Mohamed Morsi's recent ejection as president of Egypt prompts a contrast-and-compare with his Turkish counterpart, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Their careers at the top contain major dissimilarities:
- Morsi's stunning economic indifference vs. Erdoğan's very impressive economic management.
- Imposing Islamic ways too fast and broadly in one year vs. applying them slowly and piecemeal in a decade.
- Inspiring the largest political protest in human history vs. winning three elections with successively larger percentages of the vote.
- Antagonizing the deep state vs. patiently sidelining it.
- Being removed from office by the military vs. removing the military from politics.
In brief, Morsi is as incompetent as Erdoğan is competent.
These differences aside, Erdoğan and Morsi, who are mutual admirers, share two key features: wanting to bring their countries in compliance with the Shari'a, the law of Islam, and displaying an autocratic streak, a characteristic which helped undo Morsi and could well wreck Erdoğan's career.
Which leaves me wondering: Is their shared anti-democratic enraged sputtering at dissent just coincidence? Does it reflect the dictatorial quality of their political formations (Necmettin Erbakan's various parties and the Muslim Brotherhood, respectively)? Or does it reveal something inherent about the Islamist program itself?
Gülen, Erdoğan, Gül.
I am inclined to see it as inherent … except that some Islamists in Turkey, host of the world's most sophisticated Islamist scene, appear to becoming less autocratic. The president, Abdullah Gül, and the leader of the chief Turkish Islamist organization, Fethullah Gülen, are apparently evolving away from the dictatorial mentality. Gül's caution and democratic sensibility in response to the Gezi Park protests could lead to his becoming Erdoğan's successor. How Gül and Gülen respond to an increasingly erratic Erdoğan has probably major implications for the future of the Islamist movement. Keep an eye on those two. (July 19, 2013)
July 21, 2013 update: Kadri Gürsel of the Milliyet newspaper is keeping an eye on Gül, whom he contrasts with Erdoğan as follows:
Before the May 31 social explosion, with a narrative he consciously adopted, Gül was positioning himself with a positive approach to Erdoğan's negatively perceived policies. But Gül was always careful not to trample on the sensitivities of the AKP's conservative base.
As much as Erdoğan deviated from EU perspectives, Gül was emphasizing the importance of the EU for Turkey. Against practices restricting freedom of press in Turkey, Gül defended freedom of press. We remember that Gül had objected to some of Erdoğan's anti-democratic initiatives. For example, last November before the peace process with the Kurds — while Erdoğan spoke of lifting the immunities of nine pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party parliamentarians — Gül opposed him by saying that a vicious circle had to be avoided.
On June 1, Gül intervened with a soothing and reconciliatory approach to Erdoğan's oppressive attitude of using excessive police power. It was not a coincidence that police forces withdrew from Taksim Square on June 1 after Gül's meeting with Erdoğan and other government officials. On June 2 — after Erdoğan left on his tour of the Maghreb — Gül, in a statement clearly addressed to protesters, said: "Democracy does not only mean elections. We received well-intentioned messages. When the time comes, necessary action will be taken."
There is a basic narrative difference between Erdoğan and Gül. As much as Erdoğan sticks to polarizing, extremist and irresponsible narratives, Gül emerges as moderate, responsible and as a unifier. There is one more difference: With his policies and remarks up to today, Erdoğan made it clear that he does not pay any attention to the legitimacy perceptions of non-AKP voters. Gül, however, pays attention to legitimacy perception of those not voting for the AKP.
Aug. 20, 2013 update: Rasim Ozan Kütahyalı argues in "Is a Power Struggle Brewing Between Erdoğan and Gülen?" that the rivalry between these two individuals and the organizations they head is the key to the Turkish political scene: "Will they fight for political power, or will they reconcile? Do the Gülen people want their own bureaucratic tutelage to replace the military tutelage? Or is Erdoğan determined to totally purge Gülenists from the state?"
Oct. 10, 2013 update: In his Oct. 1 address to the Turkish parliament, Abdullah Gül further distanced himself from Erdoğan, the Voice of America explains:
Gül praised last June's anti-government protests - which Erdoğan had called a conspiracy against his government, saying they were an important sign of participatory democracy. In another thinly veiled attack on the government, Gül stressed the importance of a free press. According to human rights groups, Turkey is the world's biggest jailer of journalists.
Nov. 12, 2013 update: Semih Idiz raises the possibility in "The Gul Alternative" that "Erdogan's harsh manner may lead his party to consider President Abdullah Gul to run for re-election rather than back Erdogan for president in 2014."
Mar. 18, 2014 update: What to make of Turkey's President Gül? Al-Monitor has had two contrasting analyses by leading analysts in the past month:
- Cengiz Çandar writes in "Gul faces backlash over support for Internet bill" that he was "the hope of all people who cared about the status and prestige of their country in the international system." But then, on Feb. 18, he signed an internet control bill that Erdoğan had been pushing for and he looked no different from the prime minister.
- Semih Idiz rejects this view in "Gul rebuts Erdogan's international conspiracy claims," arguing that he is intensely disturbed over political developments in Turkey and "regrets having been forced by circumstance" to sign that internet bill.
Which is it? Is Gül really different from Erdoğan of just a more polite version of the same autocratic impulse? Only if he acquires real power, say if Erdoğan for any reason is sidelined, will we know the answer to this important puzzle.
Related Topics: Egypt, Radical Islam, Turkey and Turks
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