Tayyip Erdoğan, World’s Newest Billionaire

February 25, 2014 § 13 Comments

Let me stipulate from the beginning that I have no idea whether the allegations are true that Tayyip Erdoğan conspired with his son Bilal to hide one billion dollars once Turkey’s graft probe was opened in December. Recordings of the two Erdoğans having four separate phone conversations about this topic are on Youtube [ed. note: the billion dollar figure is listed in the introduction to the Youtube clip and has been widely reported, but the taped conversation itself shows the Erdoğans talking about hiding tens of millions and not billions], and for those of you  – like me – whose Turkish is not nearly good enough to translate a bunch of garbled conversations in their entirety, a translated transcript can be found here. Erdoğan has not yet denied that the voices on the recordings are his and Bilal’s, but instead has dismissed the taped conversations as having been “montaged,” by which I assume he means that different recordings were spliced together to misrepresent what he said. Sabah and Yeni Şafak are both claiming that the recordings were doctored and that they have their own recordings of the people who edited the Erdoğan phone call. It wouldn’t surprise me if Erdoğan was hiding huge sums of money, and it also wouldn’t surprise me if he is being framed to look much worse than he actually is (although the latter would surprise me more than the former). Neither side here is particularly laudatory or above dirty tricks, and it’s a shame that this is Turkey’s new reality; a corrupt and paranoid government in a death match against a shadowy and corrupt powerful social group.

Of everything that has come out of Turkey in the past two months, this is the most explosive and has actual potential to bring down Erdoğan and the government, since these are charges that are going to be less easy to just dismiss. Assuming for the moment that there is some element of truth to the news and that Erdoğan is sitting on a pile of money that he is trying to hide, three quick takeaways come to mind.

First, one has to begin to question whether the prime minister is capable of thinking clearly. He certainly knew that his phones were tapped, as he expressly warns Bilal on the recording. Furthermore, in December 2012 it came out that Erdoğan’s home office, car, and parliamentary office were bugged, which had Gülenist fingerprints all over it. He knew that he was being listened to and he knew that the Gülenists had dirt on many of his closest allies, and yet he still allegedly called Bilal four times to discuss hiding money on the very day that the heat was the hottest. Leaving all of his other issues aside, is this someone who should be running a country? I have always assumed that the crazier statements that emanate from Erdoğan’s mouth are in the vein of him being crazy like a fox, and that he doesn’t actually believe that higher interest rates will lead to inflation or that there is such thing as an interest rate lobby or that social media is actually the worst menace to society that exists. But maybe he really does believe all of these things, in which case his judgment is fatally flawed and it explains why he would talk about hiding one billion dollars over an unsecured line when he had a very strong hunch that the people who were looking to bring him down were listening in.

Second, and this flows from the first, Erdoğan has reached the point where he is in such a cocoon that he assumes he can just do anything and say anything without real consequences. And really, why wouldn’t he? Throughout Gezi and the corruption scandal up until today, the AKP has not been in any real danger of losing a national election, and Erdoğan himself has been able to dictate what his next moves will be. He says all manner of outrageous things, micromanages municipal building projects, has Turks gassed and beaten in the streets, tries his best to sabotage his own economy by driving away foreign investment, and yet still has a large percentage of his supporters who are willing to believe every explanation and denial, no matter how ridiculous, and to go down with their captain as he sinks the Turkish ship of state. Maybe he isn’t losing his marbles, but just assumes based on recent history that he can do anything he wants and get away with it. He can siphon off a billion dollars and give it out to his family and friends, and talk about how to hide it when he knows his bitter rivals are recording him, and then not even deny that it is him talking on the recordings, and he may still not be dislodged from power. Maybe the joke is on us and not on him. Or maybe it’s not, and he is in such a state of epistemic closure and surrounded by sycophants that he has very badly misjudged the situation, which speaks volumes as well. I don’t know which of these possibilities is the right one, but none of them are good.

