Erdogan Is Deftly Playing the Khashoggi Crisis

Erdogan Is Deftly Playing the Khashoggi Crisis

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

SourceSean Gallup/Getty

Why you should care

Because Turkey’s strongman president is getting a critical political boost.

It wasn’t so long ago that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was seen as a journalist-bashing autocrat with frayed ties to the West. But there he was on Tuesday, once again the master of the international spotlight, proclaiming he would reveal “the naked truth” about slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Speaking at the Turkish Parliament, Erdogan plotted more dots on the chart containing everything we know about the Oct. 2 killing but has done little to connect them — unable to provide the alleged audio recording of the killing.

Is he drawing out this standoff with Saudi Arabia, with the United States caught in the middle, in a bit of global affairs showmanship? Or was his government’s much-leaked evidence a bluff? Turkey’s precarious international standing rides on the answer.

Though Erdogan’s comments Tuesday did not confirm the existence of a key piece of evidence, they did make clear what he stands to gain politically from publicly pressuring Saudi King Salman and his son Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known informally as MBS. If Turkey does indeed possess this audio, Erdogan holds the power when it comes to Turkey-Saudi relations.

Erdogan has “played this obviously very well,” says James M. Dorsey, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University. “If indeed he does play this in a way where the Saudis, on the one hand, are seen to be guilty, but not in a way in which it rocks the boat in the kingdom, then the Saudis owe him. And the same is true with the Trump administration.”

An Islamist youth activist who spent most of his early political career growing the Islamist Welfare Party, Erdogan’s political career was threatened when his party was declared unconstitutional. In 1998, his four-year run as mayor of Istanbul ended with him being tossed in jail following a public reading of an Islamic poem, violating laws protecting Turkey’s secular government.

Erdogan regrouped and co-founded the Justice and Development Party (AKP). He ran as party leader in the 2002 general elections, in which the AKP won a plurality — which it has held ever since. In 2003, Erdogan was named prime minister. Early in his tenure, Erdogan received praise for social policies like the Labor Act, which established a 45-hour work week and provided workers legal protection against discrimination. Turkey’s economy also saw a boost, though it was already coming out of a recession before Erdogan took office.

A record 262 journalists were imprisoned worldwide in 2017 — 73 of them in Turkey.

Though Turkey’s constitution provides for a secular nation, the AKP has been criticized as both religiously motivated and authoritarian. These tensions erupted in a failed military coup against the government in July 2016, which resulted in more than 200 deaths. In the two years since, Erdogan’s government has arrested more than 50,000 people — including a former Miss Turkey — for alleged attempts to undermine the government.

Limiting the press has been instrumental in Erdogan’s concentration of power. A record 262 journalists were imprisoned worldwide in 2017 — 73 of them in Turkey, according to data from the Committee to Protect Journalists. According to the CPJ, every one of those Turkish journalists is being investigated for crimes against the state.

In March 2016, the Turkish government seized the newspaper Zaman, prompting a critical response from Morton Abramowitz and Eric Edelman, former U.S. ambassadors to Turkey, in a Washington Post op-ed. “Clearly,” they wrote, “democracy cannot flourish under Erdogan now.” In November of that year, the government blocked citizens’ access to social media — and did the same with Wikipedia the following April. As a result, Reporters Without Borders, an international nonprofit that advocates for press and information freedom, included Erdogan on its list of “enemies of press freedom.” In the 2018 general election, Erdogan was re-elected as president — this time as executive president, becoming both the head of state and head of government.

Since the AKP came to power in 2002, Erdogan has participated in 14 elections from the local to the presidential level. He has won them all.

That brings us back to the chess game Erdogan is now playing with the Saudi government. In his Tuesday address, Erdogan rejected Saudi Arabia’s explanation that Khashoggi died after a fight, while deftly pressuring the kingdom. “I do not doubt the sincerity of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Salman bin Abdulaziz,” Erdogan said. “Still, such a critical investigation should be conducted by a fair committee which has not the tiniest doubt of connection to the murder.” He called for the Saudi government to allow the 18 named suspects in the case to be tried in Turkey.

The United States has sent CIA director Gina Haspel to Istanbul to aid Turkey’s investigation, as President Donald Trump’s rhetoric is getting tougher on the Saudis. “They had a very bad original concept. It was carried out poorly and the cover-up was the worst in the history of cover-ups,” Trump told White House reporters Tuesday. Erdogan recently released imprisoned North Carolina pastor Andrew Brunson, an olive branch to the U.S. as sanctions took a bite. A better relationship with the U.S. could help Turkey’s stumbling economy.

But Erdogan’s positioning does carry risk. “At some point, he’s going to have to come up with evidence, unless the Saudis respond adequately and on time,” says Dorsey. “If he doesn’t — taking into account Turkey’s record on press freedom and an independent judiciary is not unblemished — it can start to turn against him.”

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