Islamism after the Fall of Morsi

Jul 18, 2013

Islamism after the Fall of Morsi

Update from AIJAC

July 18, 2013
Number 07/13 #05

This Update looks at the future of the Islamist political movement, especially in Egypt, in the wake of the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood-led Morsi government there early this month. It also includes an analysis of the state of Islamist politics in another important nation – drawing conclusions about Turkey’s Erdogan goverment based on its handling of the recent unrest in that country. 

The first piece comes from American Middle East expert Reuel Marc Gerecht of the Foundation for Defence of Democracies. Gerecht predicts that the power of Islamism – the political ideology that sees the key to both power and the “good life” as fully supplied by Islamic religious sources – is largely unshaken and probably still represents the views of the majority of Egyptians. He argues that the new ruling alliance between liberals and the military may win the next election but that it will be viewed as illegitimate by many or most Egyptians and the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups will be preparing – through violence and/or grassroots work – to return to power in the longer run. For his analysis in full, CLICK HERE. Additional informed views on the role of Islam and Islamism among Egyptians come from academic expert Fouad Ajami and Washington Institute specialist Eric Trager.

A somewhat different view comes from Israeli strategic analyst Col. Jacque Neriah, who argues that the overthrow of Morsi was a significant blow to Islamist movements throughout the region, sending the message that Islamist triumph is not inevitable and can be subdued by moderate and liberal forces. He notes the significant mistakes made in governance by the Brotherhood, but also argues that the forces in Egypt resistant to Islamist theocracy proved much stronger than most analysts realised. Neriah also goes on to discuss the implications of the crisis for Israel and various future scenarios. For all the details of his analysis, CLICK HERE. More on Israel’s responses to events in Egypt here and here.

Finally, this Update contains a look at what we now know about Turkey’s Islamist government  – from Swedish expert on Turkey Svante Cornell. Cornell argues that it has been apparent for some time that Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had strongly authoritarian tendencies, but that his reaction to the recent unrest in his country – including the invocation of paranoid and even antisemitic conspiracy theories by Erdoğan and those close to him –  has made these very obvious. Cornell calls for Western states, and especially Washington, to now reassess their relations with Erdoğan – to cease legitimizing and elevating a man increasingly divisive even within Turkey – and to look for ways to support and empower “those political forces, whether within or outside the Islamic conservative movement, that are committed to a pluralistic and democratic Turkey.” For Cornell’s analysis in full, CLICK HERE. A video interview with Dr. Cornell on Turkey is here, while American foreign policy pundit Walter Russell Mead has more on the antisemitism in Turkey’s ruling party here.

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In Egypt, the Popularity of Islamism Shall Endure

Reuel Marc Gerecht

The Washington Post, 12th July 2013 

How will the Egyptian army’s coup against the elected Muslim Brotherhood government affect Islamism, intellectually and politically the most consequential movement in the Middle East since the 1960s? Do the brethren see their fall as a rejection of their religious beliefs? Should they?

Historically, it’s impossible to imagine Islamic militancy without the Brotherhood. Founded in 1928 against British imperialism and a rapidly Westernizing Egypt, the Brotherhood became the flagship for Sunni fundamentalism. Secretive but populist, contemptuous of state-paid clergy, intellectually syncretistic (socialism, fascism and European anti-Semitism blended into their “authentic” faith), the brethren became widely popular in Egypt as the army’s experimentation with radical Arabism and crony capitalism failed.

The real strength of the Brotherhood movement, along the Nile and beyond, has always been its public faith and private virtue and its appealing historical narrative for Muslims who see the prophet Muhammad as a paragon — a people’s greatness flows from moral rectitude. The downfall of the general-turned-president Hosni Mubarak two years ago caught the brethren off guard. Thirty years ago, they opted for coexistence with the security state: Abjuring politics, they focused on missionary and social work. They became “neo-fundamentalists” who envisioned the collapse of the Egyptian police state one convert at a time. With the intense democratic debates among Arab intellectuals that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the Iraq war, Islamic fundamentalist movements increasingly adopted a democratic lexicon and started, however tepidly, to struggle with the contradictions between popular sovereignty and the Holy Law.

