The Strong Man at His Weakest

Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has never had more support -- or a bigger challenge to his rule.

ISTANBUL - "Re-cep Tay-yip Er-do-gan! Re-cep Tay-yip Er-do-gan!" chanted supporters of the Turkish prime minister, as a friend and I made our way through the absolutely mammoth crowd that descended on the Kazlicesme area of Istanbul last Sunday to hear their leader speak. As with Erdogan's rally in the capital, Ankara, the day before, the people who turned out here, many of whom were decked out in scarves, T-shirts, and masks supporting the prime minister, vastly outnumbered the Gezi Park protesters who have captured global headlines. Young, old, well-to-do, decidedly modest, religious, and secular all declared their devotion to the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Erdogan. When the prime minister surveyed the 295,000 souls who had come to express their devotion and thundered, "Taksim Square is not Turkey!" it was a vindication of his vision, his economic policies, and the strength of his leadership. Yet the irony was that at Kazlicesme, Erdogan's demonstration of strength revealed his profound weakness and political vulnerability.

Anyone with even a passing interest in Turkey knows something about the Erdogan mystique. He's the tough guy from the Kasimpasa neighborhood -- literally and figuratively down a steep slope from Taksim Square -- who has remade Turkey over the last decade. For the media personalities parachuted into a maelstrom of tear gas, water cannons, and pepper spray, Turkey under Erdogan is best described as an economic and political success story, a "model" of a "Muslim democracy and prosperity" for the Arab world. But Erdogan's reservoir of support is based on a much more tangible set of factors. The fact that he presides over the 17th-largest economy in the world -- it was the 16th in the 1990s -- is less important than the fact that more people are participating in it than ever before. There are still fabulously wealthy and terribly poor people in Turkey, but the overall gap between the two has narrowed. That is no small accomplishment. In other high-growth countries like Brazil, China, and Russia, for example, that gap has grown. 

Consistent with the kind of grassroots work that the AKP's precursor, the Welfare Party, perfected in the 1980s and 1990s, Erdogan -- the guy who used to sell the Turkish version of the bagel, called simit, from a cart on the street -- has focused much of his time in office on improving the lives of ordinary Turks. In places where transportation was thin, health care was basic, and government services were non-existent, the prime minister has paved roads, built airports, established "Erdogan-care," and forced local governments to be responsive to their constituents. As a result, Kasimpasa is not so rough-and-tumble anymore and the people there love him for it.

Economics does not explain everything, however. Erdogan, whose political skills are unrivaled in Turkey, has an innate ability to appeal to his core constituents and, until not too long ago, beyond. His fiery and emotional rhetoric gets most of the attention, but it is framed around a folksy common sense that resonates across the country. When a law restricting the sale of alcohol to certain times and places came under fire from secular elites, many average Turks may have winced at Erdogan's oblique reference to the fact that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and his deputy Ismet Inonu were alcoholics, but they also could not figure out what all the fuss was about. For them, the fact that liquor can be sold around schools and mosques at any time of day to anyone of any age offends a basic sense of right and wrong -- to say nothing of piety. 

Nothing reinforced the wholesome values of Erdogan and his constituency more than the pedestal upon which the policemen were placed at the Kazlicesme rally. At the center of the city, where the black-clad and helmeted riot police were busy expending copious amounts of tear gas against their fellow Turks, the AKP rally was a law-and-order love fest. When police moved about on the streets adjacent to the site, the throngs parted ways and cheered for them. Young officers who had been brought into Istanbul for the event could not help but blush. The cops were relaxed, even chit-chatty. Unlike their colleagues who were engaged in a pitched battle in and around Istiklal Street at about the same time, the biggest problem for the police at the AKP rally was helping two foreigners find an outlet to recharge dying or dead iPhones.

Of course, Erdogan has become the sun around which Turkish politics revolves in part because his formal, parliamentary opposition has nothing to offer Turks. One of the many ironies of the last three weeks has been the indignation of the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) over the prime minister's authoritarian drift. Hardly a paragon of democratic governance itself, the CHP can count on the support of a hard-core base that represents the Kemalist elite. Their commitment to a diverse and democratic Turkey is suspect, at best. The party of Ataturk is a relic of the past and, like the variety of lesser parties who have shown up in Taksim Square to show their colors, they appeal to a narrow slice of the electorate.  

