On the Issues Episode 66: Abdülhamit Bilici


Alon Ben-Meir:I am Alon Ben-Meir, and welcome to another episode of “On the Issues.” My guest today is Abdülhamit Bilici, a journalist and editor-in-chief of the Zaman newspaper until its seizure in 2016 by the Turkish government. In this episode, we discuss Erdogan’s initial rise to power and his current political prospects, the direction of Turkey under Erdogan, and what Turkey’s political future could look like.

You know, you’ve been in the thicket of the events going on in Turkey now under Erdogan. Where do you see this going?

Abdülhamit Bilici: Where Turkey is going?

ABM: Yeah, while he is still in power.

AB: I think his popularity and his power is declining. And of course, he did a lot of damage to democracy and to the society, to rule of law, press freedom. But he is not able to convince more and more people. So, the brutality and oppression is the only thing that he can depend to survive. And in addition to that, due to oppression, the economy is not doing well.

ABM: Yeah, yeah.

AB: So the oppression and economic failure makes him unpopular.

ABM: That’s right.

AB: And this gives an important chance for the opposition and for the people to see that the guy is not an option. Indeed, it is a recipe for failure. So because of these things, because of the oppression, because of the economic failures, he lost two very important cities.

ABM: In the last election, yeah.

AB: And now, because of that, his very important partners once are now separating from him and establishing their own parties. Both the former Prime Minister—

ABM: Yeah, Davutoglu.

AB: And Foreign Minister Davutoglu.

ABM: Yes.

AB: And the Finance Minister, Babacan, very prominent people of AKP; and Abdullah Gül not nominally, but behind the scenes. He also supports especially Babacan, as far as I know. So it shows that his damage, also huge, will be limited. So he will not shape the future of the country. This is how I see it.

ABM: Yeah. You know, the economy of course, was his strong, what really kept him going and kept him in power. And I agree with you, the weaker economy is his biggest problem. But as you see it, what’s the prospect for the Turkish economy to recover? I mean, what he’s doing now, he’s going all over, spending more money, he’s in Libya. He’s in the Balkans. He’s all over building mosques. And he is, I mean, the country, Turkey does not have the capital that he actually— So what’s the prospect for the economy to recover any time soon?

AB: So I think there is no way out without turning back to democracy, without turning back to rule of law. So with that, this is oppression, more authoritarianism, and more poverty. So Turkey is not like Russia or like Qatar, or Iran that has immense natural resources that you can build your authoritarianism or your autocracy on it.

ABM: Yeah.

AB: So this is a very important blessing for Turkey. If Turkey was rich in terms of oil and gas resources, this will be maybe very simple for Erdogan to establish a dictatorship, an authoritarian regime.

ABM: But he already established that.

AB: But—

ABM: I mean, not in name, but he’s a de facto authoritarian dictator. I mean, as far as we can see.

AB: Yeah. I mean, he— The most important thing that he is successful at is his ability to form alliances. So now he survives not because of his popularity, but because of his ability of forming alliances. You know, he formed an alliance with his ultimate enemies, the former deep state and some ultranationalists are indeed the brain of Erdogan. So when I see—I mean, he can continue for a while with building such coalitions, such alliances, and I don’t think that Erdogan has any ideology. His only ideology is to perpetuate himself in power. And he knows that he did a lot of crimes during especially his last six, seven years.

ABM: Yeah.

AB: So a peaceful transfer of power for him is not an option, which is very bad, the worst thing for a country and for Turkey. So which means, I mean, Turkey missed the opportunity of a peaceful transfer of power. It was, the last time it was in 2015, and then there was an election. And it was a just and free and fair election. And Erdogan’s party lost its majority.

ABM: Majority, and he called—

AB: And there was the possibility of forming a coalition. So this was the last time that Turkey could change democratically for the better. So Turkey lost that chance, and all the options are on the table. So a full-fledged dictatorship, I mean, a full-fledged internal conflict, a kind of explosion or implosion. So a lot of bad alternatives there, but not economically successful, prosperous. I mean, internationally respected way is not an option. This is this is how I see it.

ABM: Yes, so, in the next election is in 2023, I think. Right? That’s the presidential election. Do you see within the AK Party, those who still support him in the AK Party, does he have any successor? Some obvious person who might step in?

AB: Not, not—

ABM: He’s planning to run again in 2023. What do you think?

AB: Many people think that he prepares his son-in-law, who is now responsible for the economy. But he is one of the least popular figures in Turkey and even in AK Party.

ABM: Yes.

AB: So I don’t think that this is a legitimate way for Erdogan to feel secure. So, I mean, the most important way for Erdogan would be, when Abdullah Gül’s time was up as president, to swap the positions, so that would be the most secure way and a legitimate way for Erdogan to survive. But he missed that opportunity.

ABM: To swap, what position to swap?

