Erdoğan’s transformation story: Did he conquer the fortress or did the fortress conquer him?

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Translated by Melissa Clissold

Hello, good day. On a broadcast I made on Wednesday from Paris, I had asked the question whether or not Erdoğan is a nationalist or neo-nationalist and I had presented my view that I thought he was a neo-nationalist. And for this reason, because I think he is close to neo-nationalism, people from different fractions have criticised me. But I am insistant regarding this and I want to delve deeper into this issue today and talk about Erdoğan’s transformation.

Actually, “Erdoğan’s transformation” was the title of a book that I co-wrote with my journalist friend Fehmi Çalmuk in 2001. We had created a portrait of Erdoğan in the book “Recep Tayyip Erdoğan: A Transformation Story”. Fehmi had mostly written the first part of the book consisting of Erdoğan’s private life, his childhood, his school life and his family. In the second section I had discussed Erdoğan’s political story and thought journey. I had named the title of this section “Global Conservatist”.

During those times globalism, globalization were aspects that were just being newly discussed and Erdoğan was attempting to present an image of him being conservative whilst trying to collaborate with global powers. And we witnessed this in the first years of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). During the time we wrote that book, Erdoğan was someone who had come from the National Vision movement, broken off from this movement but still carried traces from it,  a man known to be from Kasımpaşa, a young man (delikanlı), with a rough political character.

He had spent time in prison. He had become mayor after being provincial head, and then he went to prison. And then he broke away from his master (hodja), Necemettin Erbakan. And instead of going to the Felicity Party (SP), he founded the AKP with his friend. And he was the leader of this. During that time the question of whether or not Erdoğan has changed or not was being asked a lot.  A lot of people thought he was not changing. My thesis during that date, was that he was not only changing but that he was actually completely transforming.

I had started that Erdoğan was distancing himself from a strict Islamist line, from Erbakan’s National Vision movement, was transforming into a conservative politician who wanted to collaborate with global powers. My view did not seem to be that attractive at the time. I had explained that Erdoğan wanted to create good relations with the system, that he wanted to enter dialogue but that he had not been able to do this because of reasons coming down to him as well as the system itself.

It was said a lot. He tried to create relationships with big capitals through certain business men. He wanted to create relationships with the army. But at a certain time… they became interested and Erdoğan became involved in these funds. After becoming mayor, they had to get involved in Istanbul. But they did not really trust him – the dates were around the beginning of 2000.  

But of course the military, which appeared to be the owner of the system, of course high bureaucracy, high jurisdiction and the media never really warmed up to Erdoğan. Erdoğan, despite all this, managed to come into power with his party. And as I stated in my previous broadcast, we witnessed a very interesting period. Erdoğan came into power, even though everyone thought he never could. And a huge block was placed before him when this happened. 

Traditional actors of the system within Turkey, seen and unseen actors and civil society tried to grip Erdoğan and the AKP administration very seriously. They appeared like a shadow over him and tried to limit his room for manoeuvre. It was exactly then that the Erdoğan I have described as a global convervatist tried to create relationships with the external world, with the West and by entering a give-take relationship with them, he tried to strengthen and protect his administration against the powers within the system. 

It was a very difficult period. And here there were very clearly two opposing sides. On one side there was Erdoğan and those powers – from within and without – who supported him; and one side there were those powers who had controlled Turkey for years (and assumed themselves to be the owner of Turkey), civil, half-civil, and official and of course military powers…Turkey witnessed a war between these powers and once the Gulenists got involved in this war, things changed and it turned into a full on battlefield.  

And Erdoğan and the Gulenists mostly left that battle as winners. But now, when we look back at that time…what we see is: During that time those powers against Erdoğan – and an important fraction of the military, high jurisdiction, media and monetary fund – are now largely controlled by Erdoğan, are beside Erdoğan and their relationships or their relationships have become intertwined. Erdoğan is now next to the powers he was against today. There may be some who think this: The military, the constitutional court, the supreme court and the media are not the same as the media and military today.

Ok, it may not be the same. Erdoğan is not the same, none of us are the same. But there isn’t really a huge difference between the state of mind of the government of the time and today. In fact, there is no difference at all. Authoritativeness, freedoms being limited due to  a concern for security and sacrificing a state of law. This is the same today. The only difference is that the actors have changed. 

So, Erdoğan’s huge transformation has led him to become like his enemy. This was always said: “They are conquering the fortress from the inside, they are going to take over the system and they are going to construct a sheria system in Turkey.” Certainly it is clear that he controls the systems, and there may be certain aspects that remind us of sheria; but these do not mean anything. The system is still being implemented as before. And if there is indeed someone who is conquering or being conquered, the person who is conquering is not Erdoğan.

We are face to face not with an Erdoğan who has conquered the fortress, but a fortress that has conquered Erdoğan. This is actually quite a melancholic story.  Of course, those who love Erdoğan, the “Chief” (reis) – their numbers are decreasing, but they still exist -, they may read into this differently and state that Erdoğan is converting the system to the advantage of religious devotees. But, how can we tell that this is not the case? In the simplest form,  within the old or new system – I believe the same system is ongoing, but let’s just say this “new system” – under the control of Erdoğan,  

there are individuals among those who have been wronged, who have distinguished themselves with their religiousness. 

Let’s say we put the Gulenists aside; they are coup plotters etc., or this and that, ok. 

But from Alparslan Kuytul, to recently the events at Şehir University, Ahmet Davutoğlu, the Science and Arts Foundations, there are many Islamic intellectuals who have been marginalized and rendered ineffective or religious communities who have been blocked, while others have been given a free pass…at the end of the day, the system did not go through such a thing. 