For Erdogan and his supporters, the rallies in Ankara and Istanbul only reinforced the AKP's mastery of the political arena. It was hard not to feel this energy and vibe in the carnival-like atmosphere of Kazlicesme. As one homemade placard declared: "Today is Turkey's Day!" Yet there was a dark underside to Erdogan's demonstration of power. The man holding the sign could have been appealing for Turkish unity, but in the context of the last three weeks, he was advancing the idea that Erdogan has consistently perpetuated -- the notion that the Gezi Park protesters were somehow not good Turks. 

One of the prime minister's great accomplishments -- and a source of his mystique in Europe and the United States during his early years in power -- was his efforts to forge a Turkey that was (all at the same time) more Muslim, more European, and more democratic without losing that fiercely held sense of "Turkishness." For other politicians, the contradictions in this would be too difficult to manage politically, but not for Erdogan. What better agent of change than the physically imposing, wear-his-emotions-on-his-sleeve, confident embodiment of the new Turkish man to bring the country out of its self-imposed insularity. Erdogan held out hope that the debilitating war over Turkish identity that had been at the heart of the country's political drama since the republic's founding might come to an end, and he rode a broad coalition of Turks back to power in 2007, and again in 2011.

The first (and until Gezi Park, the only) political crisis of Erdogan's tenure came in the late spring of 2007, when the prime minister appealed to democracy, a sense of fairness, and widely shared sentiments about a new Turkey -- giving him a victory over the military, which had sought to block Abdullah Gul from becoming president. There were many Turks who were deeply worried that having a president from Turkey's Islamist party would alter the country irrevocably, but Erdogan appealed to the Turks' collective better angels. This was the Turkish leader at his zenith.

Almost exactly six years later, Erdogan has done the exact opposite, summoning the worst instincts of Turkish political culture and sharpening its divide. This strategy -- identifying your opponents as extremists, "marginals," and/or foreign agents -- is the hallmark of leaders who have lost the ability to reach the kind of broad constituencies that assure political success. Slashing and burning as Erdogan has been doing shores up the base and suggests that he is still very much in command, but at a significant price. The destruction of the squatter camp in Gezi Park last Saturday night was an awesome show of force, but not of political power. A secure leader would have let the park become a smelly mess until the hippie-dippies who took it over drifted away. Yet for Erdogan, every day that the protesters were out in the streets was a festering reminder that not all Turks were buying what he and his party were selling, which held out the prospect that more and more people might join the demonstrators. Not necessarily in Gezi Park, but nevertheless join them politically.

Erdogan may not be in danger of losing an election, but he has sharpened the divides to such an extent that there are now two Turkeys -- one that thinks he is evil and another that thinks he is benevolent. And in order to keep the large numbers in the former camp in line, he will have to resort to authoritarian measures. Erdogan has already done an effective job intimidating the traditional Turkish media, but at great cost to journalists who have been openly mocked throughout the Gezi crisis. Now he has set his sights on social media. Early on, Erdogan referred to Twitter as a "menace" or a "curse." Now his justice and interior ministers are teaming up to write regulations that would outlaw what the government considers provocative tweets. If there was ever an indication of a leader's weakness, it is to try and roll back the freedom of expression that people have found online. Comparisons to Tahrir Square are met with visceral denunciations among AKP supporters and Egyptians who jealously guard their uprising, but Erdogan's effort to control Twitter is reminiscent of Hosni Mubarak's own failed campaign against bloggers, Facebook, and SMS text messaging.

Erdogan has also engaged in the crude and absurd in an increasingly panicked effort to roll back open dissent. Turkish police rounded up about 100 activists in Istanbul, Ankara, and Eskisehir for instigating protests. The public prosecutor declared the possession of swim goggles -- an innocent tool for protecting eyes from tear gas canisters and the toxic brew that comes out of police water cannons -- to be an offense tantamount to terrorism. On Tuesday evening, the Interior Ministry announced that the original "Standing Man," the performance artist Erdem Gunduz, might be charged with "resisting police without resistance." When one adds to all this the increasingly unhinged pronouncements of government ministers about foreign plots, the American Enterprise Institute, "interest rate lobbies," Jews, and the foreign media, a more complex picture of Turkish politics emerges in which leaders are in fear of losing command.

