Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1290, (7 - 13 April 2016)
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1290, (7 - 13 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Erdogan haunted by scandal

The US arrest of a Turkish gold trader threatens to reopen questions of graft and corruption going all the way to the top of Turkish politics, writes Sayed Abdel-Meguid

Al-Ahram Weekly

The day after The Atlantic Monthly appeared on 10 March, featuring “The Obama Doctrine,” a lengthy article based on a series of interviews with the US president, the state-run Anadolu news agency adamantly denied that Obama actually called Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan a “failure” and an “autocrat.” Citing a senior Pentagon official who happened to be in Ankara at the time, the news agency maintained that Obama never actually uttered those epithets in that interview, but rather that they were the fabrication of the article’s author, Jeffrey Goldberg. Turkey is highly regarded in US decision-making circles, the news agency added by way of further disproof.

Interestingly, Obama himself never issued a denial, which suggests that the remarks Goldberg attributed to him were as good as true, even if the wording was paraphrased.

Ruling elites in Ankara were mum on the subject, as though they saw and heard nothing or as though those criticisms from the Oval Office were directed at some other country. They had their sights eagerly set on the forthcoming grand opening of the Turkish-funded mosque and cultural centre complex in Maryland, in which they envisioned Erdogan and Obama snipping ribbons side-by-side in an atmosphere of brotherly love and interfaith communion. Subsequent developments, or what the Hürriyet described as “cold winds”, between the two allies dissipated that golden vision.

The arrest of Reza Zarrab in Miami on 19 March on money laundering and fraud charges sent a shivers through the upper echelons of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the corridors of the Ak Saray Presidential Palace. Way back in 2013, the Iranian-born Turkish citizen and gold trader, also known as Riza Sarraf, spent a couple of months in jail in Turkey while he was being investigated on charges of bribing senior AKP members as part of his scheme to facilitate financial transactions on behalf of Iran, in order to bypass sanctions. However, with the wave of an imperious hand and sweeping reassignments of prosecutors and police, the charges vanished and Zarrab was released, and just as magically the “parallel entity” emerged as the author of a vast conspiracy, masterminded by Fethullah Gulen, Erdogan’s erstwhile mentor and companion on the road, to spread anarchy and destabilise the country.

Zarrab’s arrest in Florida naturally stirred widespread speculation as to how this would impact on the Erdogan regime in Turkey. Preet Bharara, the US prosecutor who prepared the indictments against Zarrab, will naturally be interested in all details regarding the graft probes that were launched in Turkey on 17 and 25 December 2013 and that implicated four AKP ministers plus Bilal Erdogan, son of the current president who was prime minister at the time.

Erdal Aksünger, deputy chairman of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and a member of the now defunct parliamentary corruption and bribery inquiry committee, said that the American prosecutor’s investigations will extend to the four AKP ministers who had been implicated in 2013, adding that Zarrab’s arrest clearly demonstrated how politicised law in Turkey had become. In Turkey, Erdogan praises Zarrab as a noble-minded philanthropist. In the US, Zarrab is seen as a conman bent on circumventing the law.

The surprise development naturally precipitated a torrent of jokes and witticisms on social networking sites. A CHP deputy from Yalufa wrote in a tweet that the AKP government would probably accuse Preet Bhahara of working for Gülen. Bhahara’s followers on Twitter soared from 10,000 to 80,000 virtually overnight.

A sense of panic quickly spread through the ruling party and presidential palace. Ever since it was announced over a month ago that Erdogan would grace the opposite shore of the Atlantic, the media, including that handful of independent outlets that have managed to evade the massive clampdowns so far had been wondering whether he would be granted a separate meeting with Obama.

One would have thought that the Turkish president’s office would have clarified the matter. But the statements by Ibrahim Kalin, official spokesman for Erdogan’s office, were ambiguous and confused. In what must have been an effort to prepare the AKP rank and file for a disappointment, he said that efforts were being made to arrange a meeting but that Obama had such a busy schedule. Subsequently, he said that Erdogan’s visit was not the type of state visit that would occasion a meeting between the two leaders. He then went on the offensive and accused some of attempting to poison relations between Turkey and the US.

All were on tenterhooks. The ruling party cliques were desperately praying for the meeting. The opposition, in the grips of that despair that clings to any hope for rescue, prayed for the opposite. In spite of all the fanfare surrounding the forthcoming trip to Washington (the occasion was a nuclear summit) Erdogan himself seemed nervous. He certainly looked uncomfortable when journalists asked him, before he set off from the airport in Istanbul, whether he would be meeting with Obama one-on-one. He could not bring himself to answer in the negative. He knew how hard his foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, who had flown to the US in advance to make preparations, was working on the matter. Perhaps there was still a chance that Obama would spare a moment or two for the man who, as Goldman put it in the Atlantic Monthly, Obama once “saw as the sort of moderate Muslim leader who would bridge the divide between East and West”.

Erdogan was aware how maliciously marred and distorted his image was in European and US minds. In fact, he received an explicit lesson on the matter during his meeting with the Turkish-American Aziz Sancar, the 2015 Nobel laureate in Chemistry, on 18 December last year. When asked by the Turkish president about his first hand impressions on American attitudes toward Turkey today, Sancar, an ethnic Kurd who was born into a lower-middle class family in Mardin province, did not mince his words. The essential drift of his remarks was that the image of Turkey had sunk during the past few years and a significant portion of Congress opposes the current policies of the AKP government, especially with regard to the about-face on the Kurdish question. The hour-and-a-half meeting was not covered in the Turkish press. Not that this would cause Erdogan to waver the slightest in his chosen course. A spate of major media conglomerates were raided, journalists were taken into custody, thousands are being prosecuted for “insulting the president” while the bulk of the media cheers and his prime minister crows that freedoms of expression and the press have never seen brighter days than under the glorious leadership of his president.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu naturally omitted mention of the fact that his boss lashed out at European and American consuls for attending the trials of Cumhuriyet editor-in-chief Can Dündar and the newspaper’s Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gül. “Do you think this is your county? Turkey is our country!” Erdogan cried Gaddafi-style.

Is it any wonder that, upon landing at Andrews Airforce Base, he would be received by some official from the US navy and that he would be greeted by a barrage of cries and placards, such as the warning, “Dictator on the loose!”

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