Déjà Vu and Paranoia in the Deep State

How long can Turkey's democratically elected leader rule by tyranny-of-the-majority?

At a moment when the revolutionary convulsions of the Middle East are dissolving into chaos and renewed authoritarianism, the one stable democracy in the region -- Turkey -- is twisting its bed sheets in a nightmare of corruption, conspiracy, and state repression. Only a few years ago, Turkey preened as the model for a new age of Middle Eastern enlightenment; now democratic rule seems endangered there, as it is throughout the region.

The events that have consumed Turkish political life began Dec. 17, when police in Istanbul arrested 18 people on corruption charges in a dawn raid. Among those detained were construction magnates who supported the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the sons of three of Erdogan's ministers. Rumor had it that Recep's son, Bilal, would be next. Erdogan responded by firing some of his ministers and shuffling others -- and by getting rid of hundreds of police officers and prosecutors who were responsible for the probe. Additional fraud investigations led to new arrests; those prosecutors were, in turn, dismissed. Erdogan is now seeking to gain control over the judiciary in a brazen violation of Turkey's separation of powers.

The drama has unfolded as a kind of shadow play. Turks are extraordinarily attuned to the supposed machinations of a "deep state." In years past, this expression referred to military and intelligence figures who were said to pull secret strings, and who had overthrown civilian governments on three separate occasions. Over the years, Erdogan has sapped, confronted, and ultimately smashed the power of the military. Now a new cabal is said to be pulling the levers of power: followers of Fethullah Gulen, a moderate Islamist leader based in the United States who has had a falling-out with Erdogan and whose followers in the police and the judiciary are said to be wreaking their revenge. A column by a scholar at a pro-regime think tank bore the headline, "Turkey's Parallel State Strikes Back," and called for the "Gulen Movement" to be dismantled.   

When I was reporting in Ankara and Istanbul a few years ago, I heard as much about the Gulenists, who were said to be here, there, and everywhere, as I did about the deep state. And as with the military, the shadows reflect very real substance. Gulen's followers, many of them successful professionals, control major media properties and occupy prominent slots in public service. They can be roughly compared to Freemasons, whose habits of secrecy, and whose self-evident success, make them fertile sources of paranoia (or once did). Turkey is now having its anti-Gulenist moment, as the United States once had its fervent, if short-lived, anti-masonry movement.

As journalistic shorthand, the story of Islamist versus Islamist is both entertaining and plausible. Erdogan really had split with Gulen, whose growing power he may have feared. In November, the prime minister had signed legislation which would have forced the closing of almost all of the 3,100 prep schools Gulen operates in Turkey. The raids came the following month. Many Turks, encouraged by the regime, connected the dots. The problem with this neo-deep-state explanation is that the investigations had begun months earlier, and in any case the allegations of political corruption seem all too well-founded. Turkish politics runs on black money, especially from the construction industry. What's more, Yavuz Baydar, a columnist for the English-language Today's Zaman, says that while Gulenists dominate the upper ranks of the police, they do not control the judiciary. (The Zaman Group, which owns the newspaper, is itself Gulenist, though the English-language paper is generally considered independent.)

Even if the Gulenists are getting their revenge, they are only turning on Erdogan a tool he has been quite effective in wielding in the past. The final nail in the coffin of Turkish military power came in the form of spectacular investigations and trials of the most senior military officers, starting in 2007, for allegedly conspiring to overthrow the state. The so-called Ergenekon trials depended on the "heavy use of fabricated evidence," as Sinan Ulgen, a former diplomat and scholar now at the Carnegie Endowment in Brussels, puts it. At the time, said Ulgen, the AKP not only remained silent, but "attacked people who were criticizing the legal process and categorized them as putschists." Now, the party has retrospectively turned on the prosecutors: Erdogan's chief of staff wrote in a recent column that the military had been the victim of the same "plot" which was now engulfing the AKP. Gulenist justice, in short, was just fine so long as the victims were the regime's rivals.  

