterminds behind Ergenekon. His arrest represents the first time that a commander of Turkey's powerful Gendarmerie is being brought to account for his actions.

The army has been considered untouchable up until now. But now, as the investigations continue, its position is deteriorating by the week, while Erdogan's improves.

The military was long able to justify its involvement in politics by citing the nationalist outrage that Erdogan's policies seemed to elicit. Last Wednesday, however, it was revealed that the General Staff apparently concocted a portion of the "national outcry." As the daily newspaper Taraf reported, 35 Web sites, each one more chauvinistic than the next, were created by employees of the military, and not by the people.

"The army has already lost power, a lot of power," says military expert Ali Bayramoglu. "Whether it will be prepared to come to terms with Erdogan in the long run or is capable of a completely different reaction remains to be seen."

With such strong support at home, Erdogan can now turn his attention to world politics.

It will be a critical year for him and his country, especially when it comes to its relationship with the European Union. The signs in the accession process suggest that Turkey's prospects for EU membership "are at the make or break stage," according to the International Crisis Group. There is still no solution in sight on the Cyprus question, and there has been no significant progress when it comes to freedom of opinion and freedom of the press. Instead, Turkey has even imposed a ban on the YouTube Internet platform, the only ban of its kind in Europe. Finally, Turkey still has a constitution in place that stems from the days of the 1980 military coup.

Ankara's only current trump card in its dealings with the West is the Nabucco pipeline , through which natural gas from the Caspian region could flow westward through Turkey and into an energy-hungry Europe in the future. But Erdogan has even played this card very imprudently recently, threatening to cancel the gas project if Turkey's outlook for EU accession worsens. This would further diminish Turkey's value as an intermediary between East and West.

But Erdogan's move may not be as diplomatically inept as some would believe. The "Conqueror of Davos" had already in the past mentioned "alternatives" that his country would have if it failed to get along with the Europeans.

Last week Turkish President Abdullah Gül demonstrated what his prime minister might have meant with his remarks: a stronger role for Ankara in the Islamic world. Gül and around 200 business leaders traveled to the Saudi Arabian capital Riyadh for a four-day visit.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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