Turkey has moved from hero to zero. It is now in the eye of the storm.
The Middle East has no shortage of dysfunctional states. The fallout of the Arab Spring has left civil war in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya. Beyond them, states such as Egypt and Jordan teeter on the edge of chaos, destabilized by their regimes’ own repressive tactics. Yet beyond the outright war zones, nowhere is more plagued by terrorist attacks than Turkey.
How has one of the region’s few Islamist governments—and a country that was, until the outbreak of war in Syria, viewed as a popular model for the Middle East—become the primary target of revolutionary ire?
One would assume that a fall from grace so spectacular, impacting people’s daily lives, their safety, the economy and international outreach in terms of soft power and commerce, would have led to a change of government at the very least.
Well, that did almost happen in July 2016. And it is funny how quickly events can send a smoke screen across the landscape of the past. Not so long ago, in June 2015, a general election saw a fall in support for the incumbent Justice and Development Party (AKP) government that was close to trimming its power in the first coalition government of the century. That fall in support was the result of both a weakening economy and a stalling of the hoped-for peace process with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Turkey’s Islamic nationalism
The steady march of instability on Turkey’s doorstep, coupled with the struggle to find the levels of growth enjoyed in the early boom years of the AKP government, led to an illiberal pivot. Hardship and instability inevitably herald illiberalism, yet the choices of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan—a hugely popular leader—have been decisive ones. In choosing to abandon a more progressive line toward the country’s Kurdish minority and a more inclusive attitude to regional politics, he embraced Turkey’s nationalist right.
Erdogan may genuinely have felt that his grip on power depended on such a move. The climate of the Middle East region has become one of siege. Incumbent regimes are keen to bolster tried and tested defenses against the onslaught of new, iconoclastic movements. Yet Erdogan’s choice, while making his power safe for the time being within Turkish politics, has also placed him in an unwinnable long-term position. He has chosen to win a battle decisively, but in doing so has allied himself to a decaying set of structures that are on the wane.
Nationalism has been tried before in the Middle East. It didn’t last in Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt—or even Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s day—when the conditions were far more favorable. Today, the identities that nationalism rests on are far more brittle. Turkey’s chaos is so potent today because it is once again fighting the two traditional foes of the state: Kurds and Islamists.
It is ironic that a government drawn from the Islamist movement, and long viewed suspiciously by the secular nationalist establishment, has now come to embody that same establishment so thoroughly that it is being attacked—like the establishment of old—by Kurds and Islamists once more. History is indeed a circular, rather than linear, affair in Turkey.
What must be done?
Erdogan’s government has proven that a lot can be gained from a siege mentality. He is not alone. Across the region—and the world—politicians are profiting from the sense of threat from outside. Whether it’s economic hardship, immigrants or a lack of ideological vision for the future, everywhere the lure of drawbridge nationalism is compelling. Nowhere more so than Turkey.
Yet the appeal does not alter the illusion. Things will not get better by that route. Repression of basic rights, introspection, protectionism and a closing down of channels of communication does not lead to prosperity anywhere. The figures are dire for Turkey. It is regularly cited as one of the most overexposed economies in terms of dollar debt repayments and the risk of capital flight. Its annual growth rate has plunged from 9.2% in 2010 to an estimated less than 3% for 2016.
In the tourism sector, the most important area of the economy for large swathes of the country, the crisis is acute. Istanbul’s terrorism threat has killed off its visitor numbers whilst the important resorts of the Mediterranean coast, which have not experienced any terrorism yet, are empty through a combination of fear and Vladimir Putin’s recent blockade on Russian charter flights. Visitor numbers were at their lowest for 25 years in 2016. In an economic future like this, Erdogan is going to need to keep offering panaceas.
The truth is that there is no credible alternative to Erdogan’s AKP in Turkey today. The other half of the truth is that things are not going to get better in 2017. In early 2018, without any apparent alternative, Erdogan will succeed in transforming Ataturk’s state into a presidential system in time for its 100th anniversary.
The new strongman is built very much in the old founder’s own image. Turkey goes round and round. The future is the past.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
Photo Credit: dursunberk