Erdogan’s Turkey looks more like its Arab neighbours

By David Gardner for Financial Times

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech during 27th Mukhtars (local administrators) meeting at the Presidential Complex in Ankara on September 29, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / ADEM ALTANADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech during 27th Mukhtars (local administrators) meeting at the Presidential Complex in Ankara on September 29, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / ADEM ALTANADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images

Insecure rulers in nearby countries have developed a well-armed guard to protect the regime

After more than a decade in power, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has come to tower over Turkey. The country has started to slip its western moorings. A republic shaped to be secular and westernised is in some respects beginning to resemble its Arab neighbours.

Mr Erdogan, who five years ago, during the Arab uprising, urged countries in the region to adopt secular constitutions, has now chosen identity politics — with sectarian trimmings. Polarisation has brought the president unparalleled electoral success. He has sharpened the Sunni, Islamist and Turkic identity of his Justice and Development party (AKP), and has worked to lock his opponents into separate blocs for the quasi-Shia Alevi and Kurdish minorities. He has trampled on the rule of law and, after the shock of mid-July’s abortive coup, decreed emergency rule.

Turkish officials can and do point out that France — the European state the Turkish republic arguably has most copied — also declared a state of emergency after last November’s jihadi assault on Paris. But the emerging reconfiguration of Turkey’s armed forces and security services may be heading towards models more familiar to the Arabs and Iranians.

Mr Erdogan and his government were profoundly shaken by the plot, which they blame on followers of Fethullah Gulen, leader of a shadowy Islamist cult allied to the AKP for a decade but locked in an escalating power struggle with its leaders for the past five years. Almost half of Turkey’s generals have been arrested or cashiered as Gulenist infiltrators since the coup, in purges that have ensnared more than 100,000 people. Turks across the political spectrum are shocked not just at the violence of the mutineers, who killed 240 people, but also because, as one liberal analyst puts it, “It is very hard for us to grasp that our national army was in fact somebody else’s army”.

Mr Erdogan, by contrast, emboldened by survival and sensing an opportunity, called the coup “a gift from God” enabling him to “cleanse the army”.

Among Turkey’s neighbours, insecure rulers have developed a model whereby a well-armed national guard (in Saudi Arabia), republican guard (in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or Ba’athist Syria) or revolutionary guard (in Iran) serve as a counterweight to the regular army and as praetorians for the regime. Given the extent of hostile penetration of Turkey’s army, and the length of time it will take to replace the purged commanders with loyal cadres, some observers are wondering if Mr Erdogan is now moving towards a version of this praetorian model, based on the police.

“The police is becoming a paramilitary force whose first duty is to protect the regime,” says one leading analyst. A western ambassador says: “I think they’re very tempted to do it. After all, what saved them was a police on steroids and special forces; they know how close they came that night, so definitely they’re thinking of balancing off the army.”

Additional measures include moving the paramilitary gendarmerie from defence to the interior ministry, the dissolution of the presidential guard and a widely anticipated purge of the national intelligence service.

Turkish officials say they are doing no more than copying how, say, Italy manages its carabinieri or Spain its Guardia Civil. “The answer to why the police are the heroes of July 15 [the date of the coup] is that there had already been a purge of Gulenists inside the police and police intelligence in the previous year and a half,” says one. There is no change in the model.

One commentator and former AKP supporter says: “The police already have the upper hand in terms of trust — of society not just of Erdogan.” Their greater prominence, including massive deployments of thousands of officers in Ankara and Istanbul last month, is therefore natural. So, too, some analysts argue, is a firmer government grip on the army, which is being gradually stripped of the privileges and power that defined the military as a caste and once made it the final arbiter of political power.

This may all sound natural in the voice of professional civil servants or AKP sympathisers. But the voice we are more likely to be hearing is Mr Erdogan’s. And the concentration of power around him, especially if it is going to acquire a permanent paramilitary layer, may not seem natural once the coup panic subsides.