The brethren’s embrace of democratic politics always hinged on an old-fashioned Sunni assumption that the majority of Muslims couldn’t be bad Muslims. The recent massive demonstrations in Egypt certainly show that many Egyptians who voted repeatedly for the Brotherhood — in parliamentary elections in 2011 and 2012, in the presidential election last summer and to adopt the new constitution in December — hit the streets against them. This has shocked some of the brethren and provoked Islamists elsewhere to reflect on the intersection of religion and politics.

Although religious tyranny secularizes society (see Christendom/the West), the Brotherhood’s “rule” was probably too short, ineffectual (real power remained with Egypt’s army and security services) and morally tepid. Women’s social status when President Mohamed Morsi fell was about the same as when he was elected. Western “bikini tourism” and easy access to alcohol — controversial issues for Islamic fundamentalists — had not been touched. Tied up in the elemental problems of governing with little authority, the Brotherhood hadn’t really formulated, let alone tested, its conception of the “good life.”

For the secular opposition, this is a big, and probably lethal, problem. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, religious zeal among the common faithful has been burned out by the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s and three decades of corrupt, oppressive clerical rule. Onetime Islamists have become trenchant critics of theocracy. Similarly, the appeal of secularism in Iran was widespread in the 1950s and ’60s but died slowly under the shah, as a Westernizing dictatorship and the economics of a modern centralized state bulldozed traditional society and kindled a politicized religious awakening. The electoral triumph of Turkey’s Islamist-friendly Justice and Development Party was also long in coming, partly because the Turkish military checked the democratic expression of the country’s religious hinterland. It is inconceivable that the corrupt and cruel Egyptian army could stage-manage a better evolution to a non-Islamist democracy than had the Turkish army, which was, comparatively, neither corrupt nor cruel.

What the Arab Middle East has not seen since before World War I — when Egypt experienced a brief efflorescence of secular liberalism — is a real competition between Arab liberals and devout Muslims who see politics largely as an extension of their faith. The latter is, unquestionably, still a majority in Egypt. (The Holy Law is the law for most Egyptians, who have been living outside the country’s calcified, ineffectual legal system of imported European codes.)

Many young secular Egyptians — and their Western fans — appear not to know this. They imagine having a liberal democracy in which advocates of sharia and the Islamic tradition cannot win an election, write the constitution or otherwise shape society except along secular lines. Westernization has been so successful in Egypt that perhaps a third of the population may no longer share basic cultural mores with the religious majority. Egyptian liberals, and the rest of the intellectually diverse opposition to the Brotherhood, turned to the street and the army — Egypt’s real ruler since 1952 — to compete. It’s an umbilical relationship that is now unlikely to be broken.

Morsi, an incompetent, boring and inarticulate demagogue, will not return. But Egypt’s enormous systemic problems remain. The military may try to jury-rig elections in which the brethren could compete but not triumph. Mindful of recent Turkish history, senior officers will not allow vengeful Islamists to compete, win and neuter the army. Egypt’s problems are now the responsibility of the military and Egyptian liberals. The odds are that they will fail abysmally, and in their failure, the Brotherhood and other Islamists will recapture the street.

Egypt’s experiment with democracy is probably over. Egyptian secularists may win the next election, but many — probably most — Egyptians will see the vote as illegitimate. Islamism grew strong in Egypt in opposition to unlawful power. Islamists may return to violence — the holy-war arguments advanced by the Brotherhood theologian Sayyid Qutb are more readable now. More likely, the brethren will rally their followers in the streets and return to neo-fundamentalism, biding their time until the Egyptian army cracks. Contrary to what the Facebook liberals proudly boast on Tahrir Square, the game is far from over.

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He served in the CIA’s Clandestine Service from 1985 to 1994, specializing in the Middle East.

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Egypt after Morsi: The Defeat of Political Islam?

Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah

Jerusalem Issue Briefs, Vol. 13, No. 19   

12 July 2013

  • The Muslim Brotherhood’s 80-year dream to take over Egypt ended in a fiasco, barely one year after one of its own was democratically elected to the office of President of Egypt.
  • The Muslim Brotherhood lost its power because it did not correctly assess the opposition, because it was eager to dominate all key positions in the state, and because it did not foresee the possible coalition between the liberals and the army.
  • The Brotherhood’s loss is definitely a gain for those struggling against jihadist and Brotherhood-inspired groups in the Arab world, sending a message that political Islam can be subdued by moderate and liberal forces.
  • The situation in Egypt that brought the end of Morsi’s presidency was an unwritten alliance between the army and the mass protest movement. In such an eventuality, regimes stand no chance to survive.
  • Israel allowed the Egyptian army to deploy in Sinai, in violation of the terms and agreements governing the deployment of the Egyptian army under the peace treaty, in order to combat jihadists in Sinai, allowing Egypt greater freedom of movement there in order to preserve the peace treaty.
  • Israel is interested first and foremost in maintaining the status quo relating to the peace treaty, and to contain, if not eradicate, the jihadi presence in Sinai. Having the Egyptian army at the helm today makes it easier for Israel to deal with Egypt.

In Egypt on July 3, 2013, for the first time in the modern history of the Middle East, an Islamocracy was ousted from power. The Muslim Brotherhood’s 80-year dream to take over Egypt ended in a fiasco, barely one year after one of its own was democratically elected to the office of President of Egypt. The army, which had been severely beaten a year ago by the same failing president, made its comeback after having warned all year that it would intervene if “Egypt was about to fall into an abyss.”

Since this counter-revolution, Egypt is being governed by a coalition of so-called liberals who opposed the Muslim Brotherhood, backed by the army and the defense establishment. Still, it is a divided, destabilized Egypt that might be on the brink of civil strife due to the violent opposition of the Brotherhood which refuses to accept its political defeat.

What are the main lessons to be drawn from the Egyptian case, and what are some possible future scenarios?

The Defeat of Political Islam

Many analysts who follow Egyptian politics have repeatedly stated that the Muslim Brotherhood, a very well-organized political faction that hijacked the revolution in Egypt, would be dominant for years to come due to the weakness of the opposition and liberal forces. To strengthen their argument, these analysts pointed at the Brotherhood’s strong organization, resolve, and political acumen. Moreover, President Morsi’s firing of the top brass of the Egyptian army in August 2012, following an attack by jihadists in Sinai who killed 16 Egyptian soldiers, and the eclipse of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) which had ruled de facto since the resignation of President Mubarak, convinced many that the old concept of Egypt being a military society ruled by a junta of officers belonged to the past. It was believed that the army had lost its resolve to fight the Muslim Brotherhood as long as its interests – mainly economic – were protected.

Events proved this analysis wrong: The Muslim Brotherhood lost its power because it did not correctly assess the opposition, because it was eager to dominate all key positions in the state, and because it did not foresee the possible coalition between the liberals and the army. The Brotherhood’s loss is definitely a gain for those struggling against jihadist and Brotherhood-inspired groups in the Arab world, sending a message that political Islam can be subdued by moderate and liberal forces.

Underestimating the Liberal Current in the Anti-Muslim Brotherhood Movement

There is a misconception about Egyptian domestic reality that is anchored in superficial knowledge of the forces within the Egyptian body politic. Since there is no real way to take the pulse of the “street,” most information, including polls on domestic opinion in Egypt, comes from biased sources that do not reflect the situation on the ground. As a result, many analysts fell into the trap of the Brotherhood’s propaganda and underestimated the strength of the opposition. They concluded that there was no way the opposition could overcome the Brotherhood’s apparatus. In fact, a look at the results of the presidential elections indicates that 49 percent of the voters opposed the Muslim Brotherhood. Some even claimed that Morsi lost the elections, and that SCAF, manipulated by the U.S., conceded victory to Morsi in order to avoid bloodshed. In any case, since the beginning of his presidency, one could see that the Brotherhood’s efforts to change Egypt into an Islamocracy were met by opposition that became more vociferous and emboldened by the day.

Years of Mubarak’s dictatorship were not to be replaced by a Muslim Brotherhood dictatorship. Unwillingly, Morsi had to call on the army to restore law and order, and as events unfolded, especially after January 2013 when cities along the Suez Canal declared a revolt and announced their autonomy, Morsi became more dependent on the same army he had wanted to confine to the barracks. It was Morsi’s mistakes that brought the army and liberal forces together, a development he could not have foreseen.