Among the prosecutors that Erdogan has summarily fired is Zekeriya Oz, the deputy prosecutor of Istanbul -- famed as the chief man behind Ergenekon. Stories of Oz's own alleged corruption have begun to circulate in the media. Yet graver than the mass firings and reassignments, whose number is said to have reached 2,000, is Erdogan's attempt to subordinate the judiciary by re-writing the laws governing the Supreme Council of Judges and Prosecutors, a body which the government had reformed only three years ago in order to comply with European Union standards. Erdogan wants the body to report to the justice minister, and thus to the government. The E.U. has admonished the Turkish government not to compromise the independence of the investigations.  

In this fast-moving, opaque, and tangled tale, the ultimate narrative is not Erdogan versus Gulen or even cops versus robbers; it's the government against democracy. After 11 years in office, Erdogan has become utterly intolerant of independent voices or of autonomous institutions. "If you don't like him," as Hakan Altinay, a Brookings scholar in Istanbul, puts it, "you must be a traitor, an Alawite, or a 'White Turk'" (a secularist). Turks have lived with this constricting reality for several years now; the rest of the world learned of it last summer when Erdogan sought to crush peaceful protests in Istanbul's Gezi Park, and accused his critics of harboring various bizarre foreign agendas.

Turkey is no police state, but criticizing the government, Erdogan, or the AKP is becoming more dangerous all the time. Last year, the state jailed 40 journalists, making it the world's leading jailer of the press for the second year in a row. Turkish journalists feel that the vise is steadily closing. After we spoke, Yavuz Baydar sent me the following email: "As we communicate, access to the video portal Vimeo is banned in Turkey. More censor assaults to Internet is to be expected, since it is the only free domain left under the circumstances. This horrible déjà vu never ends."

This is the kind of message one used to get from the Middle East before the Arab Spring. It's a vivid reminder that Turkey's democratic transition is both incomplete and subject to serious reversal. Erdogan rules through the kind of tyranny-of-the-majority which populist leaders use to dominate democratic states with weak checks and balances. That rule, in turn, depends on winning electoral majorities, as he has done. The prime minister was able to depict the vast crowds in Gezi Park as urban elitists. He will continue using this rhetoric unless and until the public deals him an electoral blow.

And that may happen. Erdogan's constitutional tenure as prime minister is ending, and he hopes to be elected president later this year. Before then, on March 30, Turkey is holding nationwide municipal elections, which are widely seen as a referendum on Erdogan's leadership. The AKP controls the government of both Ankara and Istanbul. Until Dec. 17, says Sinan Ulgen, "both races were going to be won easily by the AKP." Now both, and especially Ankara, are seen as open. In short, Turks have a chance to decide how much they care about an independent judiciary, a free press, and autonomous institutions. That is how democracies renew themselves.



Let Your People Go

Egypt's military government will never be legitimate until it stops haphazardly jailing scores of political prisoners.

"Constructing democratic institutions and political infrastructure cannot be done overnight," intones Amr Moussa, head of the drafting committee for Egypt's new constitution. Perhaps. But you know what can be done overnight? Releasing the vast array of political prisoners being held in horrific conditions as part of a concerted effort by Egypt's resurgent security state to criminalize dissent and silence critical voices.

For all of the nationalist and anti-American posturing in its state-backed media, Egypt's military-backed government keenly desires international approval for its new constitution. Nothing of the sort should be granted as long as non-violent political activists like Ahmed Maher and independent journalists like Mohamed Fahmy suffer in prison. Washington, the European Union, and every self-respecting electoral observation NGO should make the release of these political prisoners an absolute condition for bestowing any recognition or legitimacy upon next week's constitutional referendum.

The trial of three leading activists, Mohamed Adel, Ahmed Douma, and Ahmed Maher, was postponed yesterday. So was the show trial of former President Mohamed Morsi. Neither hearing was likely to produce anything resembling justice from the transparently politicized courts anyway, any more than did the trials of Alaa Abdel Fattah and Mona Seif or Maheinour al-Massry and Hassan Mustafa -- or legions of less famous activists. Canadian citizenship hasn't helped the well-respected journalist (and Foreign Policy contributor) Mohamed Fahmy against absurd charges of terrorist conspiracy. And that's not even counting the untold number of members of the criminalized Muslim Brotherhood being held on trumped up terrorism charges -- with their assets frozen, their passports confiscated, their charities closed.

