A reduced Tayyip Erdogan will hurt Turkish pride although the pain, as in some forms of sprain, will be a delayed effect. The Turkish election results will also alter the West Asian political dynamics because the Muslim Brotherhood, whose banner Erdogan had begun to flutter to reinforce his regional moves, will now be forced to retreat.
Erdogan’s contribution in rebuilding Turkish pride was enormous when his cohorts blocked US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s troops from crossing Turkish territory to invade Iraq. He dressed up his decision as a triumph of democracy by placing the issue before parliament. It was model behaviour one that was imitated by Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif when he came under pressure from Saudi Arabia to send troops to Yemen.
By standing upto the US, Erdogan had neutralized national humiliation of years when Europe thwarted Turkey’s very earnest desire to enter the EU. Ankara was then short changed when Greek Cypriots joined the EU and the Turkish north was left high and dry.
Coordination with Israel, which had peaked under Prime Minister Itruk Ozal, was also challenged by Erdogan. After Israeli soldiers entered Turkish ship Mavi Marvara carrying humanitarian aid for Gaza relations with Israel all but collapsed.
Correspondingly, this rub with the Israelis boosted Erdogan’s popularity in the Arab street. Developments in diplomatic history are not linear. This popularity of Erodgan’s among the Arab public was to become the snare into which Erdogan was led by the noose which was held by global, regional and Turkish interests.
Having stood upto America and Israelis, the Turks looked tall in the West Asian theatre. After 2008, the US decline was somewhat exaggeratedly predicated by pundits who do not pause. Greece the mother of western civilization was on its knees. The Arab Spring had knocked out two of the West’s favourite dictators - Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunis, and Hosni Mubarak in Cairo.
To rub salt in European wounds, Turkey was now declaring itself disinterested in entering Europe which was in economic decline. Ironically, it had improved itself enormously in preparing for European entry. This became its own advantage.
Turkey’s air was now cleaner, administration better, human rights on the mend and an economy which thumbed its nose at Europe.
By the time of his third term as prime minister, Erdogan’s reach and control was over a wide cross section of Turks, way beyond the deeply religion Anatolians, his core support. With his rising power he had also tamed the Kemalit army, the guarantor of the secular state. The deftness with which he managed this enabled him to zoom part Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in the popularity stakes.
The success of his long prime ministerial innings sometimes obscures his very effective and audacious term as mayor of Istanbul when he defied the powerful secular establishment by standing on the ticket of Refah or the Islamist Welfare party founded by his political guru, Nekmetin Arbakan.
Erdogan was jailed for excessive Islamism and had to give up his mayorship. He reinvented his party the AKP or Justice and Development party, technically in line with the Kemalist constitution, but something of an Islamist Trojan Horse.
In Shakespeare’s great tragedy, Macbeth was promoted as “Thane or Prince of Fife” exactly as the weird sisters had prophesied. Then he became Prince of Cawdor and finally ended up as King. After his third term as prime minister, Erdogan, like Macbeth, was faced with the existential question: what next? That is when the great tragedy began.
When all was going Erdogan’s way, his international detractors thought of the perfect psychological moment to dangle before him a huge carrot: democratic leadership of West Asia in the throes of change.
Tragically for him, Erdogan swallowed the bait, hook line and sinker. First he urged Syria’s Bashar al Assad to accommodate the Muslim Brotherhood, thus exposing his Islamist colours. Then he turned up in Tripoli to lead the prayers as a regional Brother. Turkey became the main conduit for men and money for the extremist Muslim opposition inside Syria. Turkey facilitated everybody’s including Thomas Friedman’s entry into Aleppo. Erdogan’s eclipse as a result of the election results began just when he was openly siding with the Islamic state.
A muscular Muslim Brotherhood in Turkey would have given heart to its counterparts in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Gaza. Reversal in Turkey will reverberate differently in the region.
Even though inside Turkey all other parties would consider gameplans to way lay Erdogan and then gore him in public for the corruption which plagued his final years, the Turkish secularists may yet live to rub their eyes with wonder that the man they sought to destroy “hath so much blood in him”. Erdogan is down all right, but he cannot be counted out quite yet.
Is there a distant moral for India in the Turkish experience? Just as there is a large moffusil, religious constituency, comfortable with calendar art of Gods and Goddesses, there is an urbane, Brahminical (Kemalist) elite which contemplates with unease the aesthetic of the contemporary national discourse. This will impact on national politics.
(A senior commentator on political and diplomatic affairs, Saeed Naqvi can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed are personal.)