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Erdogan Rising: the making of an autocrat

A new book explores the complex background to Erdogan’s tightening grip on power.

In 2017, in The Hague, the Russian novelist Mikhail Shishkin and I took to the stage to talk about rising authoritarianism. Projected on the giant screen behind us was a photograph of Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan shaking hands. I said to Shishkin: “Don’t you think we look like extras in their movie? As if we wouldn’t have existed if they didn’t.” Twenty-five years ago, when Russia was mentioned the first thing that came to our minds was Dostoevsky or Yuri Gagarin. Today it’s as if nobody lives in Russia but Putin. When I pointed this out the stage manager dutifully removed the partners-in-crime picture from the screen.

The topic of the night was “How not to fetishise today’s brutal leaders when criticising them”. The question came to mind again when reading Hannah Lucinda Smith’s book Erdogan Rising.

Smith moved to Turkey, to Antakya near the border with Syria, as a freelance reporter in 2013. Erdogan Rising is based on the three years from then until the military coup attempt of July 2016, but is actually two books in one: the first contains Smith’s observations and interviews in Syria during 2013; and the other, loosely connected, is about Erdogan’s tightening grip on power after the Gezi uprising – sparked by the violent eviction of protesters in Gezi Park in Istanbul – in the summer of the same year.

She weaves her personal experiences of these extraordinary times with the political developments that accompanied them and various historical detours along the way to give some background to both the Turkish and Syrian contexts. The book’s ambitious task is to detangle the most complicated time in the history of two of the most complex countries on the planet. One should begin by applauding Smith’s courage and determination in remaining in both Syria and Turkey during their upheavals and keeping her cool as a journalist.

The story is still unfolding: on 9 October Erdogan launched a military offensive into Kurdish-held areas of northern Syria. A couple of days earlier Donald Trump agreed to withdraw US troops after speaking with Erdogan, abandoning the Kurdish forces that have led the fight against Islamic State (IS), but who are regarded by Turkey as terrorists. Smith’s book could not be timelier.

However, she does not get everything right. Smith observes that on her arrival in 2013: “Erdogan was just tipping over from being a flawed but largely tolerated democrat to a relentless autocratic populist”, even though by that time Turkey had already been heavily criticised by Amnesty International for human rights violations, and hundreds of thousands of political prisoners were cramped in concentration camp-like institutions such as Silivri prison, Europe’s largest penal facility. In fact 2013 was the year that supporting Erdogan had, finally, become embarrassing both for those liberal intellectual circles that had relentlessly contributed to his personality cult and for the international mainstream media that had turned a blind-eye to his authoritarian moves during the previous decade.

Between 2002 and 2013 Erdogan used democracy as a “tram that you get on and you get off when you arrive at your destination”. The description is his own, allegedly given in the 1990s when he was the rising star in conservative Islamist politics. His promises then were wide-ranging – from peace in the Kurdish region to ending corruption for the benefit of the poor. He was the charismatic leader who represented the so-called centre, a man of the world and figurehead for the “real people”. His agile political manoeuvres capitalised on the long-standing political vendettas of the country. Erdogan would get rid of an opposing political power with the help of another of its enemies – and then rid himself of that alliance when it had served its purpose.

He used liberal democrats to dismantle the secular establishment and then he used nationalists to get rid of the liberals in order to keep his own power intact. In the end there was no space to breathe for anyone who did not support the leader. The 2013 uprising was the ultimate response to this one-man rule.

Smith arrived in this already very complex country a little late. The Turkish political atmosphere then was already very much “Lebanonised” – deeply polarised and divided into hostile factions that use history to conceal their own political sins and reveal those of others. In such a situation it is almost impossible to find uncompromised people to tell the country’s backstory.

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During the first decade of Erdogan’s power from 2002, after he became leader of the AKP party, the repeated narrative in the international media was that the oppressed Muslim citizens of Turkey had finally found their political representative and that through Erdogan and the AKP’s political courage the army’s strong, secular grip on the nation had been lifted. He was portrayed as the man who toppled the privileged secular elite from the administration, enabling the “real people” of Turkey to take their place on the political stage, and who had brought “real democracy”.

The domestic propaganda machine relentlessly pumped out this narrative, both inside and outside the country, to make people who criticised Erdogan look like “military worshippers” and “haters of democracy”. Back then, it was almost impossible to tell how maddeningly wrong this narrative was, but today, after Trump and Brexit, the West now understands how such terms as “real people – real democracy” can serve in the dismantling of the political system.

