Historian Soner Cagaptay takes the long view about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “For over 200 years, Turkey followed trends invented in the West and now it’s the opposite,” says Cagaptay. “Other countries are following a trend invented in Turkey, this 21st-century populism.”
Erdogan’s notions of making Turkey great and the domestic polarisation he fosters between supporters and opponents have parallels in Donald Trump’s America or Brexit Britain. In Erdogan’s outlook and actions, Cagaptay detects imperial Ottoman themes, reflected in his new book “Erdogan’s Empire” and his 2017 “The New Sultan,” which has a revised edition out soon.
Interviewed by The Arab Weekly, Cagaptay linked Erdogan’s populism to his imperial notions. “Nations that were once great powers have an inflated, often nostalgic sense of their heyday,” he said. “This comes with a readiness to be inspired by politicians who can embody this narrative.”
In “Erdogan’s Empire,” Cagaptay traces the Turkish president’s worldview to the tough quarter of Istanbul, where he was born in 1954. The Kasimpasa neighbourhood, Cagaptay writes, was populated “by recent conservative arrivals… from the Anatolian heartland” and sat at the bottom of a hill leading up to the “bohemian Beyoglu district and then to Nisantasi, the city’s exclusive, upper-crust, secularist and old-money enclave.”
Cagaptay tells the story well. Secularism, guarded by Turkey’s armed forces, underlies the republic created by Kamal Ataturk but peasants arriving from Anatolia had older beliefs. The 1950s brought electoral contests between “hard” and “soft” secularisms and then street battles between left and right but the National Outlook group quietly imbibed Islamist ideas echoing Egypt’s Sayyid Qutb and Iran’s Ali Shariati.
Influenced by National Outlook, Erdogan joined the Refah Party, emerging in the 1980s but banned in 1998. Erdogan became mayor of Istanbul in 1994 but was imprisoned for four months in 1999 for inciting religious hatred. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, formed in 2001, showed both flexibility and toughness.
Cagaptay points out that Kasimpasa, near the docks, was known for bravado, with the word Kasimpasali used to describe street toughs with a sense of honour. “A Kasimpasali Turk will not shy away from humiliating his counterpart to undermine him,” Cagaptay writes.
For Erdogan, Cagaptay said, restoring Ottoman glories is part populism and part rejection of Ataturk’s secularism. This shapes foreign policy: while Erdogan asserts Turkish influence pragmatically in central Asia and Africa, even with Israel and Armenia, he remains close to the Muslim Brotherhood, or Ikhwan.
“Erdogan has ideological convictions but is pragmatic,” Cagaptay said. “He’s least pragmatic when it comes to relations with Ikhwan.”
Cagaptay finds reasons in Erdogan’s own life. “He sees a bit of his past and a bit of his future in the Ikhwan story,” Cagaptay explained. “He, too, was once shunned as a political Islamist leader, jailed, saw his party shut down. He believes the opportunity given him and his party to run in free and fair elections should be given to Ikhwan-related parties. That’s why he was upset when [Egyptian President Muhammad] Morsi was ousted by the military-led popular protest movement [in 2013].”
Events in Egypt, Cagaptay said, resonate with Erdogan. “Morsi won elections and was then sent to jail and died there. No one said a word. Erdogan worries this could happen to him one day and the world would be quiet. The  attempted coup [in Turkey, backed by part of the military], in which he almost was assassinated, spoke to his worst fears,” Cagaptay said.
The commitment to Ikhwan, Cagaptay said, hamstrung Erdogan’s approach to Syria after 2012 when he began supporting Islamist rebels. “Syria was a diverse country with a large middle class and many women in the professional workforce and public life,” he said. “Turkish diplomats do know Syria, and they know Ikhwan isn’t the only game in town, so my only explanation is that this is what Erdogan wanted to do.”
Something similar began in Libya, Cagaptay said, but morphed into a complex proxy war. Turkey’s support for an Ikhwan faction became unprecedented backing for Fayez al-Sarraj’s Tripoli-based government with Turkey’s parliament agreeing to dispatch troops: “Because Turkey and Qatar backed Tripoli, the UAE and Egypt support [rebel leader Field-Marshal Khalifa] Haftar. Turkey pushed against Egypt, and Qatar against the UAE — so it’s a proxy war of couples!”
Other rivalries shape Turkey’s maritime agreement with Tripoli. “As Ankara sees it, an axis has formed to its south of Israel, Egypt, Greece and Cyprus, [which] share numerous initiatives, including maritime and security co-operation. Turkey wants to pierce through this axis and so will do whatever’s necessary to ensure the Tripoli government doesn’t fall.” Cagaptay said.
He also said confrontation with Egypt is unlikely given Cairo’s wariness of NATO’s second-biggest military. Russia’s limited role is a greater concern. “Erdogan won’t fight the Russians. In north-east Syria, Turkey pressed against a US military presence but when the Russians deployed after the US withdrawal, Turkish troops stopped,” he said.
Just as past empires tended to collide, so do 21st-century populists. In “Erdogan’s Empire,” Cagaptay asks why Turkey, Russia and Iran struggle to co-operate despite “deeply felt opposition” to the West. “Each,” he argues, “has couched its vision in distinctly imperial terms.”