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Sümeyye Erdogan, the rising influence of a dutiful daughter

Sümeyye Erdogan, the rising influence of a dutiful daughter


4.11.2015 • Turkey •

Sümeyye Erdogan is said to be the favourite of the 4 children of President Erdogan, who came out the unquestionable winner of this weekend elections. She is a valuable political asset and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan does not hesitate to capitalize on this.

Still single at the age of 30, something unusual for someone coming from a Turkish Islamic conservative background, particularly when her own father expects women to give birth to 3 children at the very least, Sümeyye keeps a low profile but plays a real political role.

In early 2015, Recep Tayyip Erdogan is said to have considered putting his daughter’s name on the list of the Justice and Development Party AKP (Islamic conservative) for the parliamentary elections. Once an MP, Sümeyye would have enjoyed parliamentary immunity: in 2014, her name came up in a huge corruption scandal that hit the government as well as her father. The matter was made public when various audio recordings were posted on the Internet. In one of these audios, that has since become notorious though still in a process of authentication, Recep Tayyip Erdogan orders his son Bilal to hide huge funds away and tells him to get help from his youngest sister, as one understands he considers her to be the smartest of them all.

The youngest daughter Vs. conspiracies

In the wake of those revelations, Sümeyye Erdogan opted for the paternal line of defence according to which the accusations were plotted by a former ally of the AKP, the Fetullah Güllen movement (named after an imam now residing in Pennsylvania in the US), with a view to bring the government down.

Her father’s name was already legendary, yet she remained as unassuming as can be – Former school friend

But President Erdogan finally gave up on registering his daughter’s name for the 7th June and then 1st November elections. He probably understood that this might have been perceived negatively by many of his party’s officials, as they remained very touchy about accusations of corruption. Then Sümeyye’s name came up on several occasions during the electoral campaign in relation with some assassination plot that might have targeted her. In early 2015, 3 pro-AKP newspapers had indeed “revealed” the existence of a supposed plot against the youngest daughter of the President of the Turkish Republic. For President Erdogan and his family, this was most certainly yet another opportunity to come across as victims. And gain more popular sympathy.

 The symbol of the AKP generation

Sümeyye is 9 years old when her father gets elected Mayor of Istanbul; she is 14 by the time he is arrested and jailed for having read a poem by Turkish nationalist Ziya Gökalp that might have sounded like a call for an Islamist uprising. She’s only just turned 18 when, in 2003, Recep Tayyip Erdogan becomes Prime Minister, a year after the Justice and Development Party AKP won the absolute majority in Parliament.

She symbolizes the new Islamic conservative generation that came of age as the AKP government got into power. One of her former school friend, who wishes to remain anonymous, let’s call her Elif, remembers: “I was 12 years old when I first met Sümeyye during an Islamic summer camp. Her father was already a legend, and yet, she was as unassuming as can be, friendly, keen to meet people and speak to them.”

Elif remembers that, at school, she was part of the same group of girls who “resisted” and refused to remove their veils. Some of them opted for dropping out of school altogether, others started wearing wigs, while Elif and Sümeyye decided to change schools. Then, like her elder sister Esra, the daughter of Turkey’s President went to the US, then to London, to both study at university and be able to continue wearing her veil, something that, until 2010, it was impossible to do in Turkey. According to pianist Süher Pekinel, this stay in the US had a deep influence on the young woman who learnt how “to play the violin and followed singing lessons”.

 Mandated by her father

Nowadays, it sometimes occurs that both sisters, Sümeyye and Esra, get sent off together to represent their father. Thus in February 2015, they both travel to Mersin to visit the family of a young woman student who had been murdered and her body, burnt, after being kidnapped and assaulted. But, to the difference of her sister who married AKP businessman Berat Albayrak and comes across as much more reserved, Sümeyye defines herself as the flag-bearer for pious and veiled young women – thus becoming an asset for her father. Moreover, this explains why the office of the Presidency knows how to make the best out of any event: for example, in 2011, Sümeyye is attending a performance at Ankara’s public theatre. She is sitting in the front row and is chewing gum when one of the actors starts imitating her, then stops acting and challenges her. An offended Sümeyye gets up and leaves the theatre, with the friend who accompanied her in tow. A few days later, the incident will give way to a full accusation relayed in the press, in which Erdogan’s daughter blames the artists for not being able to bear the sight of veiled women among their public, nor that of “peasants, bearded men or common people scratching their belly”. “No problem”, concludes Sümeyye, “I will continue to enjoy art, go to the theatre, and wear my veil”.

Sümeyye is playing to the full on populism, but forgets that she has now become part this governing elite that she so much rejects.

