Ego, Not Islam, Will Rule in Post-coup Turkey

The Turkish man in the street thought he was defending democracy. He'll wind up not with a theocracy but a personal autocracy.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addressing supporters gathered in front of his residence in Istanbul, early Tuesday, July 19, 2016.
Kayhan Ozer, AP

Are we supposed to be cheered or saddened by the failed coup d’etat in Turkey?

On the one hand, it is hard to line up with putschists overthrowing a democratically elected government. 

On the other hand, Recep Tayyip Erdogan is hardly a model democrat. He has been freely and fairly elected to office multiple times, but he has cracked down in the media and shows shrinking tolerance for Turkey’s political opposition. 

On the one hand, the army, as best as we can tell, was determined to roll back Turkey’s creeping Islamization. On the other, after 15 years of rule, Erdogan’s AKP party has not come close to turning the country into the Islamic republic his critics feared.

On the one hand, Erdogan and the AKP have done an admirable job of fostering economic growth and rising standards of living, through market-friendly policies and fiscal discipline. On the other, the country seems perpetually on the edge of economic crisis due to his populist economics.

On the one hand, the army has traditionally been a friend of Israel, while Erdogan abused and insulted us. On the other, Erdogan made up with Israel last month after a six-year-long rupture following the Mavi Marmara flotilla affair.

List of winners: God and Erdogan?

The odds are that everyone is going to be disappointed by the outcome of the coup that collapsed. Of course, the officers and enlisted men rounded up and now facing trial and maybe even the death penalty will have much to rue. So will ordinary Turks who have been suspicious of Erdogan’s agenda, but opted to defend democracy over military rule when they were faced with binary choice.

But it’s not just them. The business class, the “Anatolian tigers” behind the Turkish economic miracle, faces harder times ahead.

More surprisingly, the Islamic activists who were parading through Istanbul shouting “God is great” in the aftermath, confident that the AKP will now make Turkey a Muslim state, are likely to be disappointed as well. Indeed, about the only winner is likely to be Erdogan himself.

Both his admirers and detractors agree on one thing about the Turkish leader: He is a dyed in the wool Muslim.

A supporter of the Erdogan regime stepping on a picture showing the Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen during a protest in Taksim Square, in Istanbul, Monday, July 18, 2016.
Petros Giannakouris / AP

At home, Erdogan wants to push back Turkey’s secular values and the elite of army officers, bureaucrats and urban sophisticates who embodied it. In its place, he wants a Muslim Turkey, led by himself of course.

Abroad, he is guiding Turkey away from the West and towards the Arab/Muslim world. Naturally, antipathy to Israel is a part of that.

Erdogan is motivated by religion, ego and a Turkish nationalism that longs to bring back the good old days when the Ottoman Empire was a match for Europe, and master of the Muslim world.

Piqued at Assad

An Islamist Erdogan is, but he’s not the kind of stereotypical Islamist we have come to loathe -- not the kind that beheads infidels, not the kind that imposes Sharia law, and barely the kind who tries to bring Islam through the backdoor by, for instance, cracking down on alcohol consumption.

Real Islamism wouldn’t work in Turkey, not just because the army opposes it, but because it doesn’t have a popular base: A Pew poll taken last year found only 12% of Turks support the idea of a Sharia-based state, among the lowest rates for a Muslim country anywhere in the world. By comparison, close to 75% of Egyptians support one and 89% of Palestinians.

Syrian President Bashar Assad, left, speaks during an interview with American network NBC News, in Damascus, Syria
AP

Erdogan’s Islam is a type popular in Turkey (and is also advocated by his erstwhile allies, the Gulen movement). His Islam favors business and free markets, likes efficient government and orderly society, and aspires to snuggle up to the West.

It is interesting to note what Erdogan said in a visit to Egypt not long after the Mubarak regime was tossed aside and he was marketing the Turkish political model. “Don’t fear secularism, because it does not mean being an enemy of religion,” he said in a television interview, calling himself a Muslim at the head of a secular government.

The one thing you can say with complete confidence is that Erdogan is an egoist. His regime’s violations of democratic norms have been far less about imposing Islam on Turkish society and far more about enhancing his own personal power and vanquishing his enemies.

He backs Islamic rebels in Syria, but that seems more motivated by his personal pique at Bashar Assad for ignoring his advice in the early days of the Syrian rebellion, than by the hope of seeing a radical Muslim state ruling Syria.

His anger at Israel was also pretty slow to develop for a dyed-in-the-wool Islamist. When it did, it was set off by the 2009 Gaza war, which he saw as a personal slap in the face to his diplomatic efforts.

President for life?

Unfortunately, it’s Erdogan’s egoism that is now going to be the decisive factor in Turkey.

His paranoia about enemies bent on bringing him down has been confirmed, the army has been cowed, and his supporters can now add hero-president to his list of accomplishments. He is invincible.

The Turkish democracy and the Turkish economic miracle will be the next to succumb, not because Erdogan feels he has a free hand to Islamize Turkey, but because he can now impose personal, autocratic rule without interference. Erdogan will get the presidential system he has been angling for, with himself as all-powerful president, and most likely, president for life.

The rise of Turkey as a major economic power, which had been based on Turkey’s liberal policies and free markets, was already starting to give way to cronyism before the coup. Now  it will devolve into an Erdogan-centric economy where success is tied to political loyalty to the leader, not business acumen.

Repressive politics and crony capitalism will stifle the kind of entrepreneurship, innovation and creativity Turkey needs to move up the economic ladder from assembling TV sets, as it does today, to developing the next-generation smartphone, which it will need to do if ever expects to join the ranks of the world’s richest nations.

Whether they were Islamists or liberals, the brave Turks who saw down the army tanks over last weekend are going to find that it was all for naught. There really wasn’t a good choice.