Published in Hurriyet Daily News
Following a trail of setbacks, Islamists in the Arab world have something to celebrate. Their hero, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has won in Turkey’s local elections, a victory Islamists in the Arab world are selling to their followers as their own.
The relationship between Erdoğan and his Arab Islamists is based on mutual exploitation. Erdoğan engineers more domestic popularity for himself by harping on the misfortunes of Islamists. At the same time, Arab Islamists market Erdoğan’s success as proof of the soundness of their ideology, and use his success as a tool to counter misgivings among their junior cadres and supporters.
The essence of this relationship is a mutual feed of victimhood that serves both sides’ interests. Despite the fact that most Arab Islamists acknowledge Erdoğan’s brand of political Islam (which does not promote Sharia) as being different to their own, they have lowered the bar and are willing to accept his “less than perfect ideology.”
Through first-class engineering, the Turkish leader supplies his Arab followers with the much-needed perception that he is the right man for them. He presents his facts, hype, and half-truths wrapped in a parcel that aims to entrench his followers’ belief of victimhood.
There is no doubt about the success of the perception campaign, and plenty of examples testify to it. These include the Rabaa sign (invented in Turkey after the tragic forced end of the Brotherhood sit-ins in Cairo), which Erdoğan has invoked repeatedly.
Then there is the Turkish Twitter hashtag #MısırdaKatliamVar or “massacre in Egypt,” referring to the abhorrent mass death sentences handed down to 529 Muslim Brotherhood affiliates, an event that was followed by protests across Turkey in condemnation of the execution order.
These strategies have worked effectively for Erdoğan, who, ironically, freely uses social media for his own benefit, but harshly criticizes it when it markets ideas contrary to his own. These campaigns are not aimed purely at fighting injustice, Turkish protesters were not reminded about other regional atrocities like the public executions in neighboring Iran.
Such a display of injustice is also used as a perfect shield that protects Brotherhood leaders from taking responsibility for their own failure to govern Egypt or to confront the criticism of them from thinkers such as Tarek Ramadan, who openly criticized the Arab Islamists’ rush to rule.
The current slogan that the Brothers are spreading among their cadres is, “Now is not the time,” and this slogan is being promoted indirectly by Erdoğan’s propaganda campaign.
On the other hand, playing the moral card was, and still is, paramount for Erdoğan. It does not just serve his grand Ottoman vision; raising the Rabaa sign and shedding tears for the innocents helps to reinforce his image as a defender of morality against evil enemies plotting his downfall — an image that worked well in the local election as a tactic to distract voters’ attention from alleged leaks and corruption charges.
Erdoğan chose to celebrate his victory in the local election by carefully picking an exotic metaphor from Ottoman history, “the Ottoman slap.” Arab Islamists fecklessly cheered for his slap, ignoring the fact that open-handed slaps were once used against their ancestors, who fought the Ottoman invaders.
Furthermore, the Islamists are now borrowing the metaphor to market non-existent achievements. In an Arabic statement, the anti-coup alliance in Egypt claimed their “million march” in Cairo was a “slap” against Catherine Ashton’s visit, which they viewed as hostile to them. Ironically, the “million march” numbered only a few thousand.
In contemplating the future of the Erdoğan-Arab Islamists alliance, the crucial question remains: How effective is the alliance, and can it continue risk free?
The dynamics in Turkey have changed subtly following the local election. The Turkish opposition has now picked the moral card, and is willing to use it too. The Turkish Parliament drafted a joint declaration against the Egyptian court’s decision on the mass execution of Brotherhood affiliates, and both the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) parties supported the declaration.
Although this declaration cements Egypt more inside the domestic Turkish arena, it is a direct challenge to Erdoğan’s super-morality narrative. Erdoğan, who was once accused of backing the ruthless al-Assad regime in Syria, cannot apply the same accusation to the Egyptian scenario. The Turkish opposition clearly does not back the coup in Egypt.
However, there are limits to the use of Egyptian injustice for domestic purposes: Its impact on the local crowd will either fade in time or feed into the flame of uncontrollable anger among Turkish youth, an anger that could prompt irrational violent consequences. Although the Egyptian death sentences will not be implemented, as it is a primary verdict in a long legal battle, the Egyptian authorities will be unlikely to tame their oppression of the Islamists just because of Erdoğan’s rhetoric.
The angry, pro-Justice and Development (AKP) Turkish crowds that simulate public executions in city squares may grow increasingly disillusioned with their government’s inability to reverse the perceived injustice in the Arab world, and may decide to resort to a more radical jihadi style to vent their frustration.
On the Arab side, Erdoğan has opted not to share his key recipe for success with his followers. As Sonar Çağaptay wrote, Erdoğan wins not because he sells ideology but because he sells good governance. Islamists in the Arab world needed a governance plan right after the Arab uprisings; however, “patron” Erdoğan did not help them on that crucial front. Even now in Tunisia, where Islamism did not suffer as huge a setback as in Egypt, Erdoğan did not make a substantive effort to help the country’s struggling economy.
Erdoğan, at heart, is a trader – a businessman; he wants followers, not competitors. His policy toward his Arab allies is the ultimate proof. He does not encourage Arab-Islamists to form a new platform that can appeal to the hostile, suspicious public in their native countries. Instead, Erdoğan is hyping their dystopian belief that the masses are behind them, which is simply untrue. The problem for the Brotherhood in Egypt is not just a bloody bunch of coup generals; it is far deeper and more complex – an inconvenient fact that is deliberately being ignored in the bazaar of shining perception.
Both Erdoğan and his Arab-Islamists have to abandon their pyrrhic alliance, and infuse a healthy dose of realism into their cooperative ties. Neither Erdoğan’s municipal victory, nor the Brotherhood’s angry protests are a slap of any kind. Erdoğan still has to face the challenge of the next general election, knowing that his nemeses, the CHP and the MHP, are bridging the gap between them ahead of future battles. However, Arab-Islamists do not need Turkish pain remedies, but effective recipes that can tackle their chronic maladies. Islamists need to redevelop a concrete project to govern, while Erdoğan needs to focus on his main appeal to the Turkish public: Governing effectively.