When Morsi realized that the army had sided completely with the opposition, he tried a last-minute maneuver to replace the Defense Minister and Commander of the Egyptian Army, Gen. Abdul Fattah al-Sisi. But Gen. Sisi had taken the initiative first, and instead of being sacked like his predecessor, Field Marshall Tantawi, he was the one who announced to Morsi that he was no longer president. This reflected the Brotherhood’s shortcomings in their political analysis of the domestic reality in Egypt.

Vulnerability of Regimes Facing Mass Protest

Events in Egypt have illustrated once more the strength of mass protests. Most of the regimes in the region cannot withstand the shock of mass protests, and the use of live ammunition against such protests can only worsen the situation. Both in Egypt and Tunisia, regimes fell because of mass protest, and because the army chose not to take part in the protest and open fire. The situation in Egypt that brought the end of Morsi’s presidency was an unwritten alliance between the army and the mass protest movement. In such an eventuality, the regimes stand no chance to survive. Again, the role of the army in politics is primary: It has always been the main factor that will maintain regimes in the Middle East, and it will remain so in the near future.

The Questionable U.S. Role

No doubt the U.S. is a big loser in Egypt, together with its newly acquired friends in the Muslim Brotherhood. Many in the Arab world raised an eyebrow when President Obama pushed President Mubarak to resign. Many more could not understand the shift in American thinking toward a pro-Muslim Brotherhood policy. The U.S., which was championing democracy in the Middle East (and elsewhere), accepted a policy led by Morsi that was diametrically opposed to its own creed.

Moreover, U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson made it very clear a few weeks before the July events that she did not believe in any viable alternative to the Morsi regime. It seems that at a certain point, facing the crumbling of regimes following what romantics called “the Arab Spring,” the U.S. assessment was that it should side with moderate Islamist forces in the region in order to maintain a presence, to protect U.S. interests, and to preserve the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.

This policy was not welcomed in the Arab Gulf states and Saudi Arabia (except Qatar), which did not see eye to eye with the Morsi regime. In Egypt, it led to mistrust and very quickly transformed into open animosity toward former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Ambassador Patterson. In fact, besides Israel, over the past two years the U.S. has become the most hated foreign entity in Egypt.

Now the U.S. has to go back to the drawing board in order to redesign its policy in the Middle East. The events have proven that old axioms are not time-resistant and one should adapt to new realities. The new reality is that the Middle East is not homogenous and the interests of all the various groups must be considered.

Has Israel a Role to Play?

It is commonly said in Egypt that Israel was an active partner of the Morsi regime. However, Israel came to terms with Morsi in order to restrain Hamas in Gaza, and was rewarded by the fact that Morsi’s Egypt (unlike his predecessor) accepted responsibility for Hamas. Moreover, Israel allowed the Egyptian army to deploy in Sinai, in violation of the terms and agreements governing the deployment of the Egyptian army under the peace treaty, in order to combat jihadists in Sinai. According to some sources, intelligence relations between the two countries were never as positive as they were in the Morsi era.

What transpired in Egypt did not take Israel by surprise. Nor did Israel ignore Egyptian resentment against it. From its actions one can assess that Israel is interested first and foremost in maintaining the status quo relating to the peace treaty, and to contain, if not eradicate, the jihadi presence in Sinai. Having the Egyptian army at the helm today makes it easier for Israel to deal with Egypt. However, the situation remains explosive: a return by Hamas to a policy of armed confrontation with Israel, and/or a terrorist action conducted from Sinai against Israeli targets inside sovereign Israeli territory, could re-ignite a crisis situation between Israel and Egypt.

Possible Scenarios
Basically there are four possible scenarios that could unfold in the coming days/weeks:

1. The events will be the start of a liberal democracy, more or less in line with what occurred in the Wafd era in the 1920s and ‘30s. The chances that this scenario will materialize are almost nil. This would require the Muslim Brotherhood to accept its defeat and participate again in the political process, which will probably not happen. It assumes also that the army will quickly retreat to its barracks. Judging from the timetable of the “road map” presented by the new leadership, this option seems problematic, especially in an atmosphere full of violence.

2. The second scenario for Egypt is a harsh crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis by the military, followed by a bloody civil war. This is already happening. It could mean a return to the days of Nasser when thousands of Muslim Brothers were jailed and their leaders hanged.

