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Are You Sure You Want to Say That?

May 24, 2020 Leave a comment

In the best tradition of books written by foreign correspondents, Hannah Lucinda Smith offers a journey in brave and well-informed company. Whether explaining the grip of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Turkey, dodging Islamists in northern Syria or shining light into the backrooms of London’s relationship with Ankara, she’s a companion who writes frankly and well. And surprisingly for a book that declares its theme to be all about Erdoğan – a man who avoids any public display of humour or irony – it is also an enjoyable read.

The narrative in fact ranges well beyond just the current Turkish leader, tackling the impact of authoritarian rule in general. She is a canny observer, noting the little voice that comes into the head of any writer about Turkey over the years: “Are you sure you want to say that?” The larger frame also lets her include her dangerous forays into Syria’s civil war, which to some extent is about the fragmentation of that country after the death in 2000 of its long-standing dictator, Hafez al-Assad, and the inadequacy of his son Bashar.

Despite being called “Erdoğan Rising” and sporting a striking red cover dominated by an enigmatic photograph of the president, this is not a biography of Erdoğan. Smith admits that she never met the man up close. Perhaps the focus on Erdoğan is because, as she notes, any story about Turkey is easier to sell if it has brand Erdoğan front and centre. For sure, the complete inside story of Erdoğan’s rise to power and operating methods remains to be written. As I noted in an interview here, a full accounting will be scary and difficult to write as long as he remains in power.

Hannah Lucinda Smith (e)But Smith has written one of the first books I’ve seen about what the tumultuous late 2010s felt like under Erdoğan’s rule. She shows how the public-private partnership system channeled contracts to friends of his regime. She captures well the many manifestations of Erdoğan’s public character, from the mass rallies of his adoring followers to the sunglasses that make him look like a mafia don. She delves into the little-known role of Erdoğan’s early spin doctor Erol Olçok, who died in the popular resistance to the June 2016 coup attempt. Smith looks at all the angles of that fateful episode, including how the combination of repression and lack of full explanation has given rise to bizarre conspiracy theories that just might be true.

Smith found a calling in Turkey after traveling there in 2013 to cover the doomed Syrian opposition struggle with the regime in Damascus. Switching often into first person, present-tense reportage, Smith is good at giving voice to ordinary people, who, for instance, may go to a demonstration just to have a fight with the police, not with Erdoğan’s apparatus. She chronicles the people traffickers and human suffering of the Syrian refugee exodus through Turkey to Europe. She details the brutality endured by Turkey’s Kurds after Erdoğan ended peace efforts in 2015. And she spots a major driver of Erdoğan’s policymaking: anger, as reported by a diplomat after Erdoğan turned bitterly on his former friend Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani in 2014. When interviewing him about the fate of Palestinians in Gaza, I remember Erdoğan displaying barely controlled fury.

Erdogan and Hugh Pope

An interview with Tayyip Erdoğan is rarely a relaxing experience. This one shortly after he became Prime Minister in 2003 went relatively smoothly, but he still admonished me: “You don’t speak very good Turkish!”  On another occasion, I heard that when he didn’t like the questions posed by a visiting foreign TV station, he stormed out of the interview and only let the crew go when they gave up the tapes.

There are times where her comments about Turkish history feel racy, like describing the population as “a genetic and cultural kedgeree.” And even if Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AK Party) did see advantages in reaching out to Europe after it came to power 2002, far from everyone in Europe saw him as a “darling”. My impression is that European leaders actually viewed him with a mix of condescension and more often fear. He is physically bigger and more imposing than most of them. And they still can’t control either his policies, his iron-clad steamrolling of election victories, his style of abrupt confrontation or his willingness to make and carry out threats.

The book’s mainspring descriptions of secular-religious polarisation and authoritarianism are not exactly new, of course. Ataturk’s state may have had a staunchly secularist agenda, but the country has swung back and forth over the role of religion since the 1950s. Erdoğan may be authoritarian, but so was Ataturk, later military coup officers and actually many other leaders. The 2010s are not the first time one group or other in the country has been dangerously threatened: politics in the 1980s were grim, and in the 1990s, rough and chaotic. Smith herself describes Turkey as a “round-bottomed toy that rocks precariously from one side to the other but always returns upright”.

Smith quotes her predecessor as a correspondent for the London newspaper The Times from the early 1960s, I assume David Hotham, who also wrote an excellent book on the country. Like all of us, Hotham didn’t always get it right. For instance, he thought the first bridge of the Bosporus, opened in 1973, a year after he published his book, would prove a colossal waste of money. Smith was there to see Erdoğan open a third bridge across the Bosphorus in 2016, alongside one of the biggest airports in the world, a 1,000-room palace and an expansion of roads and vast new building projects throughout the country.

It’s possible that Smith is right that these are merely “costly monuments to the vanities of a leader who has increasingly little else to offer”. But the Turks will still be there once Erdoğan is gone, Turkey’s state debt is still relatively small compared to that of more advanced European countries, and, it’s possible that, like the first Bosphorus bridge, Erdoğan’s projects will be useful to people in the future. What will be left of Turkey’s democracy remains to be seen.