The stories, and the men, behind Turkey's downward spiral

The stories, and the men, behind Turkey's downward spiral
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#TurkeyWillPrevail is trending on Twitter these days, for those who want to express Turkish patriotism. Videos of Turks destroying iPhones and burning U.S. dollars are circulating online. Everyone is angry and worried. Turkey’s currency collapsed into a steep downward spiral practically overnight. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blames the United States, specifically President TrumpDonald John TrumpNorth Carolina state lawmaker touts herself as 'Trump supporter' in launching bid for governor Pentagon sending 500 more troops to Saudi Arabia: reports Dozens of British lawmakers stand behind minority lawmakers amid Trump attacks MORE, for his country’s financial woes. However, there is more to the story than just the currency nosedive.

This is a story of two clerics, one an American detained in Turkey and the other Turkish residing in Pennsylvania. It also is a story about a 2016 coup attempt against Erdogan. It is a story about Turkey’s economy and Erdogan’s support base, and about Donald Trump and his support base. And, it is a story about two larger-than-life egos wanting to appear as macho “strongmen,” leading two geopolitically important and powerful countries, and how each man wants to come out on top in this bizarre political face-off. All of these stories are interrelated.

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Turkey is a secular republic by national ideology, identity and its written constitution. However, once Erdogan came to power in 2003, first as prime minister and then as president since 2014, he has empowered his religious party, the Justice and Development Party, or AKP. That it has remained in power has been nothing less than a miracle, since by law Turkey does not permit religious parties to rule the country. Turkey is deeply divided between pro- and anti-AKP/Erdogan sentiments. Domestic politics have been crucial for Erdogan’s and AKP’s survival, and the Turkish economy has been an important litmus test. In the early AKP years, the economy was thriving and the major cities enjoyed a construction and employment boom.

 

Since that glorious time, the situation in Turkey has degraded. With the outbreak of the 2011 Syrian civil war, Turkey’s economy has been severely stressed by the influx of Syrian refugees numbering about 3.5 million, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and by its leadership’s mismanagement. Erdogan will never admit to the latter.

Instead, the Turkish government churns out conspiracy theories about the United States and the West waging a “financial war” against the republic. Erdogan is rallying his support base with speeches and pleas to remain strong and steadfast. The New York Times describes it as his “appeal to national and religious pride in the face of foreign aggression,” quoting Erdogan saying in a recent speech, “They are now having various campaigns,” referring to the financial sanctions imposed by the United States this month. “You do not lend an ear to those. Don’t forget, they have the dollar, but we have our people, our Allah.”

However, according to economic analysts, Erdogan has mismanaged Turkey’s economy, and while the government is trying to avoid an International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout, domestically the Erdogan regime has engaged in cronyism, too much borrowing and debt; ignored the advice of economic and financial advisers; and rendered enormous projects such as in construction to overheating without dividends. Meanwhile, the regime has jailed hundreds of thousands of public-sector employees, opposition activists, journalists, educators and anyone deemed a “threat” to national security.  

The allegations against countless Turkish citizens stem from the superbly woven conspiracy theory pertaining to the agendas — as Erdogan and the AKP charge — of the Turkish cleric, Fethullah Gulen, who lives in exile in a Pennsylvania mansion. Because the Turkish government blames Gulen and his vast, powerful organization often referred to as the “Gulen Movement,” which mainly operates schools worldwide, for masterminding the July 2016 coup attempt with an unsuccessful assassination plot against Erdogan, Turkey is demanding Gulen’s extradition from the United States. Gulen has denied any involvement in the coup attempt, and neither the Obama nor Trump administrations has complied with the extradition requests.

The Trump administration has imposed sanctions on Turkey, and President Trump has lobbed disparaging tweets against Turkey because American cleric Andrew Brunson has been jailed in Turkey on charges of “terrorism” since the 2016 coup attempt. The pastor is under house arrest, but Turkey’s top court just shot down his appeals and upheld the charges against him.

Although Turkey is a NATO ally, recent years have witnessed growing tensions between the United States and Turkey. Though the mutual friction has been building over the years, currently is has much to do with the two clerics. Behind each cleric lies an important power base —the Evangelicals for Trump in the United States, and the pro-AKP/Erdogan Turkish citizens who vehemently oppose Gulen and his movement.

In other words, for Trump to sustain his domestic support base consisting mainly of Evangelicals, he must keep pressure on Turkey to release the pastor. The best tools to do so seem to be economic. For Erdogan to sustain his domestic support base consisting of pro-AKP Islamists, he must continue his condemnations of Gulen, Trump, the United States and the West, and anyone else perceived as challenging Turkey’s national security. Apparently, that includes U.S.-based multinational corporations, such as Apple. The buzz on Turkish streets is, “Use Samsung instead” (Samsung is a South Korean company).

Nevertheless, Trump’s strategy against Erdogan may backfire rather badly. Erdogan has a strong support base and substantial popularity. By imposing sanctions and tweeting nasty words, Trump is facilitating Erdogan’s ability to rally the masses and boost Turkish nationalism. So far, Erdogan’s efforts to invoke patriotism are working, especially since the “economic war” is viewed as Turkey facing off against a superpower, a David versus Goliath per se.

This trans-Atlantic tiff could go on for months, but Erdogan urgently needs to stabilize Turkey’s currency and economy. In the meantime, many Turks are destroying Apple iPhones and U.S. dollars on camera and posting the videos online.  

Therein lies a curious irony, as one analyst on France24 recently pointed out: in July 2016, Erdogan used the FaceTime app, which belongs to Apple, to address his nation from Istanbul’s Ataturk International Airport, responding to rumors that he met his demise in the coup attempt and calling on everyone to end the coup attempt. Turkish citizens poured into the streets, even standing before tanks to stop the coup. Erdogan is quoted as saying, “A country without a strong leader will go down.” In 2016, it helped that Apple came to the rescue.

Hayat Alvi, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the Naval War College. She previously served as assistant professor of political science at American University in Cairo, and as director of the international studies program at Arcadia University. She specializes in international relations, political economy, comparative politics with regional expertise in Middle East and North Africa and South Asia, and Islamic studies. She is proficient in Arabic and Urdu.

[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Navy, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.]