There are few analysts today who would disagree that Turkey’s populist Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is having a good run. On paper, it’s not difficult to discern why. Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has enjoyed three successive election victories, eight years in power, a booming economy and a continued ability to subdue any interference in political life from his country’s feared military. If that wasn’t enough, Erdoğan’s dual charm offensives in the west as the new model Muslim leader, and simultaneously in the Muslim world as the big brother ready to protect them, has gone down well enough for almost every world capital to lay down the red carpet welcoming him.
Impressive economic growth and increasing grass roots support aside, Mr. Erdoğan has now become somewhat of a major international statesman, including in his beloved Muslim neighborhood. Even before the events in the Arab Spring and Iran’s nuclear tussle with the West (in which he personally was an advocate and go-between peacemaker), the 2009 Israeli onslaught on Gaza was an opportunity he dared not miss. Vitriolic attacks on Israeli leaders and publicly challenging Israel’s President Peres at the world economic forum were only the beginnings of his ever-increasing demagoguery.
His recent tour of liberated Arab Spring countries together with his increasingly harsh criticisms of his former ally, President Bashar Al-Assad of Syria, clearly show his renewed attempts to champion himself as the democratic, credible and moderate voice of the Muslim world, one that will be the barrier preventing the increasing tide of extremist influence emanating from the turbulent Middle East. But behind his carefully managed balancing act, there are a lot more sinister things going on than Mr. Erdogan would want the world to know. We only have to look in his own back yard to understand why.
Despite his Islamic credentials, neo-Ottoman shrewdness and cunning political brinkmanship vis-à-vis Israel, twenty percent of his own countryman, the ethnic Kurds, have been facing down the brutal and repressive state machinery that Erdogan has been unleashing on them. Oppressed for decades, denied the right even to speak their own ethnic language - even in schools and places of worship, they have been at the forefront of state repression for decades. For all Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s talk of becoming a beacon of light for a democratic and prosperous Muslim world, the armed cars, tanks, helicopter gunships and mass arrests is what thousands of Turkish families have had to continually face.
This is the apparent contradiction of the Turkish leader, one that should make him feel ashamed whenever he looks at himself in the mirror. For all his call for Arabs to get their own house in order, dethroning their tyrannical rulers, chiding Israel for everything from regional bullying to war crimes, and crying whilst reminiscing about bereaved Palestinian families, Mr. Erdogan has yet to shed a tear for his own people, a people he wishes the world would just forget. Mr. Erdogan has certainly positioned himself as a political operator par excellence. Erdoğan dreams of becoming his country’s next ‘Suleiman the Magnificent,’ a ruler who will ambitiously spread Turkish hegemony across the globe. After checkmating both generals and political opponents at home, he has for some time set his sights on regional dominance and this has never been so apparent than in both his Israel and anti-Arab tyrant bashing
Highly publicized public relations tours in the Arab world, repeated but yet empty vows to challenge Israel’s blockade of Gaza, supporting the Palestinian struggle for statehood, the displaying of arrogant behavior towards the future of Cyprus, and all the talk of reviving Turkish heritage - seem to be nothing but a manipulative ploy designed to present Erdogan as the Islamic leader in waiting. But for all those, Western or Muslim alike, who are jumping on the bandwagon of Erdoğan-mania as the breath of fresh air that has long been needed in a volatile part of the world, it is the Kurdish question that should ultimately define his credentials.
As he stretches his hand for peace between the two worlds, he is vowing to pursue Kurdish militants across the border into Iraq, restricting the use of the Kurdish language in political gatherings and has just been promised delivery of American drones to counter revolting Kurds in the harsh terrains of his homeland.
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan may indeed be the affable leader millions desire; he certainly has convictions to which he holds strongly - when he holds them. But falling over himself to condemn massacres by others and yet indulging in the practice when he so desires, should dissuade anybody from seeing him as a regional savior especially when there is not one shred of evidence to suggest he is soon to mend his ways. Whatever Recep Tayyip Erdoğan supporters are pining for him to become; he will never be a democrat.