The current Turkish president wanted to reach the very top. The boy from a poor neighborhood in Istanbul did everything he could to get there. Has he now reached his goal?
As a youth, Erdogan loved soccer and religion Photo: reuters
They are two huge banners showing who is now the ruler of Turkey: Since the thwarted coup attempt, two lengths of cloth with a portrait of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have been hanging at the Ataturk Cultural Center in Istanbul’s Taksim Square. Three years ago, his opponents demonstrated here; now thousands celebrate their Tayyip, as they call him, every evening. The increasingly autocratic ruler has once again managed to emerge from a crisis as a winner – and he has never been as strong and vengeful as he is at the moment.
His opponents regard the 62-year-old as a warmonger, but his supporters worship him like a messiah. Erdogan, the U.S. magazine Foreign Policy recently wrote, is the "Anatolian version of Russian President" Vladimir Putin. When Erdogan took office as prime minister in 2003, he did so with the promise of liberal, modern Islam.
In the meantime, he has become an autocrat before whom a large part of the population trembles. At the same time, he is more popular than ever before. Millions of Turks cheer him in the streets for stifling the military coup. They shout "Allahu akbar – God is great," they wave Turkish flags and are euphoric because Erdogan is thinking aloud about reintroducing the death penalty.
In 2014, he was elected president by a clear margin, and in last November’s parliamentary elections, the ruling AKP party he co-founded received a staggering 49.5 percent – a vote of confidence that Erdogan is using to give the office of head of state ever more powers: Turkey is to be transformed into a presidential system. Now more than ever. And not only in his own country, but also internationally, hardly anyone can get past him: As a lock-keeper of the flow of refugees, he controls how many people seeking help reach Europe and dictates his conditions to the EU. This career would not be possible without the ambition and doggedness for power that only an outsider can bring to the table.
He has one goal: He wants to get to the top
Looking at the biography of the head of state, it becomes clear above all that even as a child he had to experience what it meant to have to swim against the tide as an outsider in order not to betray his religious ideals in a secular system. He is ambitious, wants to see himself in line with the elite, who look down on him as a believer and a man from a humble background. Despite political and party bans, he never gives up – on the contrary, he reinvents himself again and again until he reaches the top. Friendships only last as long as they are useful to him.
He disposed of his longtime companion and predecessor in the presidency, Abdullah Gul, when political calculations demanded it. Erdogan is not very interested in the opinions of other countries; what counts are the positions that command a majority among his core voters. And if he is quick to forget friends, the same is not true of his enemies: He is resentful and angry with anyone who dares to question him, and eventually settles the score.
Those who set out to find the man behind the head of state must start in Kasımpasa, an Istanbul neighborhood notorious for petty crime. The son of a penniless sailor, Erdogan, born in 1954, had to sell food on the street to afford school supplies. The Erdogan family belonged to the "black Turks": the lower class that had been oppressed for decades by the "white Turks," the descendants of the elites around state founder Kemal Ataturk. At most, "blacks" were allowed to clean the houses of the "whites"; they were not intended for anything else.
Love of soccer and religion
Erdogan attended a religious high school, a so-called Imam Hatip School. It is said that he once refused to use a newspaper page as a prayer mat in class – because it was un-Islamic to pray on a piece of paper. On the other hand, Erdogan was so enthusiastic about the game of soccer, which his father rejected as un-Islamic, that he hid his sports clothes in the coal bin at home and secretly went kicking. His talent would even have been enough for a professional career. But he turned it down for the sake of his family and decided to study business.
Erdogan, the boy from Kasımpasa, wanted to shape things himself, so at the age of 15 he joined the new Islamist National Order Party, the MSP, which played a pioneering role in the emergence of the Islamic Millî Gorus movement. Erdogan’s political mentor becomes MSP founder Necmettin Erbakan, a crude Muslim fundamentalist and anti-Semite. When the party is banned by the Kemalists, Erdogan switches to the "Welfare Party," for which he successfully runs for mayor of Istanbul in 1994. He not only has to administer a metropolis of millions, but also one of the most liberal cities in the Islamic world.
"What will happen now?" asks a commentator on the BBC’s Turkish service at the time. Erdogan is quickly earning a reputation. He is pragmatic and solves many of the city’s problems in a short time. 600,000 trees are planted, garbage collection is reorganized and then functions, and he achieves success in the fight against corruption. But Erdogan cannot let go of his Millî-Gorus instincts either. Time and again, he causes displeasure in the secular republic with his conservative interpretation of the faith. He has banned the depiction of scantily clad women on billboards and the serving of alcohol in municipal establishments.
Campaigns against Erdogan
The secular Kemalists are working to topple Erdogan: In order to brand him as an Islamist, a video is being circulated in which Erdogan congratulates the Afghan Taliban on the "establishment of an Islamic republic" in 1992. A picture from 1993 is passed around showing him in Kabul at the feet of Gulbuddin Hekmatyār – the Afghan prime minister who is later said to have helped Osama bin Laden escape and called for war against the United States.