Lastly, let’s drop the pretense that Turkey’s political system comes close to anything resembling a consolidated democracy, a mature democracy, or any other phrase the Turkish government wants to use. We are accustomed to seeing dictators steal from public coffers in order to line their own pockets along this order of magnitude, whether it be the Shah’s plane having difficulty taking off from Iran because it was so laden down with gold bars or Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s various seaside palaces or Teodorin Obiang buying mansions, private jets, and yachts. When a prime minister is elected three times in a country that is trying to join the EU and is a NATO member and has been widely hailed as the world’s most successful Muslim-majority democracy, you do not expect to see that prime minister – a man who grew up in a poor neighborhood of Istanbul and has never held a job outside of working in politics and does not come from family money – amassing a billion dollars on the job. As much as this is an indictment of Erdoğan, it is a far bigger indictment of the Turkish system itself, since a functioning democracy with genuinely transparent institutions would never abide such over the top corruption. No democracy is perfect, and certainly the U.S. has plenty of its own issues, but one can never envision something like this taking place under everyone’s nose for over a decade. As bad as I have been saying that things are in Turkey, it’s even worse than I thought, which makes me extremely sad and disheartened for a country that I adore.

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What the Hounding of Emad Shahin Says About Egypt

January 23, 2014 § 1 Comment

A couple of weeks ago, Egyptian political scientist Emad Shahin was charged by the Egyptian government with espionage, forcing him to flee Egypt before he could be arrested. Professor Shahin, who was teaching at the American University of Cairo, is someone I know fairly well, as he was my professor while in grad school for a seminar on comparative politics of the Middle East and a course on political Islam, and supervised my masters thesis on Islamist parties that supported an opening to the West (although we haven’t been in touch in some years). The notion that he is a spy trying to undermine Egypt is, to put it bluntly, quite insane. I echo Nathan Brown’s comment that it is more likely that Joe Biden is a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army than that the charges against Professor Shahin are accurate. The charges in the indictment include espionage, leading an illegal organisation, providing a banned organisation with information and financial support, calling for the suspension of the constitution, preventing state institutions and authorities from performing their functions, harming national unity and social harmony, and causing to change the government by force. This last one is particularly laughable coming from a government that sits where it does because it carried out a military coup.

In all the time I spent with Professor Shahin, I found him to be fair, open-minded, intellectually honest, accepting of criticism, and above all imbued with a deep love and concern for his country. He was someone who recognized very early on that governments in the region would have to engage with political Islam and he tried to suggest ways in which this could happen, but he was not in any way a water carrier for or even supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, an advocate of violence, or tolerant of authoritarianism in any guise. My masters thesis back in 2007 argued that Islamist parties were the ones most likely to be successful in Muslim-majority states and that the U.S. should identify ways of supporting Islamist parties amenable to coexisting with the West, with a focus on the ideological evolution of Ennahda in Tunisia and the AKP in Turkey. The Muslim Brotherhood was not one of the parties I identified as being sympathetic to the West, and Professor Shahin never suggested in any way that it was or argued that it was a moderate body worthy of Western support. Professor Shahin was also modest, reserved, soft spoken, and respectful to everyone with whom I ever saw him interact. In short, it boggles the mind that anyone would possibly think he is a covert Muslim Brotherhood leader seeking to overthrow the current Egyptian government in favor of an Islamist regime.

More broadly though, the nonsensical charges against Professor Shahin point to something I argued months ago, namely that crackdowns by an authoritarian government on one group always lead to the spread of a much wider net designed to ensnare all opposition of any stripe. Professor Shahin has been consistently critical of authoritarianism in Egypt, from the Mubarak regime to the Muslim Brotherhood government under Mohamed Morsi to the current military government. It is no surprise that the government is now trying to portray him as a Muslim Brotherhood stooge, as it has based its legitimacy on eliminating what it has deemed a terrorist threat and so the strategy is to lump anyone it can under that umbrella. But charging Professor Shahin with espionage and charging Amr Hamzawy with insulting the judiciary, both of whom are part of what might be deemed the liberal opposition, is a harbinger of what is to come, which will be a crackdown on non-Islamist critics of the government. When I wrote in Foreign Affairs in August that the Islamists were the first target but wouldn’t be the last and compared the situation in Egypt to that in Tunisia in the late 1980s and early 1990s, where Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali quickly moved against his secular and liberal opponents after he had dispatched Ennahda, some veteran Egypt experts argued that I was wrong and that the response to the Brotherhood was “special” so that liberals would be discredited but not put down. I take no pleasure in the fact that the Shahin affair appears to be vindicating my position, and I’d add that this is unlikely to be an isolated incident. Each situation is unique, but there is a reason that political scientists like to compare things, and if Tunisia continues to serve as a reliable guide – and I think that it will – the critical non-Islamist press, politicians, academics, and intellectuals are going to start finding themselves on the wrong end of these types of bogus charges with an unsettling frequency.

