Friday, 20 February 2009
El divo: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
I was not going to blog about this.
Say it again. I was not going to blog about this.
But when people make mountains out of molehills I get annoyed. So here it comes.
Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stormed out on Israeli President Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos. That’s funny, of course and every Tom, Dick and Harry blogged about it. But I didn’t. No Sir.
But then I started reading what other people wrote and I started getting annoyed, predictably, at how so many commentators managed to royally miss the point. People always miss the point when it comes to Turkey. But that’s another story for another time. So here I am, blogging about the things I was not going to blog about. Bloody typical.
Anyone vaguely interested in geopolitics knows that Turkey has traditionally been an ally of Israel’s.
In practice, this translates into a strained security understanding that enjoys the full backing of the all-mighty Turkish Armed Forces while civilian authorities remain ambivalent. At times, politicians have even expressed open hostility. That never lasts long. The last prime minister to do so (the notorious Necmettin Erbakan) was summarily deposed (for a variety of reasons) by an army communiqué in 1997. No violence, no coup, no fuss. Just a bit of paper and a press conference. Job done. It as called a post-modern coup with no hint of irony.
My point is, Turkey's security bonds with Israel are strong. And although Erdoğan’s personal preference for the Arab world ahead of Israel is well documented, his outburst was not a sign that Turkey is breaking with Israel as the press reported. Nor is it a sign of latent anti-Semitism, as the Economist’s Amberin Zaman claims, out of left field.
For the millionth time: disagreeing with Israel is not tantamount to anti-Semitism. Millions of Jews disagree with Israeli policy. Israelis disagree with Israeli policy.
Still, I don’t mean to defend Erdoğan.
A grown man, a professional politician and a, now, seasoned Prime Minister should be sober enough to not storm out when things don’t go his way. But to accuse him of anti-Semitism is to miss the point of what happened.
Erdoğan is a religious man. That much is well-known.
What that means is hard to tell as current legislation prevents him from expressing extreme religious sympathies even if he harbours them. We know he is pious and devout; we know he has fallen foul of the secular authorities and served a short jail sentence for ‘inciting religious violence’ through the use of some patriotic verses written in a time when secularism was not yet in vogue. And we know Erdoğan seeks to bring Turkey closer to the Arab states for the first time in its history. What that means is, again, not clear because this is rhetoric, scoring points with the religious heartland at home, rather than a genuine foreign policy position.
But that’s what Erdoğan does: he says out loud the things everyone had hitherto whispered. That is what makes him popular even with people who don’t actually agree with him, especially those who don’t have to live with his policies: the Europeans. With every nod from Europe, Erdoğan is a little safer at home, and so it continues.
Yet his record remains mixed.
He has liberalised the penal code but imposed restrictive legislation on alcohol; he has strengthened civilian control of the polity but he has also politicised the judiciary and skewed the demographics of the civil service.
He has brought Turkey closer to Europe and that has ensured his survival. But the truth is, he is pro-accession because he has no choice: his religiosity can only survive under an EU-sponsored freedoms discussion and his personal politics can only be legitimised as by-products of EU membership efforts. The secularists scowl, the traditionalists cheer and he walks the political tight-rope with ease, agility and flair.
Of course many wonder whether he’s worth all this effort. Whether EU accession is compensation enough for putting up with him. Recently, the Courts came close to resolving this dilemma as they questioned the constitutionality of the ruling AK Party, but Erdoğan survived again. By the skin of his teeth. And that made him even more of a hero with his constituents. Of course.
So, for me, his dramatic departure in Davos was not an act of political defiance.
It was a primadonna moment.
A perceived pro-Hamas leaning in Turkey meant that Erdoğan’s meeting with Peres was never going to be easy. But it doesn’t follow that Erdoğan’s outburst signifies, as one writer put it, ‘Turkey’s shift away from the West’. Easy tiger. The West is currently telling Israel off just as much as Turkey is. Erdoğan is, for once, on message and in good company.
Equally, to read too much into his actions is to give him credit he has not earned. Zaman, Turkey’s most religiously-minded mainstream daily, ran editorial upon editorial suggesting that what Erdoğan actually meant is that peace-building requires an honest assessment of the corruption and incompetence on the Arab side, US and European naïveté when it comes to Israel and the simple fact that Israeli hard-liners always seem to carry the day in Israeli domestic politics.
I’d have a lot of respect for Erdoğan had he said all that. But he did not.
Of course he objected to the Gaza killings. And of course Peres pushed back. That much was expected.
But then Peres accused him of not knowing what actually goes on in Gaza. And then the moderator, David Ignatius, started tapping Erdoğan on the shoulder, so he would cede the floor. And without wanting to trivialise this, Erdoğan does not take kindly to any slight to his personal authority. Satirists, cartoonists, journalists have found themselves fined and tried for mocking Erdoğan. He is under EU caution for his intolerance to any slight to his authority. Tap taps on the shoulder and accusations of ignorance don’t sit well with him.
So is that why he stormed out?
I’d say partly. The other part being made up of a plethora of factors including his religiosity, personal dislike for Israel and commitment to his pro-Arab, Muslim brotherhood rhetoric.
This was not about Turkey’s radical repositioning on the geostrategic map. This was not a symbolic departure from the straight and narrow as defined by the acquis communautaire and EU lore. This is not even about Turkey breaking with Israel (although stranger things have happened and one never knows what tomorrow brings). This is simply a diplomatic blunder by a man who occasionally gets carried away by his own self-importance.
So here’s my two kuruş’ worth: there’s no massive political realignment afoot. Just a garden-variety case of over-inflated political ego and a bit of a temper.
Now let’s sit back and watch him spin this to his advantage at home.