Egypt's security services were able to tap into well-cultivated mistrust of the Muslim Brotherhood at home and abroad to justify its initial crackdown. But the intense animosity between the Brotherhood and many activists shouldn't mask the reality that the campaign against the "terrorist" Muslim Brotherhood and the campaign against other political activists and independent voices are manifestations of the same political project. Both aim at crushing the culture of protest which overthrew former President Hosni Mubarak and restoring the "normality" of a carefully managed authoritarian regime. The arrests and public defamation campaigns aimed at restoring the fear and disengagement which has always been so vital to maintaining authoritarian regimes. The architects of the coup hoped to rebuild that barrier of fear which had been so famously shattered by the January 25 uprising.

But this campaign has taken such an absurdist turn that fear has already turned to mockery. Nobody can really deny that it's funny to see the prosecution of a puppet as a Muslim Brotherhood terrorist agent. Who can respect a government waging war against the number "4"? It's hard not to roll your eyes at the joyfully feverish paranoia of an Egyptian newspaper reporting that Angelina Jolie is plotting on behalf of the Brotherhood or a former Constitutional Court judge raving about America conspiring with them against Egypt. And who can take seriously a constitutional referendum where people are being arrested for posting signs urging a "no" vote?

The hilarity over the investigation of terrorist puppets is a bit unseemly when it distracts attention from the deadly serious conditions under which Ahmed Maher, Mohamed Fahmy, and so many other political prisoners continue to suffer. But exposing Egypt's absurdist repression does matter, at home and abroad. The domestic ridicule could be a leading indicator that Egypt's political fever is breaking, at least in the leading edges of the public sphere. But that alone will be cold comfort to the citizens rotting in prison or defamed in the media. It will not stop the heavy-handed wave of propaganda to come about the Brotherhood's alleged terrorism or the April 6 Movement's "treason"; nor will it undermine widespread public embrace of the new demonology. The regime and its security services have the upper hand for now, and dissenters will continue to struggle on the margins at high personal cost. But the growing ranks of critics disgusted with the excesses of the new regime suggests that the fear barrier will not be so easily restored.

Right now, Egypt's roadmap leads not towards anything resembling democracy or even stability but towards greater repression, escalating insurgency, and continuing political failure. Egypt's current leadership may dream of becoming a something like a big United Arab Emirates, devoid of Muslim Brothers, street protests, or democratic politics. Instead, it is turning Egypt into a new Bahrain: dependent on Saudi Arabia, controlled by unaccountable security services, riven by increasingly irreconcilable polarization, and with political opponents branded as a vast international conspiracy of terrorists. Meanwhile, the military government seems to think that its problems are best met with public relations campaigns rather than genuine political engagement. Can a highly publicized visit by Kim Kardashian ogling the Pyramids be far behind?

Washington cannot do much right now to shape the deep, intense political struggles inside of Egypt, and there is no space whatsoever for it to support traditional democracy promotion programming. But the juxtaposition of the Egyptian government's intense desire for international approval of its constitutional referendum and its imprisonment of manifestly non-terrorist political activists provides an unusual opportunity to exercise a more limited kind of leverage. The United States should make clear that it considers the release of political prisoners and an end to the persecution of political opponents a necessary part of any positive view of Egypt's progress.

It was refreshing to see the Acting Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Uzra Zeya speak out in Cairo last month at the embarrassingly convened Forum for the Future: "We are meeting today to affirm our commitment to empowering civil society, even as there are activists -- including some in Egypt -- who face criminal charges and intimidation for the peaceful exercise of their rights." That, and not Secretary of State John Kerry's baffling endorsement of Egypt's progress towards democracy, is what Cairo now needs to hear.

-/AFP/Getty Images