I hope that enough pressure is put on the Egyptian government, both internally and externally, to have the charges against Professor Shahin dropped so that he can return to his country if he so chooses. If he is forced to spend the rest of his time in the U.S., however, it will be American academia’s gain and another unnecessary loss for Egypt.

Egypt’s Tunisian Future

August 28, 2013 § 3 Comments

Watching what is taking place in Egypt as the military goes after the Muslim Brotherhood, I can’t help but note the parallels to Tunisia under Ben Ali’s first few years in power (which, not coincidentally, is one of the case studies in my dissertation). There too, the regime mounted a campaign against Islamists in the name of national security and anti-terrorism following Islamist electoral success, while the secular Tunisian opposition parties supported the government’s efforts on the theory that the regime would eliminate an ideologically threatening political foe and that they would benefit in the end. What happened instead is that once authoritarian methods were deployed against the Islamists, the state quickly decided that it wanted to repress any and all political opposition, no matter the ideological bent, and so the campaign that had initially only targeted Ennahda quickly morphed into a wider effort. I use this episode to argue in Foreign Affairs today that Egyptian secularists and liberals are being myopic in their cheering on the army’s fight against the Brotherhood, since that fight will quickly boomerang back in their own direction. Here is a snippet:

An Islamist political party does well at the polls, and an authoritarian regime goes after it with a vengeance, killing its activists and arresting its leaders. The party is driven underground while secularists and other political groups applaud the government’s harsh measures, all taken in the name of eliminating a terrorist threat. Meanwhile, the regime and the non-Islamist parties assure the world that once the Islamists have been dealt with, the regular political process will resume again.

So it has happened in Egypt, but it is also the story of Tunisia in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when hopes for a democratic transition were smashed after a campaign of repression that first targeted Islamists but eventually grew into a much wider effort to eliminate all political opposition. Tunisia’s experience offers a glimpse of what may be yet to come in Egypt — and suggests that Egyptian secularists should think twice before supporting the army’s efforts to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood.

After replacing President Habib Bourguiba in a bloodless coup in November 1987, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, a military officer, embarked on a program of liberalization and democratization that was at that point unprecedented in the region. His government released all political prisoners and gave them amnesty, revised the laws governing the press and political parties, and got every political bloc — including the Islamist Ennahda Party — to sign a national pact guaranteeing civil liberties and free elections.

Those elections were held on April 2, 1989, and were at the time the most competitive in the country’s history, if not in the entire Arab world. Although the winner-take-all system guaranteed that Ben Ali’s party would carry the day, given its organizational advantages developed over decades of unopposed rule, the president and most observers assumed that the secular opposition parties would emerge as the dominant opposition. Instead, the Islamists received the highest share of the opposition vote, 14.5 percent, a figure that was likely deflated due to fraud.

Just after the election, The New York Times declared [3], “Tunisia is undergoing a transition from a one-man dictatorship to a much more open society with a sleight of hand that could furnish lessons for Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the Soviet leader.” The article went on to quote the head of the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights saying, “I am absolutely certain of Ben Ali’s good will.”

As it turned out, though, the prospect of a strong Islamist opposition, and especially of an Islamist government at some point down the road, was too much for Ben Ali and the Tunisian state to bear. The government launched a brutal crackdown, killing 1,000 Islamists, jailing another 30,000, and forcing into exile the leader of Ennahda, Rachid al-Ghannouchi. The regime justified its actions by claiming that the Islamists were terrorists out to sow discord and tear Tunisia apart. Only because of the national security threat that they presented, Ben Ali argued, were the Islamists being targeted.

To read about how the Tunisia story played out, and the specific lessons for Egypt, please head over to Foreign Affairs for the rest.