3. In a third scenario, events could quickly turn sour. The army could lose the street’s sympathy following widespread abuse of human rights. A forced return to the
barracks could leave Egypt in chaos. Maintaining power could mean more abuse of human rights.

4.    A military takeover – This last scenario could become realistic if the domestic scene does not stabilize. The military might be tempted to declare itself the ultimate ruler, a throwback to the times of the young officers who toppled the monarchy in 1952.

To sum up, Egypt will be facing an immense challenge domestically, which means that most of the leadership’s energy will be focused on dealing with domestic politics. This could create a vacuum of power in Sinai, allowing the jihadists to expand their attacks against both Egyptian and Israeli targets. Hamas might be tempted by a return to arms, but unlike the past, its mentor and sponsor will be absent. Facing those developments, Israel will have to maneuver by allowing Egypt greater freedom of movement in Sinai in order to preserve the peace treaty.
Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.

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Getting Erdoğan Wrong

Svante Cornell

JINSA, July 12, 2013

In the aftermath of Turkey’s urban uprisings, many have expressed bewilderment at Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s outlandish reaction. Whereas the Prime Minister had multiple opportunities to prevent the demonstrations from escalating, he never missed an opportunity to miss those opportunities, lashing out at foreign and domestic enemies for planning a protest movement that was so obviously spontaneous. As Erdoğan and his mouthpieces have blamed everyone from foreign media and airlines to the “interest rate lobby” and “Jewish diaspora,” Erdoğan is rapidly becoming a liability to his foreign friends. President Barack Obama is sure to regret having mentioned Erdoğan as one of the five foreign leaders with which he has the closest “friendship and bonds of trust”. Indeed, Erdoğan’s Turkey has taken on an important role in Obama’s policy toward the Middle East, and according to numerous sources, Erdoğan is among the foreign leaders Obama speaks with most frequently. But Erdoğan’s authoritarianism is not new. Anyone watching Turkey for the past several years has had plenty of opportunity to see Erdoğan’s slide. Did the White House not know or not care? And what should American policy toward Turkey be now?

Crises are excellent tests of human character, and the reaction to the urban uprisings have displayed a number of facets of Erdoğan and his closest associates. First, his disdain for dissent: he shocked many by calling the protestors hooligans, and by threatening businessmen and other public figures that sided with the demonstrators. Second, his reliance upon repression: the excessive use of police force, tear gas and rubber bullets against protestors was not coincidental; it was intentional, and there can be no doubt that it was sanctioned by Erdoğan personally. Third, his peculiar, majoritarian understanding of democracy: during the demonstrations Erdoğan repeatedly underscored their illegitimate nature by emphasizing that he received 50 percent of the vote in the last parliamentary elections. Tellingly, the mass meetings he convened in response were dubbed “respect the national will.” The implication is clear: if you are the other 50 percent, you have no say.

Fourth, perhaps most remarkably, Erdoğan showed the extremely conspiratorial mindset that permeates his government. This is worth dwelling on. From very early in the crisis, Erdoğan argued that the protests were not spontaneous at all, but long planned and intended to stop Turkey’s roaring success. In the days and weeks that followed, Erdoğan and his associates rolled out a long list of conspirators. Some, like Lufthansa, were quite unlikely candidates. But a deputy minister told this author, with a very straight face, that the planned mega-airport in Istanbul would be so large that it would rob Frankfurt of its leading position as a European hub, hence the German airline’s supposed wish to generate chaos in Turkey.

Sadly, some culprits were entirely predictable. When Erdoğan first mentioned the “interest rate lobby” and “foreign media” as culprits having planned the protests, the implication was not clear to everyone. But by June 15, the main AKP mouthpiece, Yeni Şafak, dispensed with the pretenses: on its cover page, it blamed a Jewish cabal for having planned the demonstrations. The paper claimed that a host of American neo-cons – most of whom are Jewish – had attended a February 2013 seminar at the American Enterprise Institute aimed at turning Taksim into Tahrir square. Not staying at that, the paper claimed that the entire exercise – and AEI itself – were funded by the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and that Jewish businessmen had taken out ads in the New York Times to support the protests. As for the concept of an “interest rate lobby,” it is shorthand for a mysterious cabal supposedly led by Jewish financiers, as pro-AKP newspapers reported already in 2012. Erdoğan himself only hinted at this, mentioning that it included “those we said ‘one minute’ to”, referring to his public spat with Israeli president Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in 2009. His Deputy Prime Minister, Besir Atalay, was more direct: on July 2, he told reporters the “Jewish Diaspora” was behind the events. Erdoğan’s references to the “foreign media” complete the picture: during the 2009 Gaza war as well as during his 2011 election campaign, Erdoğan darkly referred to “Jewish-controlled” world media.