It is not the case that in the last 19 years Islamists or conservatives have completely taken the power into their hands and that those who are not conservative, seculartists or those that with secularists have completely become liquidated. When we look at things from today onwards, when we look at the actors under Erdoğan’s leadership of Turkey, within the one-man system, we know the names of a lot of ministers, think of all the ministers we know or high-end bureaucrats, or big media bosses, those names that control the media.

And think of those people on the administrations side who create, director and present programmes in the media. Their common ground is not conservatism. Their common ground is that they do not have objections against Erdoğan’s one-man system. Because among them, there are those from past systems that still have power like they used to. There are those who have still managed to maintain their power. No one seems to be touching them. And the fact that they exist shows us that actually not much has really changed.

Of course there is a huge transformation that has taken place. Erdoğan evolving to become a globalist conservative moving away from Islamism and the National Vision movement; the fact that he did not maintain his religious identity, his Islamist identity, and stated that collaboratiın could take place between global powers – he did however experience a lot of serious problems with a lot of them and then he changed his focus towards Russia and China. Such an Erdoğan…who had seriously fought the system – to, how can I put this? – becoming its leader…This is actually a huge transformation.

Erdoğan’s name in the global media appears more as a populist, authoritarian leader rather than an Islamic leader. And his name is often being compared to Putin, Orban in Hungary, Trump and other leaders in the Philippines or Poland even. A lot of those people, within Hungary, the Philippines or Trump in the US, or people within Poland or Russia are actually products of the system. Of course, these people criticise the system too.

But when we look at it all, these people have come about because of the system, they are people from within the system. Erdoğan, in this respect is very different. He came as someone that the system alienated, wanted to be rid of, threw in jail and tried to cut his path. He carried out a struggle against the system, those who had power within the system. He created different alliances within this period – outside and inside. But later we witnessed that he cut off ties with many of those that he had created alliances with.

In fact, a lot of these relationships became quite hostile. He fought very seriously with them. Israel was the first example of this. Erdoğan, who had initially gotten on well with Israel, broke off ties with them during Davos. The European Union (EU) is another perfect example of this. Of course Gulenists are the most important example from within… – let’s say liberals etc. – we saw an Erdoğan that split his ways with all of them. And this is the point he has come to, but this was not where he started.

Erdoğan has taken the place of those who first wanted to block his way. And we can see an Erdoğan trying to create obstacles against those people, institutions, parties and those who tried to block his way in the past, the way they had to him. Could this have been a different story? I think so. In that book – I went back and looked at all that I had written before the broadcast – and I had said for example: “Erdoğan, like Christopher Columbus, does not know what he has really discovered. He does not know which vein he is close to pressing on.” I had also actually asked “Does he know what he has captured?”

But I do not think he was aware, and I had asked “Will he ever be able to learn this?” It was actually quite easy for him to learn this. I think he did learn indeed. But he did not prefer this. What was that vein? That vein was the fact that religious devotees and conservatives no longer wanted to remain outside of the system, they wanted to be carried to the centre of the system and live a pluralistic life with other factions within society. Of course this may appear to be very utopic or forced for some.

But such an inclination did exist. And as the conservatives gained power,  they wanted to come to the centre. As they came to the centre, it met other factions in its process of coming to the centre. It met the West, other factions, people with different views, Kurds, Alevis. And the thought that everyone could meet in the centre and live in a pluralistic society started to spread.

In the first years, the AKP utilised this point of view. It surfed on this new thought wave. But after a certain amount of time, Erdoğan expressed – not verbally, but with his actions – that he did not want to be within a pluralistic democratic system. And by distancing himself from the steps he had taken towards pluralism in Turkey, democracy, union with the West, the state of law, fundamental rights and freedoms and issues such as the Kurdish problem, he tried to lengthen the life of his own administration, he is still trying to do this. However, I do not think he will be successful.

Yes, that is all I have to say, but I have two final notes to add. Today is January 24. It is the death anniversary of Uğur Mumcu who was brutally murdered. I am a journalist who was lucky enough to have met Uğur Mumcu – even if brief. We had differing views regarding politics. Yet, he truly was indeed an exemplary journalist. Especially in terms of investigative journalism, his book ‘Rabıta’ was indeed a huge deal – of course not just that book, he wrote several.

And in Turkey today, if journalism exists in one way or another, his contribution is huge. I pay him my deepest respects. Another person who was also killed on this date: Gaffar Okkan, Diyarbakır Chief of Police, was slaughtered by Hizbullah in 2001. Coincidentally, I had met him shortly before his death and I had had a long conversation with him; because during that time I was working on a book about Hizbullah. It was published as a series of articles before it became a book. And the sad part to all this, I’ll never forget, I met him, and he had helped me immensely. Because he had conducted very serious research about Hizbullah. There was a confessor named Abdülaziz Tunç, a Hizbullah confessor, Okkan had enabled me to meet with him.

And I had gained very important observations and information from him. And again the sad thing to all this is: he was adamant that Hizbullah had ended its operations. I did not agree with him. And I won’t ever forget that he made fun of me.  And as we started publishing the series of articles as “Hizbullah Ambushes” in Cumhuriyet – I was not working there, I had published from the outside – on the third day of the publication they slaughtered Gaffar Okkan. It is a very sad incident.

He was a very different police chief and the fact that he has not been forgotten shows this clearly. A lot of things have changed in Turkey from that day. Hizbullah has changed. It now has its own parties etc.; but Turkey is still protecting its fragility and vulnerability. And Uğur Mumcu and Gaffar Okan, who were both murdered on different years but on the same date, still shows us how fragile Turkey as a country is. I pay both of them my deepest respect. Yes, that is all I have to say. Good day. 

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