When civil war sundered Syria, Erdogan — braving the disapproval of an electorate — condemned the brutalities of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and hosted camps for hundreds of thousands of refugees. Both former US president George W. Bush and US President Barack Obama have doted on Erdogan, while the Islamist prime minister proudly sent three of his four children to US universities.
By fostering economic growth, by keeping the army in its barracks and by not messing too much with secular lifestyles, Erdogan has won some grudging support from the elite that originally viewed him and his pious Islamic following as a lurch back to the Ottoman Empire.
Those days of urban skirmishing, which began at the end of May with a pointless and heavy-handed police crackdown on a sit-in at the disputed park in Istanbul, have opened many eyes to Erdogan’s intemperate and intolerant side — his tone-deafness, his tendency to regard any criticism as a grave insult and his conspiracy theories.
The surprise is that Erdogan’s darker instincts came as a surprise to anyone.
Human rights organizations have long lamented that Turkey, while it has a lively press, also has more journalists in jail than any other country on Earth. If you troll through the US diplomatic cables divulged in the WikiLeaks flood, you find abundant talk of how Erdogan has sometimes used police and courts as instruments of political control.
However, he is a friend in an unfriendly region.
The US’ attitude was, to paraphrase a line former US president Franklin D. Roosevelt supposedly said of another troubling ally: He may be a thug, but he is our thug.
By regional standards, Erdogan is not even that much of a thug.
With the important exception of police brutality, Erdogan’s latest affronts have been matters of speech and style, rather than action. He has talked of outlawing abortion (as have some prominent US politicians), but he has not tried to do it. He has described Twitter as “the worst menace to society” and suggested clamping down on social media, but he seems unlikely to have much success there, even if he tries. He has conjured a dark conspiracy of secular subversives, bankers and Western media, but that is vintage Erdogan and vintage Turkey — a country of intrigues that exemplifies the old line: “Even paranoids have enemies.”
So that the rising class has chosen this moment to run out of patience seems to be Erdogan’s bad luck, but it may also be Turkey’s good fortune.
One possible outcome is that those unhappy with Erdogan will find an avenue into politics and give Erdogan the challenge he deserves. The Turkish system — like the US system, only more so — favors incumbency and makes it hard to form viable new parties, even if Erdogan’s foes could agree on what they are for.
The most visible potential moderate rival to Erdogan, Turkish President Abdullah Gul, who occupies a relatively powerless post, has shown little willingness to take on the prime minister. However, as Sinan Ulgen, the head of an Istanbul think tank, says: Erdogan is more vulnerable than the autocrats of Iran or Russia, who have oil revenues to float them through a crisis.