Thus, while establishment opinion in Washington advanced Erdoğan as a democrat, and suggested his brand of “moderate Islam” be advanced as a model for the Arab upheavals, Erdoğan and his closest circles were openly displaying a worldview increasingly reminiscent of the radical Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood, in which the Jews are the source of all their problems. Similarly, his penchant for repression was obvious long before Taksim. His government has spent the past five years jailing hundreds of political opponents on largely trumped-up charges. And while he is currently seeking a negotiated end to the Kurdish conflict, his government has also jailed thousands of Kurdish activists and politicians in the past three years. In fact, Turkey is known to jail more journalists than any other country.

During his tenure, Turkey – never a bastion of media freedom – has seen a decline of freedom of expression. Erdoğan has made it a practice of suing critical journalists for libel, and of exposing them publicly, often leading to their firing by nervous editors. In parallel, the government has taken over some media groups and broken up others, ensuring their sale to loyal business groups. As a result, Turkey has fallen like a rock on Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index, from 102nd place in 2008 to 154th in 2013 – six spots behind Vladimir Putin’s Russia. And most blatantly, for the past three years, Erdoğan’s main focus has been on changing Turkey’s constitution, to introduce a presidential system of government reminiscent of Vladimir Putin’s, in which Erdoğan himself would serve as president until the hundredth anniversary of the Turkish republic in 2023.

Importantly, this authoritarian slide is very much about Erdoğan personally: in the process, he has alienated important parts of the Islamic conservative movement, who have distanced themselves from his policies. Where Erdoğan seeks to concentrate power and speaks of Turkey’s “shared values” with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, both President Abdullah Gül and the influential community led by Pennsylvania-based preacher Fethullah Gülen are now rhetorically, at least, committed to further democratic reform and the European Union, and oppose Erdoğan’s presidential ambitions. Several cabinet ministers and a good chunk of the AKP parliamentary group feel the same way.

All of this raises a first question: has the Obama White House been concerned about Turkey’s course, and if so, has it utilized its close relationship with Erdoğan to state its concerns? Before answering that question, we must contend with the widespread notion that America has little influence on Turkey’s domestic development. Turkey is a rising power, the argument goes, and America’s influence is retreating; in sum, America needs Turkey more than Turkey needs the United States. Yet this notion is mistaken. In fact, Erdoğan and the AKP are acutely aware of how critical American support has been for their position in power. Certainly under the Bush administration, American support for the AKP, and strong opposition to a military intervention, was an important factor in permitting Erdoğan to neutralize the military and secular establishment as a threat to his position. Indeed, this is best illustrated by the anger felt by Turkey’s Kemalists against the United States, which they accuse of supporting the stealth Islamization of the country.

This perception is intensified by the conspiratorial mindset prevalent in Turkey. Most Turkish leaders, whether Islamic or secular, sincerely believe that America is capable of creating unrest in most countries of the world at the push of a button in CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Every statement coming out of Washington is scrutinized for clues to American intentions, and the Turkish government is keenly aware that it cannot afford alienating the United States. Consider the turn of U.S.-Turkish relations in 2010. The Gaza Flotilla and Ankara’s increasingly pro-Iranian policies on the nuclear issue combined during the spring of that year to cause a crisis in Turkey’s relations with the United States. Erdoğan and his Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, realized they had gone too far, particularly after President Obama told Erdoğan at the G20 summit in Toronto that he did not appreciate Turkey’s approach to the Iranian issue – the only known dispute between the two men. Within months, Ankara had backtracked, and moreover agreed to the deployment of U.S. missile defense installations on Turkish territory, putting the relationship back on track. Similarly, when Obama urged Erdoğan to accept Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s apology for the Turkish deaths in the Gaza flotilla in May 2013, Erdoğan obliged. All this suggests that the United States – and the Obama administration in particular – have immense clout in Turkey, the question being merely whether they are ready to use it.

