Megalomania in the Middle East is not uncommon; it has afflicted numerous figures in the Muslim Middle East including the likes of Gamal Abdul Nasser, the dictator of Egypt, Iranian Shah Muhammad Pahlavi and Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein. The current regional megalomaniac is Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Prime Minister of Turkey who has been acting like “God’s deputy” and “dispenser of justice” with unrestrained arrogance. Amid mounting troubles, with a declining economy and the political turmoil that surrounds Turkey, Syria and Iran, Erdogan’s star power is rapidly fading.
Erdogan’s political career began in 1976 while a student at Marmara University’s Department of Economics. He joined the National Turkish Student Union, an anti-communist action group, and was chosen by his fellow students to lead the Islamist National Salvation Party (MSP), led by the Islamist Necmettin Erbakan. Thus began his commitment and career in Islamic politics. In 1991, Erdogan won a seat in the Turkish Parliament, as a representative of Erbakan’s newly formed Welfare Party (RP), but his election was cancelled due to a technicality.
Erdogan’s breakthrough came three years later, in 1994, when he was elected mayor of Istanbul. The election of an Islamist figure frightened the city’s secular residents, fearing that he would impose Islamic Sharia law, but instead, he ran the city as a pragmatic and successful mayor.
In 1996, the Welfare Party, in coalition with the center-right True Path Party, came to power in Turkey. Erbakan became the first defiantly Islamist Prime Minister – shocking the secular Turks with his radical Islamist rhetoric. In February 1997, the military removed Erbakan from power, and Islamist groups were subjected to a crackdown. Erdogan was caught up in the crackdown while delivering a pro-Islamist speech. In 1998 he was convicted and served four months of a ten-month prison term.
During this period of incarceration Erdogan’s ego began to flourish. He convinced himself that an alliance of the military, judiciary, and Turkey’s secular media, all of which did in fact hate him, his party and his values, were conspiring against him. Erdogan would later focus on destroying these three secular institutions.
In 2001, Erdogan and Abdullah Gul formed the Justice and Development Party (AKP). They differentiated their party from previous Islamist parties by posing as a “conservative” party with a message that focused on political liberalization and economic growth. “Political liberalization” eventually served as a way to destroy the secular military and judiciary, and to crackdown on the liberal media.
The November 2002 elections propelled Erdogan and his AKP party into power. During his campaign there was no mention of his Islamist agenda or talk of a global Caliphate. The center-right and center-left parties, which had previously dominated Turkish politics, virtually disappeared in 2011. The AKP, which had garnered a third of the electorate in 2002, would win half of the electorate in 2011. Erdogan was now well on his way towards undoing the openness that marked the Ataturk revolution and imposing sharia law in Turkey. The AKP victory proceeded to completely change Turkey’s political map.
The unprecedented growth of the Turkish economy under the leadership of the AKP, and the seemingly successful foreign policy moves by Erdogan, began to go his head. At the Davos World Economic Forum in Switzerland in the winter of 2009, sitting on a panel with Israel’s President Shimon Peres, Arab League Secretary General Moussa Amar of Egypt and Ban Ki Moon, UN Secretary General, Erdogan stormed out of the session when the moderator interrupted him. According to The Telegraph (January 30, 2009) Erdogan charged that “President Peres was speaking to the prime minister of Turkey – I am not just some leader of some group or tribe, so he should have addressed me accordingly,” he told reporters. Erdogan’s behavior was unprecedented in international forums, and it was the first display of his megalomaniacal personality.
The “Zero Problems Policy,” inaugurated by Turkey’s Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, and regarded by some as Neo-Ottomanism, is an ideology that promotes engagement with areas previously part of the Ottoman Empire, including the Arab Middle East. While others have referred to Erdogan’s policy as neo-imperialistic, the bottom line is this “Zero Problems Policy” has turned on itself and Erdogan’s Turkey is sinking deeper into the Syrian quagmire.
Not long ago, Erdogan, together with his Foreign Minister Davutoğlu, engineered an alliance with Iran and Syria meant to forestall the rise of Kurdish independence. The fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq ushered in the first semi-independent Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq. The Kurdish population in Turkey of 15-25 million represents approximately one third of Turkey’s population of 73.7 million (2010 estimate) and the Erdogan regime has relentlessly punished Kurds who have politically and/or publicly asserted their Kurdish identity or espoused the use of the Kurdish language in the public domain. Kurds, a proud and determined people, have risked public censure, harassment, and prosecution for the crime of being Kurds, and speaking their Indo-European language.
Kurdish frustration with their lack of freedom and independence in Turkey spawned the rise of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which now has a base in the semi-independent Kurdistan of Iraq. The PKK has been waging a bloody campaign against the Turkish government. The success of the KRG in Iraq has encouraged the Kurds in Turkey to raise their own demands for independence. Since last year’s rise of the Syrian civil war and with the Assad regime tottering, the Kurds of Syria (most of whom live in northeastern Syria bordering Iraqi Kurdistan and the Kurdish areas of Turkey) have also become hopeful of achieving an independent Kurdish state in Syria. In the meantime, Bashar Assad, the Syrian dictator, is supporting the PKK war on Turkey.
Erdogan’s Turkey has been a major supporter of the Islamic Republic of Iran in recent years, and has played an active role in mediating the conflict between Iran and the Western powers over Iran’s nuclear program. Turkey hosted the meeting of the P5+1 nations held in January 2011. Disagreement with Iran over Iraqi politics (Sunni-Shiite divide) and the conflict with Syria (Iran supporting the Assad Alawi regime and Turkey aiding the Sunni opposition) further strained the relationship between Turkey and Iran, and reached a boiling point in September 2011 when Turkey announced that it would install a radar system designed by the U.S. as part of NATO’s shield against an Iranian missile attack on Europe.
The Economist summed up Turkey’s economy as follows:
The wobbles at the end of the year (2011), which depleted Turkey’s shallow pool of currency reserves, ought to have been a warning about the dangers of relying on foreign capital and the need to insure against its drying up. The risk then was a sudden and protracted stop in foreign-capital flows, which would have meant a hard landing for Turkey’s economy…The danger now is that a few more years of big current account deficits, and debt-creating capital flow that finance them will leave Turkey less resilient when trouble strikes…
The bottom line is less investment in Turkey, relatively high inflation, and the Euro crisis, which means less Turkish exports, while the Arab market has virtually disappeared with the “Arab Spring.”
Erdogan fancied himself as the new leader of the Sunni-Muslim world, and the hero of the Arabs. But the EU rejection of Turkish membership and the evaporation of the “Zero-conflict initiative” have left Erdogan in a political cul-de-sac, and while he seeks Assad’s demise, he fears an independent Kurdish state in Syria. All of which has served to tame Erdogan’s megalomaniacal impulses.
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