Friday,21 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1300, (16 - 22 June 2016)
Friday,21 September, 2018
Issue 1300, (16 - 22 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Erdogan’s PR stunts

The project by Erdogan to put Turkey under his thumb rolls on. But when Erdogan arrived in Kentucky, aiming to grab the spotlight at Mohamed Ali’s funeral, things didn’t go entirely to plan, writes Sayed Abdel-Meguid

Al-Ahram Weekly

Another “coup” is how the beleaguered opposition in Turkey described a decree that went into force earlier this week, ushering in a significant reshuffle of key ambassadorial posts. The coup, this time, did not target opposition parties but rather those hotbeds of rebellion and discontent within the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) itself.

Moreover, it was not aimed solely at the last remaining supporters of former president and AKP cofounder Abdullah Gül, or even those of Erdogan’s nemesis, the Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen. Rather, the chief purpose was to cleanse AKP corridors of all people close to former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu who was forced to resign last month.

Not surprisingly, all the new appointees to the key posts are known for their undying loyalty to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Topping the list, perhaps, are Feridun Sinirlioglu and Naci Koru. Sinirlioglu was appointed Turkey’s permanent representative at the UN headquarters in New York to reward him for his efforts in mending the rift with Israel. Koru was appointed chief of Turkey’s permanent mission to the UN Office in Geneva.

There have been leaks to the effect that instructions have been issued to Turkey’s newly appointed diplomats to plug the “New Turkey”, by which is meant that entity that is to be born from a constitutional amendment transforming the system of government to a “Turkish-style” presidential system.

Preparations are in full swing to forge the type of parliament needed to pass the required amendment bill, preparatory to putting it to plebiscite in which Turkish communities abroad will be able to vote. What the authors of these instructions failed to mention is that Turkish diplomats will find the task of improving Turkey’s image very challenging, given the levels of disappointment and alarm in Western capitals at the state of civil liberties and human rights in what was once lauded as a model of democracy for the rest of the Middle East.

The most startling of the new ambassadorial appointments has been described as “unprecedented”. Turkey’s envoy to Berlin, Hüseyin Avni Karslioglu, who was recalled to Ankara for consultations after the Bundestag passed the bill that labelled the Ottoman massacres of Armenians in 1915 as genocide, is to be replaced by Ali Kemal Aydin, who previously served in Libya.

This appointment was apparently not on the original list for the ambassadorial reshuffle but rather inserted at the last minute. It needs to be seen in the context of the threats Erdogan made during his statements to the press at Esenboğa Airport several days earlier, as he was about to set off on his (aborted) mission to the US to take part in Mohamed Ali’s funeral ceremonies.

Erdogan vowed “punitive” measures against Germany if it does not revoke its “Armenian claims”. Erdogan’s provocative remarks stirred widespread outrage in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, all the more so after he accused the 11 German MPs of Turkish origin who voted in favour of the bill of being terrorists and suggested they should have their blood tested to see if they are Kurds.

As often occurs in Turkey these days, Erdogan’s incitement triggered death threats in Germany against the Turkish-German MPs. To assist, Ankara mayor Melih Gökçek tweeted a collage of photos of all eleven of them, each labelled with his or her name, beneath the title “They stabbed us in the back”.

In intellectual circles in Ankara and elsewhere in Turkey people throw up their hands in despair. That man in the presidential palace can’t possibly follow through on his threats, they say. No responsible leader could issue remarks like that, others add. True, they reflect a personality that is fundamentally insecure, disturbed and uncertain where to put his feet next. He issues pronunciations without end, yet he is always careful to include an element of ambiguity so he can backtrack later.

As for the chorus of angry threats from his cronies, such as that calling for a boycott of German companies, this would wreak greater harm on the one making the threat than on the target. Ultimately, all that grandiloquent hot air is intended for the gallery, to give simple folk the impression that he is capable of miracles.

Speaking of which, we come to that mysterious fleeting visit to the US that ended in resounding failure. Even before he left, Erdogan must have known that his adversaries would look askance at this and that a large segment of the public would feel that a trip all the way to Kentucky was rather over the top.

Surely it would be sufficient to issue an official message of condolences and to deliver a presidential speech lauding the virtues of the late boxing hero, especially given tense circumstances in the country at the time of the car bombing in the historic Beyazit neighbourhood of Istanbul on 7 June, killing 11, among whom were seven policemen.

But his mind was made up. Off to the US he would go to rake in untold quantities of political gold that would serve the higher interests of his political ambitions. First he raced off to visit some of the wounded from the car bombing at the hospital because he knew he would not be able to attend the funerals of those who were killed.

He then issued a statement justifying flying thousands of miles across the Atlantic at this time. The legendary Mohamed Ali had once visited Turkey and now it was time to return the favour by taking part in the funeral, he said. This was the very least he could do as a gesture of gratitude and an expression of esteem for the man who fought for his faith and refused to fight in an unjust war in Vietnam.

As for the real reasons, Erdogan loves to travel and loves appearances. On this occasion, he hoped to cast himself as religious reformer and defender of the oppressed, such as the late American champ. So he had his speech carefully prepared and bedecked with Quranic verses in anticipation of reciting it at the funeral in front of the cameras of the entire world.

But, all of a sudden, the miracle evaporated into thin air and he had a rude awakening. Perhaps he could have seen it coming given the incident a few months earlier, when he was in Washington to attend the nuclear summit, in which the behaviour of his bodyguards very nearly caused the Brookings Institution to cancel his speech at the last moment.

Or perhaps some things are just beyond his powers, such as the ability to sense the growing gulf his policies have caused between Turkey and other countries, or to appreciate the extent to which his reputation for demagoguery and authoritarianism has preceded him. In any case, he was refused the honour of speaking at the funeral of a truly remarkable man in Kentucky.

Then, on top of this, officials in the US ignored him from the moment he set foot on US soil. But this was nothing compared to the news that his archenemy, Gülen, the former mentor and political ally whom Erdogan has since placed at the top of his list of most-wanted terrorists, was also on the guest list.

In a fit of fury and pique, he cut his trip short and hightailed it home after only 24 hours in the US, leaving it to the Turkish taxpayers to foot the bill for that futile flight for himself and family aboard the presidential plane. As for what other costs lie ahead for the Turkish people, that is difficult to predict because it is difficult to predict where Turkey is headed.

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