From what is in the public domain, it is clear that the State Department was under no illusions about Turkey’s domestic trajectory. Documents released by wikileaks shows that from 2003 onward, U.S. diplomats in Turkey were reporting in detail about the worrisome developments in Turkey. This included allegations of high-level corruption, the increasingly isolated nature of Erdoğan’s leadership, and the increasingly Islamist character of his government. Yet in public, the Obama administration has been largely silent. The administration has occasionally reacted to Turkey’s rhetoric on Israel, most recently when John Kerry called Erdoğan’s comments equating Zionism with a crime against humanity “objectionable.” But officially the administration has been careful not to interfere in Turkish domestic affairs.

That is understandable, given Erdoğan’s notoriously thin-skinned nature, which he displayed on several occasions in 2011 and 2013, hitting back publicly at U.S. Ambassador Francis Ricciardone’s mild criticism of Turkey’s human rights record. Nevertheless, given the personal relationship between Obama and Erdoğan, the U.S. President is in a unique position to have a positive influence on the Turkish leader. Yet in the public domain, there is no inkling of Obama having raised issues relating to Turkey’s domestic record in a meaningful way before the Taksim protests, which forced the Administration to urge restraint, while refraining from condemning the violence against demonstrators. The question is whether this policy of non-interference has reached the end of the road. If America wants a stable, democratic Turkey as a key ally in the Middle East, can it afford not to seek to rein Erdoğan in?

Taking a step back, the wisdom of pointing at Turkey as a “model” or inspiration for the Arab upheaval becomes worrisome. For if the Obama administration and western commentators saw in Turkey the compatibility of Islamism with democracy, it is likely that Islamists across the Middle East saw something else: an example of how to achieve and consolidate power through elections.

Indeed, under both the Bush and Obama administrations, there has been a tendency since 9/11 to look for “moderate Muslims” with a searchlight, extending the benefit of the doubt to any Islamist political force that rejected violence and pledged allegiance to the democratic system. The AKP was the poster child, but the logic extended to more radical forces as well, including Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Yet the concept of “trust but verify” appears to have been absent. Indeed, American officials were eager to believe the AKP when, from its creation in 2001, it claimed to have reformed itself, repudiated Islamism, and become a conservative party comparable to the Christian Democratic parties of Europe.

Given the speed and top-down nature of that transformation, it would have made sense to support the AKP’s leadership in its stated ambitions, but to monitor its performance accordingly. And whereas the AKP appeared to stick to its moderation during most of its first term in office, authoritarian and Islamist inclinations very clearly appeared to make a comeback around 2008. Yet neither American nor European supporters of Turkey appeared to be monitoring this development or stating their concern when Erdoğan’s authoritarian tendencies were becoming apparent. Instead, western leaders seemed eager to dismiss such criticism and stick to their support of Erdoğan’s democratic credentials.

Yet America’s stance on Turkey is important in a broader regional perspective. For if Turkey is a “model”, then America’s stance on Turkey is, too. And Erdoğan’s record is suggestive of the Islamist understanding of democracy: he has made clear on numerous occasions that he represents the silent, conservative Sunni Muslim majority of Turkey. Since he represents the majority, he has the legitimacy to pass any law he considers appropriate, and to interfere in any matter he considers relevant. Minorities, in turn, should adapt to the demands of the majority. This approach is not only Erdoğan’s; indeed, it was adopted wholesale by Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi, who interpreted his 51 percent of the vote as a license to run Egypt as the Brotherhood’s fiefdom. Both Erdoğan and Morsi showed a majoritarian and purely technical understanding of democracy: not as a system of values including the rule of law and the protection of minorities, but simply as the rule of the majority.

Where to go from here? Several recommendations are in order. First, the stance taken by the U.S. matters considerably. Erdoğan has been legitimized and elevated by the friendship Obama has bestowed on him. From this point onward, the way Washington treats Erdoğan will be keenly observed by all forces in Turkey, and will be a factor determining Erdoğan’s future. The most obvious question is whether Erdoğan continues to deserve the level of attention and amity he has enjoyed so far. In fact, Erdoğan is increasingly a divisive force that is no longer driving Turkey in a positive direction. Instead, his naked ambition for unlimited power is becoming a danger for the country’s stability and development.

