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Man holding flag in front of line of Turkish soldiers walking towards the camera during the day
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Unrest in the streets

Source: Murad Sezer/Reuters/Corbis

Protester and riot police in central Istanbul June 15, 2013

Slip Sliding Away

Democracy Takes a Hit in Turkey

Why you should care

Because Turkey offers a (disheartening) clue as to whether the Arab Spring will ever amount to anything

For political leaders in the Middle East, the Arab Spring giveth … and it taketh away: just ask Egypt’s deposed former president Mohammed Morsi.

Now Turkey and its iron-fisted prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, are learning the same harsh lesson. The reversal of fortunes for the region’s most successful Islamist party and its only Muslim-majority democracy (unless you count Iraq, which is … questionable) is an ominous sign for the rest of the Middle East, where the democratic experiment is largely now on life support. And it’s bad news for the United States, where the Obama White House has forged a close relationship with Erdogan and his government.

The democratic experiment is largely now on life support.

Recep has hands out at podium with suit and green tie on, speaking with Turkish flag in background

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Source: Corbis

The longtime activist, who first made his name fighting to overturn Turkey’s longtime ban on religious parties, is not at risk of losing his grip on power – at least not immediately. But after looking ascendant as the first wave of Arab uprisings crested in 2011, the prime minister is currently fending off challenges to his authority both domestically and from neighbors. Erdogan’s response has been old-school authoritarian: Crack down on opponents; blame foreign conspirators. The same sorts of tactics, notes Steven A. Cook, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, that were perfected by recently deposed Arab dictators.

Even before the Arab Spring, Turkey was lauded as a bright spot among authoritarian Muslim-world governments.

The question is: Can the country once hailed as a model for Muslim democracy regroup, or is it headed down a slippery, more despotic, slope? And what does this say about the prospects for democracy in the region, writ large?

Even before the Arab Spring, Turkey was lauded as a bright spot among authoritarian Muslim-world governments – proof that democracy can co-exist with an Islamist political philosophy guided by religious principles. Erdogan, a pioneer of his own country’s Islamist politics, welcomed his neighbors’ revolutionary tides and the like-minded governments that rose in places like Egypt. His country of 81 million, one of the most populous and economically advanced in the region, was able to spread its own influence as a stable, friendly neighbor.

As Cook observed three years ago, shortly after Tahrir Square, ”the Turkish star is rising as the Iranian star is fading, which is precisely what the Turks would [say] their goal has been all along.”

Perhaps most troubling, however, is the domestic drama bubbling inside Turkey’s borders…

Man walking with Turkish flag with soldiers in background

Source: Murad Sezer/Reuters/Corbis

A protester holds a Turkish flag as riot police order them to evacuate Gezi Park in central Istanbul June 15, 2013.

Just two years later,“the bloom is off the rose” for the 59-year-old Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), says Soner Cagaptay, the director of the Turkish Research Program at the D.C.-based Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The Syrian uprising next door (which Erdogan has energetically backed) is in bloody stalemate; streams of refugees are fleeing to this country at the heart of the one-time Ottoman empire. And Morsi’s unceremonious ouster by the Egyptian military was a body blow to Erdogan, who had welcomed Morsi’s Islamist government. Now, as Cairo and Ankara are openly feuding, Tunisia’s Islamists have also been booted from power.

Which means instead of heralding the rise of Islamist governments – with Turkey at its forefront – the Arab Spring has brought insecurity and violence to its doorstep.

Perhaps most troubling, however, is the domestic drama bubbling inside Turkey’s borders, capped with the liberal anti-government protests at Gezi Park this past sumer and the recent feud between the AKP and its former allies over a corruption investigation.

As the crackdown on the summer protests and the recent purge of police officers investigating government corruption make clear, Turkey’s leaders aren’t too tolerant of dissent; or as Cagaptay says, ”this is increasingly not a liberal democracy.”

The Gezi Park reponse ”shocked alot of people in the U.S.,” Cagaptay adds. There aren’t any signs that the Obama administration is going to end their close relationship with the AKP, but it certainly complicates things. Especially when Erdogan’s lieutenants start spreading rumors that U.S. diplomats somehow stirred up the latest corruption charges dogging the AKP.

And we may not have seen the worst of Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies yet: more could emerge later this year, when the fiery leader (who is term limited as prime minister) will have to decide what his next act in Turkish politics will be after more than a decade in office.

That’s right. He might not be leaving yet.

It’s a reminder of how tough the democracy project really is when it comes to the region and its many clashing currents.

With the presidential election later this year, all eyes now are on whether one of the region’s most charismatic leaders tries to pull off a swap with current President Abdullah Gul, the same sort of maneuver Vladimir Putin orchestrated in Russia. The problem is Gul is not the same sort of doormat as Dmitry Medvedev – Putin’s crony who was elected president and then switched seats with Putin. Another wrinkle: in Turkey, the president can’t be affiliated with a party, which means Erdogan would have to give up his powerful perch atop the AKP, or change the constitution, itself. In other words, Erdogan is going to either relinquish some control or change the rules of the game.

Given that this is a man who founded the AKP from a prison cell and, through the force of his own personality, turned it into the most powerful political machine the country has seen in half a century, it’s likely to be the latter.

On that score, Erdogan and his party face a more immediate test in this March’s race for mayor of Istanbul, Turkey’s biggest and most important city, which they just might lose. The AKP has held the mayor’s seat there since 1994, which was a launching pad for Erodgan’s own career. Losing the race would be a huge political (and personal) blow.

Mustafa Sarigul with both his hands up in air wearing suit and tie

Mustafa Sarigul

Cook says there is a real question whether Erdogan, ”in his current state of authoritarian freak out,” would use some machination to overturn an AKP loss.

What does all this anti-democratic behavior say about the prospects for democracy in neighboring countries, where authoritarianism is far more entrenched? Well, two things:

One, the expectations for Turkey were too lofty to begin with. After all, Gezi Park was by no means the first glimpse of Erdogan’s heavy-handed tactics. His government has piled up a horrible record on press freedom, regularly ranking among the Committee to Protect Journalists’ list of countries with the most reporters in jail.

And two, it’s a reminder of how tough the democracy project really is when it comes to the region and its many clashing currents.

At least the Turks have internalized some democratic norms after years of elections, as Cook says; there’s democratic muscle memory, and a popular backlash could yet deter an Erdogan power grab. The same can’t quite be said for most of Turkey’s Arab neighbors, most of them startup democracies with a short electoral memory.

As much as it may hurt those rooting for Middle East democracy to say it, the turmoil in Turkey just reinforces how much the odds are stacked against a real democratic Arab Spring.

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Meet The Author Emily Cadei

Emily covers government, world affairs, business and sports for OZY. California-bred and D.C. based, she's reported from four of the world's seven continents -- still waiting for a byline from South America, Australia and Antarctica!

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