Although Smith recognises the fact that Erdogan has become a textbook authoritarian leader, her book still draws upon the manufactured dichotomy of poor oppressed Muslims against a secular army in alliance with an oppressive elite. As she follows the opposition protests – the secular “tribe” as she calls them – she encounters the blonde, whisky-drinking women with dogs who, for ten years, have been used by Erdogan’s spin doctors and their liberal supporters to symbolise and demonise the seculars as people living off the fat of the land.

Smith excels in explaining elements of recent Turkish history that enabled Erdogan to impose himself as the saviour of democracy. But she forgets an important fact. The great Islamisation of Turkey took off when the army allied with the influential Islamist cleric Fethullah Gülen after the 1980 military coup d’état. The Turkish army at this point was hardly a bastion of secularism. Obligatory religious lessons began after the coup and religious sects started becoming more active in politics, allying with right-wing parties while being tolerated by the social democrats as well.

Contrary to the narrative sold by Erdogan and his allies, Gülen himself praised the coup and the military government that eventually enabled his centrist movement to become a supranational financial and political power network. It was this network that established Erdogan as a world leader between 2002 and 2013. Due to disagreements over power sharing, the Gülen movement ended up being portrayed as the culprit of the 2016 military coup attempt, in which a faction of the Turkish army attempted to seize control of power, leading to more than 300 deaths (and, after the coup’s failure, thousands of arrests of soldiers, judges and teachers). Without this historical perspective, Erdogan Rising becomes a puzzle with a missing piece.

The main storyline in the Turkish strand of the book looks at Erdogan’s efforts to replace the personality cult of Atatürk, the nation’s founding father, with his own. Smith arrived in Turkey to find “one cult of personality in the ascendant, alongside another in slow decline”. Smith beautifully describes the Atatürk phenomenon that I grew up with in Turkey in the 1970s and 1980s; the statues, the pictures and the law that criminalises any criticism of him. She explains how a right-wing government implemented the law in the 1950s to save its status as the true follower of the founding father – while at the same time Islamicising the apparatus of state. However, Smith views the Atatürk cult as an oppressive, secular tool used against Muslims whereas the story is rather different.

The 1980 military coup, which fostered Erdogan and his ilk, also led to subsequent generations being forced to fit the Sunni Muslim-nationalist ideal. For two decades afterwards, thousands of political prisoners, almost all of them progressives, were tortured into memorising Atatürk’s long speeches. Two generations of forward-thinking, well-educated people were killed, pushed into exile or imprisoned by those carrying Atatürk’s pictures in their hand like crusaders carrying crosses. This policy of cleansing meant that the only state-nourished political movement in the country was that of conservative Islam and right-wing nationalism – which now find their perfect representation in Erdogan.

In the 2000s the younger generations did not remember that there had been a military coup in Turkey just two decades earlier. The coup was supported by the CIA as part of its Cold War ambitions. Washington wanted to keep Turkey, a country that operated as a “border post” for American Middle East policies, away from the USSR’s influence. To further this aim, the entire country was coerced into eventually becoming natural supporters of Erdogan – conservative, obedient and religious followers of a free-market economy. When this part of the story is not told, Turkey merely looks like a crazy, tribal country that worships any charismatic man; one day Atatürk, the next day Erdogan. More-over, without historical context, we risk mystifying Erdogan even further and feeding the personality cult.

Smith’s book is nevertheless a good guide to Turkey’s recent past and how people “happily throw away their moral compass as they pursue money and power”. It might also offer British and American readers a preview of their own future unless they reverse the current of right-wing populism. Smith’s encounters with Erdogan’s spin doctors are told so vividly that the reader feels Turkey’s moral decay minute by minute.

Erdogan Rising is at its best when Smith describes her experiences in Syria and on the Turkey-Syria border: her ice-cream melting while talking to an IS fighter; meeting female Kurdish fighters; and her misfortunes with her fixers are wonderfully portrayed real stories and obviously close to her heart. I wanted more of these and less of Erdogan. But we live in a world where readers and publishers are mesmerised by brutal autocrats and less interested in the stories of the lost people of history. Smith excels when telling those stories, ones that only she can tell. 

Ece Temelkuran’s books include “How to Lose a Country: the Seven Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship” (Fourth Estate)

Erdogan Rising: The Battle for the Soul of Turkey
Hannah Lucinda Smith
William Collins, 416pp, £20

This article appears in the 16 October 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Syria’s forever war