The fact that Erdogan is actually weak may come as a surprise to those who have felt his wrath, or be dismissed as wishful thinking among those who revere him. In the intensity of the past three weeks, it has not dawned on Turks why a leader who is allegedly so strong needs to call rallies of the party faithful -- more are planned for the coming week in Kayseri, Erzurum, and Samsun -- to prove that he is strong.

Turkey is at an interesting and high-stakes moment, but political activists seem to be waiting on the sideline for something to happen. Erdogan has, in an unintended way, given them a narrative with which to challenge him politically -- something along the lines of "no to authoritarianism, yes to democracy." But if they want to change the trajectory of Turkish politics, they should make haste, because the strong man is at his weakest now.

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images


The Struggle for Power in Saudi Arabia

As the gerontocratic rulers of the House of Saud plot to appoint successors, the inside fight to lead the kingdom is heating up.

RIYADH — With the reign of King Abdullah in its twilight, Saudi Arabia has become consumed with speculation about the future of the ruling al-Saud brotherhood as it contends with an increasingly bloody Syrian civil war, a nuclear challenge from Iran, and doubts about U.S. steadfastness in the Middle East.

Abdullah, who has been the dominant figure in Saudi politics since 1995, is in very frail health. The king, who is roughly 90 years old, has made no public appearances for almost four months, and left at the end of May for vacation in Morocco. He only cut his holiday short this past weekend, returning to Riyadh to attend to the fallout from the increasingly bloody civil war in Syria.

Despite his age and frailty, Abdullah has been busy preparing the House of Saud for his departure from the political scene. He has appointed younger princes to key ministries and as governors to the most important provinces, made one half-brother a contender for the throne, sacked another, and weeded out the weakest aspirants among the younger al-Saud princes. Such a sweeping shakeup of the staid ruling family has even included moves to make his own son a prime contender for the throne.

The leadership turnover couldn't come at a more critical time for the kingdom. Saudi leaders have been deeply anxious about the waning of American leadership in the Middle East -- including the U.S. commitment to the kingdom's protection -- just as their confrontation with Iran is coming to a head. This Saudi-Iranian cold war is most evident in Syria, where Tehran strongly supports Bashar al-Assad's besieged regime and Riyadh is supporting the armed rebellion seeking to overthrow it.

Meanwhile, King Abdullah's remaining energies have been focused on remaking the House of Saud's own leadership. The upheaval continued right up to his departure for Morocco: On May 27, Abdullah decreed that the Saudi Royal National Guard, a powerful military force that he commanded for decades, was to become a full-fledged ministry -- and that his son, Miteb, 61, would be the new minister. These moves give Miteb more political clout to compete with other rivals for the throne from the younger generation of al-Sauds.

The whirlwind of new appointments has left Saudi citizens and veteran watchers of the House of Saud grasping for meaning in the king's zigzag maneuverings. It has also raised concerns about a destabilizing power struggle among the younger princes, and questions whether the process of king-making is about to change dramatically. But so far, the smart money is betting that he's preparing to hand the throne to one of his half-brothers, delaying the transfer of power to the "younger" generation as long as possible.

If that holds true, it isn't going to please President Barack Obama's administration, which has been pressing for younger blood to rule the kingdom and accelerate reforms. It rolled out the red carpet for the newly minted Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, 53, for his four-day visit to Washington in January, setting up separate meetings with Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, national security advisor Tom Donilon, and other high-ranking U.S. officials. This was taken among Saudis as a signal that Washington favored Mohammed as the next king.

Washington has good reason to look fondly on Mohammed: The prince is not only from the younger generation, but he was the architect of the highly successful Saudi campaign in the mid-2000s to crush al Qaeda inside the kingdom. He also became a family hero after an audacious terrorist attack against him inside his own palace in August 2009, in which a suicide bomber gained a meeting with the prince (after promising to surrender) and then detonated himself. Mohammed escaped miraculously with only slight injuries.

But Prince Mohammed isn't seen as the likeliest candidate to become the next crown prince. Both Abdullah and Crown Prince Salman, 77, seem ambivalent about whether the time is ripe to pass power from their generation to the next. The brotherhood of senior princes has stuck together with impressive cohesion on the right of one brother to follow another to the throne. Over the past 81 years, the crown has passed five times in this fashion. Now, however, only two of the sons of the kingdom's founder, Abdulaziz bin Saud, still appear viable.