While Islamic conservatism is the new dominant political force in Turkey, it is not monolithic. As mentioned, both President Gül and the influential Gülen movement have positioned themselves in opposition to Erdoğan. Simply put, Erdoğan is not the only game in town. In this situation, America’s continued focus on working more or less solely through Erdoğan is both myopic and counter-productive. At a point in which the Prime Minister is alienating core elements of his own Islamic conservative base, and yielding the center, the time has come to de-couple American policy on Turkey from the personality of the Prime Minister. Simply put, the United States no longer needs to focus its attention on Erdoğan. He is Turkey’s Prime Minister, and it would be ridiculous to seek to circumvent him; but the relationship must be focused on institutions and values, not on personalities.

It is time for the United States to indicate, by its actions and statements, that it is supportive of the forces in Turkey that are committed to democratic reform and western values. This means paying less attention to Erdoğan and his close circle; and to call them out on their increasingly objectionable policies and rhetoric, whether it be the repression of demonstrators or anti-Semitic conspiracies. And conversely, it means supporting and empowering those political forces, whether within or outside the Islamic conservative movement, that are committed to a pluralistic and democratic Turkey, rather than the rule of the majority. And while trusting these forces, remember to verify.

Svante Cornell is a director and co-founder of the Stockholm-based Institute for Security and Development Policy, and Research Director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program (CACI), a Joint Center affiliated with the ISDP and Johns Hopkins University-School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

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Hamas’ impossible casualty figures

Mar 28, 2024 | Update
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After the Israel-Hamas ceasefire for hostages deal

Nov 29, 2023 | Update
Screenshot of Hamas bodycam footage as terrorists approach an Israeli vehicle during the terror organisation's October 7, 2023 attack in southern Israel, released by the IDF and GPO (Screenshot)

Horror on Video / International Law and the Hamas War

Oct 31, 2023 | Update
Sderot, Israel. 7th Oct, 2023. Bodies of dead Israelis lie on the ground following the attacks of Hamas (Image: Ilia Yefimovich/dpa/Alamy Live News)

Israel’s Sept. 11, only worse

Oct 11, 2023 | Update
Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu (r) gets his long-awaited face-to-face meeting with US President Joe Biden in New York (Photo: Avi Ohayon, Israeli Government Press Office)

Netanyahu meets Biden, other world leaders, in New York

Sep 27, 2023 | Update
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who gave an address on Aug. 28 threatening the US and laying out the Iranian-led axis's new "unity of the arenas" doctrine. (Photo: Shutterstock, mohammad kassir)

US-Iran prisoner swap deal set to go through

Sep 12, 2023 | Update



IDF spokesperson, reserve Lt. Col. Peter Lerner in conversation with AIJAC’s Joel Burnie

View of the ICJ courtroom at The Hague (Image: UN Photo/ICJ-CIJ/Frank van Beek)

AIJAC deplores ICJ Advisory Opinion

Screenshot 2024 07 19 At 1.21.58 PM

Defying expectations: Silent settlement freeze and outpost demolitions

The “encampment” at the University of Sydney (Image: X/Twitter)

A university is for a multiplicity of ideas

UN Special Rapporteur on the Occupied Palestinian Territories Francesca Albanese (Image: Shutterstock)

Israel’s hardest war is fighting the lies waged against it


IDF spokesperson, reserve Lt. Col. Peter Lerner in conversation with AIJAC’s Joel Burnie

View of the ICJ courtroom at The Hague (Image: UN Photo/ICJ-CIJ/Frank van Beek)

AIJAC deplores ICJ Advisory Opinion

Screenshot 2024 07 19 At 1.21.58 PM

Defying expectations: Silent settlement freeze and outpost demolitions

The “encampment” at the University of Sydney (Image: X/Twitter)

A university is for a multiplicity of ideas

UN Special Rapporteur on the Occupied Palestinian Territories Francesca Albanese (Image: Shutterstock)

Israel’s hardest war is fighting the lies waged against it