“You have a big heart, you shower us with your blessing and kindness. In your wisdom we are in awe, as you mirror our civilization.”
I could not help but remember these lines from the classic Egyptian adaptation of the British musical play “My Fair Lady” whenever I read amusingly passionate praise from Arab fans for Turkish President Recep Erdogan. To them, he has been like a prophet, a unique leader, and a good father. They prayed relentlessly for his victory, saw him in their dreams and always celebrated his political victories. Ironically, the story of Erdogan and his Arabs fits well with the old Egyptian play, which was not just a romantic adaptation of a Western story, but a satire against Ottoman rule and our “Efandina the Khedive).”
Initially, the fascination with Turkey was understandable, particularly at the peak of the Arab Spring, when Turkey, as a modern Muslim nation, led by the charismatic and successful Erdogan, looked like the ideal “model.” Many Arabs, regardless of their ideological and political affiliation, were appropriately impressed by Erdogan’s political and economic achievements.
Later, however, many non-Islamist Arabs became less impressed with Erdogan’s wild and overt support for the Muslim Brotherhood, and his limited understanding of the dynamics in Arab countries, particularly Egypt. Islamist Arabs, on the other hand, have become increasingly dogmatic and loyal to the Turkish leader, as that country has become a mecca for them. They have romanticised Turkey, despite their beloved leader’s clear drift towards authoritarianism.
Since the failed coup attempt in Turkey in 2016, hundreds of thousandsof people have been jailed, intimidated, and sacked, labelled as traitors, and declared enemies of the state. Turkey now has the unenviable reputation of being the world’s worst jailer of journalists. Even the judiciary has become politicised, and jailed pro-Kurdish leader Selahattin Demirtas has pointed out that fair trial is impossiblein Erdogan’s Turkey. In 2017, Human Rights Watchdescribed the constitutional changes in Turkey towards the executive presidency as “a huge threat to human rights, the rule of law and the country’s democratic future.”
Moreover, Erdogan’s foreign policy in the Arab world, particularly in Syria and Iraq has been troubling to say the least. In Syria, following an initial ultimatum to Assad, Erdogan softened his approach, and signed the Aleppo dealwith the Russians that paved the way for the Assad regime to regain control of the city. President Erdogan also sanctioned the invasion of the Syrian city of Afrin, where armed groups working with Turkish forces looted and destroyed properties,quietly orchestrating a demographic shiftthat aimed to change the balance of Afrin’s population from predominantly Kurdish to majority Arab. On a different front, Turkey started filling its Ilisu Dam earlier than promised, threatening Iraq with a water shortage.
All the above, should be logical enough to convince Erdogan’s Arab fans that he is not the Messiah they have been dreaming about. But logic alone has proven to be futile against ideological emotionalism. To understand the reasons, it is important to distinguish two types of Erdogan’s Arab supporters:
First, is the Hard-core Islamists: In Kuwait, for example, some celebrated his victory with a giant cake, adorned with the Turkish flag and that of the original Ottoman Kayi tribe. This a group that seeks an Islamist caliphate, regardless of its democratic values, and see Erdogan as the only available leader with the power, intention, and the ability to transform the region into an Islamic State. The rest, for them, is gibberish. They believe a bad caliph is better than any non-Islamist leader. Erdogan’s quasi-totalitarian behaviour does not bother them, and they are willing to repeat his propaganda, describing his opponents as traitors. They are also content to frame all Kurds as terrorists and cheer Erdogan’s Syrian adventures as a nucleus for a future caliphate.
The soft-core Islamists, on the other hand, consider themselves “revolutionary”, and feel the need to be perceived as pro-democracy. They are happy to blur the differences between imperfect democracy and an autocracy delivered through ballot boxes, such as Erdogan’s Turkey, in order to justify their farcical moral high ground. They insist Erdogan’s rule is much better than Arab regimes. Such a claim may have had a grain of truth a few years ago, but now, after Erdogan’s new executive presidency, in which he controls every pillar of the Turkish state, it is just a farce.
Arab Islamists, regardless of their shades and differences, have never been democrats. Their relationship with Erdogan is based on mutual exploitation. Erdogan needs them to prove his popularity in the Arab world, while they need his success as proof of the soundness of their political stances. That is why even if Erdogan is not perfect; they will portray him as perfect.
This is an English version of my original Arabic piece published in Al-Hurra