If that trend holds -- which it has for 81 years -- the Saudi "chattering class" gives a better-than-even chance that Prince Ahmed, the youngest of the powerful "Sudairi Seven" brothers at 71 years old, will emerge the winner. That would represent a remarkable turnaround for Ahmed: The king fired him as interior minister last November, after appointing him only five months earlier. However, Ahmed still retains much support within the fractious al-Saud family, according to Saudis in both royal and diplomatic circles.

Ahmed's abrupt firing as interior minister stemmed from a dispute with the king over a plan to split off the ministry's 500,000-man security force into a separate body. In an unheard-of display of disapproval of the king, several hundred of Ahmed's supporters turned out at the airport to greet the prince upon his return to Riyadh after his dismissal. Among his supporters are some human rights activists and the liberal wing of the royal family, led by Prince Talal.

Veteran Saudi watchers of the royal family believe that decision could come down to who lives longer -- King Abdullah, who has outlived two crown princes already, or the current heir, Salman. Rumors that the crown prince suffers from Alzheimer's are untrue, but there is no doubt that Salman has been slowed down considerably by age -- he is "certainly no longer the Salman of yesterday," in the words of one Saudi who recently saw him, a judgment in which U.,S. officials concur. But if Salman does outlive Abdullah to become king, the thinking is that he will favor Ahmed because they are full brothers from the same tightly-knit Sudairi clan.

Should Abdullah miraculously outlive the far younger Salman, he has put his half-brother Muqrin in line to move up the power chain to become the next crown prince. Saudis say Muqrin is clearly campaigning for the job through constant public appearances, designed to keep himself in the limelight. Miteb has also been keeping a high profile, but most Saudi watchers doubt the king is ready to upset the whole al-Saud family by naming him heir apparent -- a move that would constitute an unprecedented kingly power play.

Abdullah's sweeping shakeup of the House of Saud's leadership hasn't been kind to the Sudairi clan. One of the king's first moves was at the Ministry of Defense and Civil Aviation, which had been the personal fiefdom of Prince Sultan, another of the Sudairi brothers, for 48 years. While minister, Sultan allegedly parlayed his grip over tens of billions of dollars in defense spending into a family fortune. He had also positioned his son, Prince Khalid, 63, to take over the ministry, and compete for the crown, by making him assistant defense minister. Khalid's fame stems from his role as co-commander of the U.S.-led coalition force that drove occupying Iraqi forces out Kuwait in 1991. Khalid's fortunes seemed on the rise after King Abdullah sacked his own half-brother, Prince Abdul Rahman, who had been deputy defense minister for 33 years, upon Sultan's death in October 2011. In his place, the king named Khalid, seemingly making him a prime contender to the throne.

But the king, in retrospect, clearly had other ideas. He also put another half-brother, Prince Salman, in charge of the Defense Ministry shortly before naming him crown prince last June, and authorized him to dismantle the Sultan family empire there. Salman did this partly by detaching the civil aviation portfolio from the Defense Ministry and stripping Khalid of any role in lucrative military procurement contracts.

In another of his bold, unexpected strokes, King Abdullah sacked Khalid in April and replaced him with the little-known former head of the Royal Saudi Navy. This leaves the once powerful Sultan branch of the al-Saud family with just one top post, the General Directorate of Intelligence. Since last July, this has been in the hands of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the long-serving Saudi ambassador to Washington who had been the king's national security advisor.

Choosing the next king of Saudi Arabia still remains a deeply personalized decision, made by the royals at the very upper echelons of the House of Saud. This tradition had seemed set to change dramatically after King Abdullah established in 2007 an Allegiance Council, made up of Abdulaziz's sons and grandsons, and gave the 35-member body the power to approve or reject the king's choice as heir apparent.

So far, however, the Allegiance Council has remained moribund, and the king has appointed two crown princes of his own choosing. One council member, the liberal Prince Talal, resigned in disgust after Abdullah failed to consult the body when he chose the conservative Prince Nayef as his successor in October 2011. When Nayef died last June, the king immediately appointed Prince Salman as crown prince, again without any known consultation with the council.

It is a time of change for the risk-averse royals in Riyadh. In addition to the eventual handover of power to the next generation of Saudi princes and the struggle for Syria, the princes doubt whether Washington is still committed to the longstanding U.S.-Saudi security relationship. King Abdullah's moves in the next months and years will determine who leads Saudi Arabia -- and what sort of Middle East the kingdom must contend with -- for decades to come.