Veiled young women are as oppressed as Kurds

In June 2014, Sümeyye is presiding the graduation ceremony at an Imam Hatip (religious school) in Sirrt. For the Erdogan family, this is not just any other place. It is the capital of the district where Emine, the Arabic speaking mother, is coming from, and the constituency where Tayyip, the father, got himself elected MP in 2003 thanks to a fast-track procedure.

There are also important Kurd and Arab communities in Sirrt. This gives a good opportunity to the Turkish president’s daughter to recount how she is learning Arabic with her “friend” the King of Jordan’s wife. Her former school friend, Elif, who does not support the AKP but prefers a more fundamentalist party, considers that when Sümeyye goes to Imam Hatips, she “helps the AKP to strengthen its popularity among the young generations, and to impose its perverted beliefs”.

And now, the youngest of the Erdogan family is comparing what veiled young women just like her, had to endure, with the sufferings of Muslim ethnic minorities. But “now we are all freed from this politics of oppression and assimilation, whether we are veiled, Kurds or Arabs” she explains. She then lashes onto “those” who went to “posh schools”, had “successful careers”, but “no sense of values” and only aspired to positions of power wherever they went. As her father’s worthy daughter, Sümeyye is playing to the full on populism and the polarization of the society, but forgets that she is now part of this governing elite that she so much rejects.

Not a character out of a celebrity magazine

These are the things that have disappointed Elif: “Sümeyye can never be a role-model for me”, she says. There are two reasons for this: the way she and other AKP high profile women dress has “nothing to do anymore with the simplicity, decency and modesty that religion orders us to respect” says her former school friend. Then Elif reproaches the AKP, embodied, in her eyes by Sümeyye, with “giving in too much to the West”. The stricter Islamist positions advocated by Elif, who, in the past, used to see eye to eye with Sümeyye, reveal the changes that President Erdogan’s daughter underwent, something which her former friend sees as some form of “degeneration”.

Sümeyye Erdogan knows how to hold a microphone, how to speak and behave in public and in front of the media”, says journalist Alper Altug, who had the opportunity to follow her for ATV, the television channel owned and run by the President’s son-in-law. “She must have been trained in communication because she comes across as very confident. But she is neither a media figure nor a character out of a celebrity magazine”.

Is it true that Sümeyye plays private interpreter for her father during meetings with English speaking interlocutors? This is what is sometimes rumoured. After all, her American years aren’t too distant… “She played an important role at her father’s side while he was Prime Minister, but ever since Tayyip Erdogan became president, this has not really been the case anymore” says a member of the Islamic conservative employers’ organization, who highlights the young woman’s “simplicity and modesty”.

 Prayers for Syria and Palestine

As Vice-president of the Women and Democracy Association (Kadem), Sümeyye also gives conferences abroad, as she did in March 2015 at the AKP Political Academy in Brussels. She talks about the worldwide struggle of Muslim women to achieve “justice and equity” rather than “gender equality”. In Islam, “the man must give the woman part of what he earns but if she works, the woman is not obliged to hand her money over to the man, she can do whatever she wants with it” she explains.

And on 3rd January, on her Facebook page, one can see the daughter echoing her father’s words when he repeatedly denounces “General Sissi’s coup against Morsi” in Egypt: Sümeyye reminds her readers to pray for Esma, 17 and the daughter of one of the officials of the Muslim Brothers who died a “martyr” in 2013, as well as she tells them not to forget Egypt, nor Syria nor Palestine in their prayers.

A valuable asset to represent her father among the popular classes, she also fulfils this role with the emerging Islamist bourgeoisie.

The peacemaker

A valuable asset to represent her father among the popular classes, she also fulfils this role with the emerging Islamist bourgeoisie. And sometimes, she is indispensible to her father such as during the summer in 2013 when he received a delegation of the Gezi movement. For over a month, thousands of demonstrators of the age of his daughter or even younger marched through the Turkish cities to denounce the head of state’s drift towards authoritarianism.

President of the Union of the Chambers of Engineering and Architecture Tayfun Kahraman was there when that meeting happened. He was sitting right across from Sümeyye and can confirm that she played a real role as an adviser. But, he says, she basically did not utter any word except when her father became increasingly aggressive and got up in anger. “Right then, Sümeyye went up to her father to calm him down, she told him to be careful about his health and she ushered him out of the room” recalls Tayfun Kahraman.

For President Erdogan, his daughter’s presence at his side is probably non-negotiable. But to view her as his political heiress would be tantamount to sheer speculation on the long-term.

Ariane Bonzon

Photo: DR

Translation: Laurence Mazure 

Original french version: Sümeyye Erdogan, la “Claude Chirac” turque (dates back to 3.11.2015)

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