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“To what extent, Erdogan, who acts like a dictator, really pulls all the strings ?”

“To what extent, Erdogan, who acts like a dictator, really pulls all the strings ?”

25.09.2017 . Turkey

“The only really powerful ideology in Turkey is Statism. Statism always wins over Kemalism and Islamism, which are nothing more than a facade” according to the turkish intellectual Sevan Nişanyan.  

Sooner or later, every journalist goes through a moment of despair. This happened to me on September 11th in Athens, when the Turkish intellectual of Armenian descent Sevan Nişanyan told me somewhat expeditiously:

Frankly, I do not understand what’s happening in Turkey

I had convinced Slate’s editors that an exclusive interview with this atypical person would be worth the airfare to Athens. Indeed, the beginning of the interview was far from disappointing, as he gave me an enthralling account of his three years of jail in Turkey and his fantastic evasion in summer 2017 through the Aegean Sea into Greece where he requested political asylum.

From target to spokesperson

But when asked about today’s Turkey, he confessed his disarray and lack of understanding. While definitive judgements and pretentious affirmations on the situation proliferate in our newspapers and televisions, Sevan Nişanyan, 61 years old, admits his incapacity to explain what is happening… And yet, he is one of the most cultivated men in the country, he studied in the best American universities and lived through half a century of Turkish history, during which at least five military coups took place.

He explained his incomprehension before me.

“Until 2013, it was as if Recep Tayyip Erdogan was the target of a probable military coup d’état. And then, in a complete U-turn, he appears suddenly as the leader, or the spokesperson of a civil coup. How could this radical change take place? It is a huge query for me.”

As a militant atheist of Armenian descent whilst being at the same time “profoundly irritated and inherently attached to Turkey, my country” for which he feels “responsible”, Sevan Nişanyan shows no indulgence towards neither Kemalism nor Islamism. For him, they are the two sides of the same nationalist coin. He denounced, in one of his books, the republican myths created by Mustafa Kemal in 1923; ten years later, he confronted the islamists by defending the right to mock Muhammad, this “Arab chief who, hundreds of years ago, pretended to have established contacts with God in order to gain political, economic and sexual advantages”.

Kemalists and Islamists: the same basic mentality

“The Turkish paranoid block is a single entity, he explained to the journalist Nick Ashdown. Sometimes it comes forward as the Atatürkist line [from “Atatürk”, nickname given to the general Mustafa Kemal, founder of the Turkish Republic in 1923, editor’s note], which is essentially 1930s Nazism in a Turkish style, and at times it comes forward with an Islamic rhetoric, but the basic mentality is the same. [It’s] one of fear, a very profound feeling that unless you’re very nasty, the state will collapse and what will we do? They’ll kick us out of this country and send us back to Central Asia [region of origin of the Turkish people, editor’s note].”

As Sevan Nişanyan pointed out to me, this is why “the only really powerful ideology in Turkey is Statism. Statism always wins over Kemalism and Islamism, which are nothing more than a facade.

In the city of Socrates and Plato, Sevan Nişanyan – for whom “the sole real adventure is intellectual adventure” – appears to fit in perfectly into the spirit of the place. After warning us against misleading appearances, he continues by stating that :

We have observed a complete reversal of alliances for Erdogan, which can be dated back to  2012. There was a sort of coup within the state with the attempt to arrest the head of the secret services, Hakan Fidan. After that, Erdogan and his entourage avoided disaster by the skin of their teeth with both the Gezi demonstrations and the disclosure of corruption scandals involving them”.

 Side by side with the enemy

But, what did Erdogan do in the following months? He released officers which he had incarcerated a few years before for having attempted a military coup against him.

He appeared suddenly hand in hand with his former enemies from the Turkish army. And since that moment, we can see a radical reorganisation of Turkish politics.

Sevan Nişanyan does not see any “ideological impulse” behind Erdogan’s style of government, and therefore attributes it to other forces: those he calls “statists”, in other words “the deep State”.

Hmm… Having worked on Turkey for 21 years now, this gives me a feeling of déjà vu: the “deep State” seems to be cited every time one tries to explain a confusing and impenetrable political event in the country. But let’s continue…

It is in jail that Sevan Nişanyan learned about the coup attempt of July 15th, 2016. On that matter, he does not exclude a provocation within the army as a source of explanation:

I highly suspect some high-ranking officers of having encouraged those they wanted to get a rid of to undertake the coup

Hence the countless purges (50.000 people were arrested, 169.000 were subject to judicial proceedings – according to the figures of the Turkish Ministry of Justice in July 2017). These purges allowed the army and administrations to be “cleaned” of its undesired elements, particularly gulenists, but not only.

The end of his alliance with gulenists

This gulenist community, extremely secrete and well organized, explains Sevan Nişanyan, is a pathology of the Turkish state. It is leaded by a lunatic man [the imam Fethullah Gülen, exiled in the USA since 1999, editor’s note], while most of the cadres of the movement that I have met are quite intelligent. As early as the 1980’s, their project was to build a new Muslim and pious governing elite from scratch, or rather from the poorest classes of society. In a country which has been partly anti-islamic for centuries, this was an extreme project of social engineering which I thought was completely mad.”

 From 2002 to 2012, Erdogan, then Prime Minister, highly relied on these gulenist networks that gave him support within the state apparatus, especially in the judicial system and in the police. In many respects, some elements of Erdogan’s narrative at the time – such as the call for a “dialogue of civilisations” – was taken from the gulenist discourse. The witch-hunt that followed the failed-coup of July 2016 marked the definite end of this alliance.

Consequently, according to Sevan Nişanyan, we can ask ourselves “to what extent, Erdogan, who acts and speaks like a dictator, really pulls all the strings. It rather looks like statist ideology and leaders have taken back control of the state apparatus, after having been somewhat marginalised between 2007 and 2012”.

The captain of a sinking boat

Could this mean that Erdogan has been left in power only because of his popularity and because he can easily be manipulated? In other words, has he become a puppet?

I’m not saying that Erdogan is a puppet. His mistakes on the national and international level are countless and have made this country ungovernable. He should not have stayed in power more than ten years, he should have prepared his succession. There clearly is in him some sort of megalomania fed by his paranoia. We see him acting on stage, doing his show, but one should wonder what is happening behind the scenes.

What’s interesting in Sevan Nişanyan’s analysis is that it overcomes the classical opposition between secular kemalists and military officers on the one hand, and islamist conservatives – of which Recep Tayyip Erdogan would be the representative – on the other. According to Sevan Nişanyan’s reading of the situation, these two sides are united by a century-long statist reasoning.

However, something in all of this bothers me. One cannot contest that we are heading towards an Islamic anti-western republic. Yet this seems incompatible with the alleged take-over by the “deep State”.

Turkey is a huge boat, it is not that easy to change its course. I do not believe it is heading towards any clear destination. I rather believe that it is sinking, that the captain is panicking, that he is shouting meaningless orders with the sole aim of convincing himself and his supporters that the boat is still following its route.”

 As the interview was coming to an end and I was closing my laptop, Sevan Nişanyan suddenly added:

 “Deep down, it seems to me that Erdogan has become a scared and isolated figure. And I wonder whether Turkey has not become a military dictatorship once again.

 Ariane Bonzon

Photo:  Sevan Nişanyan, Athens, 2017/09/11

Original french version : «À l’étranger, on traite Erdogan de dictateur, mais on peut se demander à quel point c’est bien lui qui tire toutes les ficelles»




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