Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s autocratic president, is a past-master at seizing the moment and turning it to his political advantage. The latest example is the Jamal Khashoggi affair, which he has managed masterfully, gaining a steadily increasing advantage over his prime rivals in the Muslim world – Saudi Arabia. But how secure is he against repercussions?
What Erdogan has sought, first and foremost, in his political career is absolute power. This he has managed to win by outwitting his formidable political opponents, both at home and abroad. Skilfully he managed a constitutional coup which first placed him in the presidency, and then redefined the role, function and powers of the office.
Along the way opposition centered around followers of Fethullah Gulen, an influential Turkish cleric who lives in the US. Gulen had followers at high levels in the Turkish establishment. Early in December 2013 Erdogan was furious to discover that, for more than a year, the police had been engaged in an undercover inquiry into corruption within the government and the upper echelons of his AKP party. He declared the police investigation a plot to discredit his government ahead of local elections in March 2014.
Those elections were the key to unlocking Erdogan’s ambitions. The AKP emerged as the strongest party, and back in office Erdogan successfully changed the constitution to permit him to remain as prime minister beyond the statutory three terms. Still in power he stood for president in 2014, and won. In the June 2015 general elections the AKP campaigned to enhance the presidential role to a nearly all-powerful position as head of government and head of state. The office of the prime minister would disappear, making way for a strong, executive president with the power to appoint cabinet ministers, propose budgets and appoint more than half the nation’s highest judicial body. The president would also have the power to impose states of emergency.
The constitutional revision required endorsement by popular referendum, But popular support was evenly spread between the AKP and the Gulenists, and the result of the referendum seemed far from certain.
Then came the events of 15 July 2016.
In a chaotic night of violence, what appears to have been an attempted coup by a group of the Turkish military left at least 290 people dead and more than 1,400 injured. The confused sequence of events has never been fully explained.
Just before 11 pm, military jets were seen flying over Ankara, and a group of Turkish soldiers took over several institutions there and in Istanbul, where tanks rolled into the streets. In the capital, Ankara, bombs struck the parliament building, and a helicopter stolen by rogue pilots was shot down by an F-16 jet.
Erdogan was hundreds of miles away as these events unfolded. By the time he addressed the nation hours later, the situation was under control. On July 20 Erdogan, claiming that Gulen was behind the attempted coup, declared a state of emergency and instituted retribution of unprecedented severity. More than 110,000 people were arrested including nearly 11,000 police officers, 7,500 members of the military, and 2,500 prosecutors and judges. 179 media outlets were shut down, and some 2700 journalists dismissed.
In April 2017 the referendum on enhanced presidential powers duly took place. The result – a narrow 51 percent in favor and 49 percent against – confirmed the suspicions of those unconvinced about the nature of the coup the previous July. Erdogan might well have lost the referendum, and with it his bid for supreme power. had there not been a strong reason to remove opposition voices and to rally Turkish opinion against rebels seeking to overthrow the government.
Turkey’s state of emergency was maintained for two full years, during which Erdogan was able to govern with virtually dictatorial powers, jailing some 160,000 people judged to be political opponents. On July 8, 2018, just before the state of emergency was lifted, a new purge resulted in the sacking of a further 18,000 state workers, including soldiers, police and academics. Another TV channel and a further three newspapers were closed. In short, the Turkish state is as brutal and repressive a regime as one is likely to encounter anywhere in the civilized world, and a huge segment of the Turkish people is seething in resentment against it.
Erdogan has long sought to challenge Saudi Arabia as leader of the Sunni Muslim world. He has seized the political initiative whenever possible by claiming to represent genuine Islamic interests, as against Saudi’s long alliance and friendship with the West. Erdogan seized on US President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017 as on a gift from the gods. He convened a special meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, of which he was president. Presenting himself as the real Muslim defender of Jerusalem. he condemned Trump’s announcement and castigated the Arab world for its lacklustre response.
Over the Khashoggi affair Erdogan has managed to inflict major damage to the global standing of his Saudi rivals. Using the by-now fully compliant Turkish media, he has forced Saudi Arabia to retreat step by step in the face of mounting evidence of a pre-planned and brutal assassination. In his address to the Turkish parliament on October 23 he managed to imply that the Turkish investigation would be able to reveal a good deal more in due course.
Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS as he is known) is universally believed to have authorized the Khashoggi plot, and Erdogan’s master plan may be to discredit him to such an extent that his father, King Salman. would be forced to remove him from power.
However, to do so would be for the king to admit that MBS was indeed responsible for the Khashoggi affair. He is unlikely to take that course. If he did choose to counter the relentless anti-Saudi campaign emanating from Ankara, there is plenty in Erdogan’s questionable tenure of the Turkish presidency to draw on.