Finally, a poem provides the pretext for his ouster. In 1997, then still mayor of Istanbul, Erdogan quotes the Pan-Turkish poet Ziya Gokalp: "The minarets are our bayonets, the domes our helmets, the mosques our barracks and the believers our soldiers." The State Security Court sentences him to ten months in prison for "religious incitement of the people."
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Erdogan has violated the secular state order, i.e., the separation of state and religion. The judges see him as the leader of a radical Islamic movement. He complains, "If I didn’t read a poem but read a license plate, they would find another reason to put me in jail." He serves four months of the sentence from March to July 1999 and loses the office of mayor.
The Muslim realo
Behind bars, Erdogan understands that he cannot fight the "white Turks" with religious content, but only by creating real political facts. As a Muslim realist, he built up the Justice and Development Party, his AKP, in 2001 – according to his own definition on the model of the European Christian Democrats. With a charm offensive, especially among "black Turks," the AKP wins a majority in 2002, shortly after the worst economic crisis in the republic. Through a change in the law and a by-election, Erdogan conquered the office of prime minister in 2003 and has determined the country’s fate ever since.
At the time, Erdogan stood for a rational view of politics. He promoted EU accession, implemented democratic reforms, and was curious and eloquent. Although he repeatedly flirts with reactionary positions, he is willing to find solutions that are good for the country. In concrete terms, Turkey owes Erdogan a modernized infrastructure, a reformed social system and significantly improved health care, among other things.
He also managed to bring the country an entire decade of unusual political and economic stability. At times, Turkey recorded economic growth of five percent annually. He dared to make a new start in Kurdish policy and demilitarized the country.
The autocratic autocrat
But the "anything goes" attitude, an expression of unlimited possibilities for progress during his first years in office, has now solidified into authoritarian dominance: Everything still has to go – but now only according to Erdogan’s will. His political agenda is himself. If you compare the early and the current Erdogan, the current one seems like a merciless egoshooter. With each electoral victory, he becomes more autocratic and self-important.
The AKP has become the power bastion of a hypercentralist system, the state riddled with party supporters deep into its capillaries. Erdogan has undermined the rule of law, manipulated institutions critical of the government for his own interests, manipulated the media, and corrupted legislation. Politically motivated trials are used to silence critics, such as journalists and opposition politicians who do not agree with him. More and more often, the president demonstrates his contempt for what he sees only as intellectual posturing.
The radicalization of Erdogan only became really clear to the world public in 2013: demonstrators protested against the construction of Gezi Park, which was promoted by the prime minister at the time, and Erdogan had them brutally suppressed. The reform process in Turkey comes to a standstill, and instead the construction of a repressive system begins. To his opponents, he threatens to "crush them." To his critics, he thunders, "Know your limits." He calls opponents of the government either "Israeli sperm," "leeches" or "degenerate, immoral rabble."
Jail for an innocuous Facebook post
Currently, some 30 journalists are in jail. Even a Facebook posting critical of the government can be enough for an arrest. The country ranks 151st out of 180 states in the press freedom ranking. In the southeast of the country, civil war-like conditions prevail, and attacks by jihadists of the terrorist militia "Islamic State" or Kurdish terrorist organizations can be expected at any time. Between July 2015 and March 2016 alone, around 220 people died in six attacks. On the Global Peace Index, which lists the most peaceful countries in the world, Turkey ranks 135th out of 162 countries.
His reign of terror is working: When Turkey elected its president directly for the first time in 2014, the popular charismatic won with the instincts of a street fighter. Anyone who assumes that this makes him more relaxed is mistaken: He brands opposition members as subversives controlled from abroad. Books critical of the government are banned; the security forces are efficient when it comes to smothering demonstrations in tear gas – but incapable of preventing terrorist attacks.
Fewer and fewer Turks dare to speak of their fear, for this alone is considered treason. Those who resist are either put through the wringer by tax inspectors, suspected of terrorism or prosecuted for "insulting the president": more than 2,000 cases under this paragraph are pending. If found guilty, they could face up to four years in prison. Nevertheless, those who are acquitted do not go unchallenged: On the Internet, AKP trolls commit character assassination against government critics and threaten them with rape and worse.
After the failed military coup, a political coup is now taking place. The state of emergency allows the president to rule by decree. Massive restrictions on the press and freedom of movement are legitimized. Just hours after the thwarted revolution, Erdogan rejoiced: "This uprising, this movement, is like a gift from God." Then he provided his rationale: "This coup gives us the opportunity to clean up the armed forces." He praised the bloody suppression as a "feat of democracy" – shortly after which the purge begins.