The NYT Editorial Board Needs A Political Science Lesson

November 1, 2012 § 1 Comment

The New York Times ran an editorial yesterday entitled “Tunisia’s Challenges” that dealt with the tensions between Tunisia’s Islamist government and the secular opposition, and more broadly attempted to grapple with the role of Islam in a nascent democracy. The gist is that Ennahda has promised to respect liberal values and not impose its own views of morality on the rest of the county, but has also tried to engage Tunisian Salafis, and in so doing has imperiled Tunisian democracy and not shown enough commitment to moderation. In the words of the Times,

Ennahda has also drawn fire for allowing the introduction of constitutional proposals that would enshrine Shariah, or Islamic law, and compromise rights for women. The party eventually backed off those positions and the constitutional draft before the assembly omits Shariah and endorses gender equality. Ennahda leaders may have been maneuvering to draw the Salafis into the process, while maintaining their political support, but it gave the secularists another reason to doubt Ennahda’s commitment to moderation…

The pressure is on Ennahda to deliver a Constitution that protects the rights of all Tunisians under a system of equal justice and to create jobs so educated but unemployed young Tunisians are not drawn to the Salafi movement, which would try to exploit their disillusionment. The pressure is also on the secularists to find ways to work with Ennahda to build a better state. That will require more compromise and commitment to the common good than either side has been willing to show so far.

This all seems like a plausible argument, but it also demonstrates that the Times editorialists have a misinformed and naive view of how democracy works and what brings it about. Let’s start with the glaring contradiction in this editorial, which is that on the one hand the NYT wants Ennahda to speak for all Tunisians but on the other seems to want to cut the Salafists, who last time I checked are Tunisian citizens, out of the process altogether. Tunisian Salafi groups espouse extreme and retrograde positions on all sorts of subjects, including women, secularism, and Jews, to name just a few. The problem is that Ennahda cannot just make the Salafists go away. They are a force to be dealt with, and Ennahda’s determination seems to have been to try and co-opt them in order to reduce their capacity to make mischief. In many ways this has been a bad strategy, and the violence carried out by Salafists on university campuses and against television stations is deplorable and has often been ignored or downplayed by the government. There is no good excuse for this – or, for that matter, Ennahda leader Rachid al-Ghannouchi’s encouragement and advice to Salafists on how to eliminate secularist power – but what the NYT misses is that Tunisia is not a country with decades of liberal tradition. The Salafists are not committed democrats willing to work within the confines of the political system, and so Ennahda has been trying to figure out a way to bring them in with as little chaos as possible. Yeah, the initial constitutional proposals were pretty bad, but like anything else this is a game of back and forth, and the current draft constitution is largely where it should be.

This brings me to the crucial point here, and the one on which the New York Times needs some schooling. Democracy does not just emerge from the mist, and leaders in a newly post-authoritarian state cannot just close their eyes and tap their heels together and create a democratic political system. Democracy has been aptly described as a second-best solution, because it results from a stalemate in which no side has the power to fully impose its will and thus everyone becomes willing to roll the dice and take their chances with democratic politics in order to win something. Essentially, democracy is installed by non-democrats who have no other choice, and over time democratic politics become habituated and the system (hopefully) becomes self-perpetuating. If this does not describe what is going on in Tunisia, then I don’t know what does. Tunisia is not filled with committed democrats, but is instead a combustible mix of parties that would all like to impose their will. The Salafists would like to create a pure Islamic state, Ennahda likely wants something closer to what the Muslim Brotherhood wants in Egypt, and the secularists want Ben Ali’s Tunisia without Ben Ali. Make no mistake though; the secular parties would just as soon impose their vision of society on everyone as the Salafists would if they had the strength to do so. The fact that none of these factions are able to carry out their will unimpeded is what gives me hope that Tunisia will emerge democratic.

This is precisely how democracy comes about, and yet the New York Times seems to think that democracy is not the end result of a difficult and torturous process. Let’s remember that the United States went through slavery and a civil war, so it’s not like we had an easy time of it either. When the Times editorialists talk about the need for more compromise, the maneuvering around the constitution is exactly that. Parties in a newly democratizing state are not going to compromise out of the munificent goodness of their hearts, but out of the need to break the gridlock, and that is what’s going on here. It may seem counterintuitive, but in new democracies the process is more important in some ways than the substance. Tunisia still has a long way to go, and Ennahda has displayed plenty of disturbing behavior to make doubts about a successful democratic transition perfectly legitimate. I don’t in any way mean to give Ennahda a free pass or to minimize the serious concerns everyone should have over the party’s flirtation with extremely illiberal and violent elements within Tunisian society. But in fretting over the haggling surrounding the constitution and sermonizing about commitment to the common good, the New York Times is missing the point about how democracy is born and demonstrating why taking an introductory course to comparative politics might be a useful thing to do.

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