Mount Nemrut in Turkey – via Discover Turkey
The Turkish authorities have seized Zaman, the country’s most widely circulated newspaper after a Turkish court ordered its confiscation. Turkish police fired tear gas and plastic pellets to disperse protesters gathered in support of the newspaper. This move is the latest in a long sequence of events initiated by President Erdogan and his government in cracking down on political opponents. Examples of this ongoing crackdown are the ruthless clearance by police of the Gezi Park protesters, repeated bans on Twitter and other social media, and various court cases accusing many people of “insulting” Erdogan. This alarming trend, however, has not unhinged Erdogan’s defiant supporters, who have a ready-made reply to their critics: “Turkey is not Coup’s Egypt.”
The obsession with Egypt is not new. Since Egypt’s President Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was ousted, Erdogan and his supporters have been obsessed by Egypt, offering patronage and support to the Brotherhood and its allies. Erdogan’s supporters, however, are using the 2013 coup in Egypt as a comforting benchmark in ranking their country’s democratic behavior. The Turkish Government believes that as long as the people are not ruled by the military and have ballot boxes, then their country’s democratic credentials are intact. Alarmingly, it seems that pro-Erdogan Turks are content with lowering the bar of comparison in a lame attempt to deflect blame from their poor human rights record.
Moreover, the Turkish President is repeating many of Egypt’s mistakes. Zaman newspaper is closely linked to the Hizmet movement of influential US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen. Turkey claims Hizmet is a “terrorist” group that aims to overthrow Erdogan’s government. This is strikingly similar to how Egypt banned the Muslim Brotherhood and closed its media outlets. The closure of Zaman, despite the many differences between the Hizmat movement and the Muslim Brotherhood, is like borrowing a chapter from Egypt’s collective punishment manual. Worth noting, however, is the fact that not all who work and/or read Zaman are members of the Hizmat movement, and the newspaper is widely read inside and outside Turkey by many who may never have heard of Fethullah Gulen. However, President Erdogan considers anything short of total loyalty to him as a betrayal.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of President Erdogan’s recent oppressive trend is the unconditional backing of his supporters. They seem to be content with lumping together all the Turkish Government’s opponents, including the seculars, leftists, Kurds, and Gulenists, and labeling them collectively as “traitors.” Branding opponents as traitors is dangerous. On the one hand, in Turkey’s case, it strips them of their democratic rights in a devious attempt to deflect accusations against Erdogan’s authoritarianism. On the other hand, it tarnishes and discredits opponents in front of the Turkish public, and denies society the opportunity to debate and consider different political perspectives.
Egypt, on the other hand, indeed has a disturbing human rights record, but perhaps there is a glimpse of hope in the fact that the regime’s Egyptian supporters are not a homogeneous, ideologically indoctrinated cult but rather a group with diverse political perspectives and affiliations who are united only by pragmatic interests. This is precisely why some loud and sharp criticism from within President Sisi’s camp has emerged recently. Less than two weeks ago, a prominent (pro-Sisi) Egyptian columnist delivered the harshest attack to date against Egypt’s president. Other TV anchors have criticized the government and the harsh police tactics. Many who backed the coup have loudly condemned the Rabaa Massacre. This does not mean Egypt is a democracy; far from it, but the cultish mentality is shrinking amongst regime supporters, who at least are willing to debate and question the regime’s policies and tactics.
Alarmingly, and sadly, the situation is different in Turkey. Under the veneer of democracy, Erdogan has transformed Turkey, particularly its conservative majority into an introverted, self-righteous cult that worships conspiracies and rejects pluralism and freedom of expression. Turkey is now facing a mixture of a rigid ideological doctrine with a patriarchal, self-centered leader who thinks he is the new father of Turkey. The Turkish president is not even willing to allow the public to read different perspectives and political views.
But Turkey and the Middle East have never been short of self-righteous “fathers,” who thought of themselves as semi-gods, well before Erdogan and Ataturk. The scattered grand heads of King Antiochus I, the “God King” of Commagene on Mount Nemrut (which I once climbed), near the town of Adiyaman in the south east of Turkey, is one magnificent example. With its awe-inspiring views and artistic beauty, the stunning place is historical testimony to its former rulers’ arrogance and its doomed fate. Antiochus, with his misplaced, unerring pride and over-extended ego, commissioned the construction of that sanctuary for people to worship him. But his kingdom did not last, and the scattered, broken heads that exist today serve only as symbols of his futile legacy – a lesson to all Middle East dictators, and a wake-up call for President Erdogan.
Turkey, indeed, is not Egypt; it was once well ahead of Egypt, with promising potential for an unfettered democracy and freedom. Sadly, in the current gloomy, undemocratic climate, Turkey under President Erdogan’s roadmap to tyranny could actually face a darker future than Egypt – without a military coup. The Turkish president needs to reflect on his own actions before it is too late, and learn a lesson or two from Egypt’s unfortunate political path, instead of imitating it in what has turned out to be a bitter democracy.