2013 was not a very good year for Erdoğan
Perhaps the peak of Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan’s power since his Justice and Development Parti (AK Parti) took the government in 2002 was his meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama in the White House on May 16.
The next day, it was all over Turkish media he had met with Obama three times in a day, him and his wife Emine Erdoğan were hosted in the Blair House like a state president and the two leaders had not only a tour-d’horizon on almost all world matters, but also execution oriented exchange of views on acute problems like Syria. After all, he was the leader who convinced Obama to twist the arm of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to apologize to Turkey in March for the killing of nine of its citizens back in 2010 on board the Mavi Marmara ship on its way to break an embargo on Gaza. He was the one to take the risky initiative in pursuit of finding a political settlement for Turkey’s chronic Kurdish problem.
A pro-government columnist Yiğit Bulut would later on write there were only ‘Two-and-a-half leaders” left in world politics. Erdoğan being the first, Russia’s Vladimir Putin the second and Obama was the half, according to Bulut, who was then appointed as Erdoğan’s Chief Advisor on Economic Affairs.
The economy was relatively good, especially when compared to European Union member neighbors like Greece, Greek Cyprus and Bulgaria. For the other neighbors, things seemed to not be so bad in Erdoğan’s eyes. The U.S., France and other Western allies have been warning against al-Qaeda-linked Jihadist elements dominating the Muslim Brotherhood opposition against the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, but Erdoğan was focused on convincing the U.S. and others to militarily intervene in Syria, despite open Russian support. Erdoğan was probably relying on the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) power under Mohamed Morsi in Egypt. His mood to “re-design the whole region” was turning into an “eligible-to-do-everything” kind of look toward domestic politics, too. After all, the military’s enthusiasm to intervene into politics was curbed with a series of court cases and bureaucracy and judiciary were cleansed of secularist elements with the support of the sympathizers of the U.S.-resident moderate Islamist scholar Fethullah Gülen in key official positions.
Perhaps it was that mood which caused Erdoğan to overreact when a group of environment-sensitive NGO’s wanted to protest an ambitious urbanization project by Erdoğan that envisaged replacing Gezi Park in Taksim at the heart of Istanbul, the last remaining green spot in the area, with a shopping mall, only ten days after Erdoğan’s meeting with Obama. When he gave strict orders to the police to crush the protests (despite moderation attempts from President Abdullah Gül), they turned into the most effective wave of protests across the country for nearly three weeks. There was no organized political leadership during the protests. They were, rather, young and some middle-age people from the educated, urban middle class crying aloud to protect their lifestyles and telling government “We are not here to be ignored any longer.”
Gezi changed a lot in the Turkish political atmosphere. Erdoğan managed to consolidate his pious power-base by telling them if they do not want Turkey to be run by seculars once again, they have no chance but to continue supporting him. On the other hand, the educated modernists realized they were not actually isolated individuals and when they raise their voices together, it could be heard all over. Not only the U.S., but also EU leadership criticized Erdoğan strongly due to his stance against protesters (of which, six were killed), quickly eroding his democratic-reformist image that he had been trying to build over the last 10 years.
As a master of changing agenda, Erdoğan looked to the outside; Syria and Egypt in particular. As Erdoğan was planning to go to Gaza in support of Hamas via Egypt, so to by-pass Israel, there was a coup in Egypt on July 3 and Morsi was toppled and the MB power was over. That was also the beginning of the end for the MB dominated opposition in Syria and Erdoğan was furious. He blamed the U.S. and European countries of being indifferent to the coup and thus encouraging it. The White House released a photo of Obama holding a baseball bat, presumably talking to Erdoğan regarding Egypt and Syria at the same time on July 30. His accusations of Israel being behind the coup in Egypt put further distance between Obama and himself. Obama did not respond to Erdoğan’s demand to talk to him on Sept. 5 during the G20 meetings in St. Petersburg and the next day, when Erdoğan took an open position against the government in Cairo, Egypt declared the Turkish Ambassador a “persona non grata,” expelled him and downgraded diplomatic relations with Turkey. Erdoğan’s government, who was once proud of “Zero problems with neighbors” policy, has no ambassadors in Egypt, Syria and Israel, on top of the former ones, such as Greek Cyprus and Armenia.
Taking the opportunity of a diplomatic power vacuum, Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) star started to rise in diplomatic scenes when its leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu and his team paid visits to Brussels (EU), Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo and lately to Washington, D.C.
When Erdoğan returned to the domestic agenda once again in September and announced plans to shut down the private supplementary schools, he faced an unexpectedly strong resistance from the Gülen group, dominating that sector. The tension escalated between the two groups, triggered by a major corruption probe (performed by Gülenist prosecutors and policemen, as Erdoğan claims), which cost Erdoğan to lose four of his cabinet ministers. Two old and close allies are now confronting each other using a language no one could have imagined a few weeks ago. The fight, even if it ends abruptly today, will leave scars and have consequences on Erdoğan and his AK Parti government as the year ends.
Yes, Erdoğan’s peak was perhaps the Oval Office meeting with Obama and after reaching the peak the curve seems to bend down.