AB: So he could go to a presidency and he could give the prime ministry to Gül. So this was the idea of Gül. Because of that, Gül did not object [to] a lot of his bad policies and I mean, accepted a lot of the worst things that he did. But this could be, I guess, the best option for Erdogan to continue and not to be touched, to secure his family. But he’s losing all those options. Now, his immediate friends are forming a party, and he’s behaving very badly against them. Look at what he’s doing to Davutoglu. Davutoglu had a university, I mean, he was one of the founders of this university, which is called Sehir University in Istanbul. Erdogan appointed trustees to the board and transferred the university to a public state university. And just this week, they appointed trustees to a foundation which was again founded by Davutoglu, who was very famous with these scholarly efforts and nothing to do with politics – so even the Erdogan-appointed trustees to the board of that little foundation. And so this means that Erdogan is not open to any option that he is out, but he could accept any transfer of power. So the situation for such a country is not that promising, of course. It’s not, it doesn’t make me optimistic.

ABM: Yeah, I mean, I’m still puzzled as to why he made this shift going back now five, six years ago when he undertook so many reforms, wonderful reforms, economic, social, political, move toward integration into the EU. I mean, we thought like what you’ve been saying all along, that Turkey would present a model of Islamic democracy, especially in the wake of the Arab Spring, and then everything turned. So what do you think his motivation was? Other than being just being a dictator, just being authoritarian, is there anything else from what you understand, of your understanding of what’s happening there?

AB: You know, as a political scientist, I’m a student of political science. I had not studied journalism, but political science. I know that there are a few rules in political science. One of them is power dynamics.

ABM: Yes, of course.

AB: So power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. So it’s still, I am also trying to answer that return from a democratic path to an autocratic, dictatorial way. Why Erdogan did that? I mean, one of the very important reasons is the power. When you stay in power a long time, you lose your sense of self-control. So this is a very important dynamic. And when you stay in power, you get corrupted. So I think the main reason for Erdogan to switch from a democratic way to an authoritarian path is he is getting too corrupt to survive in a democratic free society. So there’s a very, very important and a good friend of mine who is also in jail now, Ahmet Altan. Ahmed Altan had a very nice elaborate one sentence summarizing this, the answer to your question. He said Erdogan decided or preferred to be billionaire. I mean, together to collect wealth and money to himself and to his family, to becoming a model leader of a Muslim democracy. So he preferred to obtain a lot of wealth, to be a nice, exemplary leader for the whole Muslim world. And when he preferred that way—so when you are corrupt, you don’t like to have an independent media. You don’t like to have an independent judiciary, and you don’t like a full-fledged democracy. So you need to protect yourself. So when we go to 2013, the corruption investigation, Erdogan in that day had two options: either to go to court and respond allegations. If he is guilty, go to jail. If not, continue. But the second option was to destroy democracy, the judiciary and free media, to sustain himself in power. So Erdogan picked the second option. But the core is the corruption. So when you are not corrupt, that corruption investigation would not happen, and you would not have those two dire options, you know, either to pick a democratic way or to go to jail.

ABM: So.

AB: So this is, I mean, so on top of them, you could have this ideological camouflage, ideological color of Islamism. I don’t think that Erdogan is interested sincerely in the idea of Islamism. So all the things are colored in my view.

ABM: Yeah, he’s basically using Islam as a tool by which to promote his agenda.

AB: Exactly. To fool people, especially the conservative people in Turkey and around the Muslim world.

ABM: Yeah.

AB: So that is the purpose of his all-Islamist agenda.

ABM: Yeah, you know, in the same token though, he’s still trying to push Turkey, you know, trying to as I see it, reviving elements of the Ottoman. That’s, you know, Davutoglu told me, I keep saying this going back more, a couple of years ago, more, he said you will see in 2023—before he left, more than three years ago, that Turkey will have the same influence as the Ottoman Empire had by 2023. So do you feel that Erdogan is actually seeking to further expand? He obviously is seeking to expand the influence of Turkey. How is that consistent with his personal ambition in terms of—?

AB: I think his foreign policy steps are very much related to his domestic politics. So his incursion to Syria is the result of his new alliance with the ultranationalists. His fight against Kurds is part of that, a result of that alliance. So his agenda of Ottomanism is also very similar to his misuse of Islam. You know, the idea, the Ottoman history is really popular in the minds of common Turkish people. So whoever says positive things about the revival of Ottoman Empire, or going back to these glorious days, you would get some credit for that. So Erdogan, I don’t think that is, has any idea or utopia of expanding Turkey’s influence. So he is using those steps for his domestic popularity. And when you look at the results, you’ll see that at the end, Turkey gains nothing but only loses. Look at, you know, Erdoğan promised to conquer Syria. So when we look at objectively what we had at the end of five, six, seven years, now, Erdogan, the whole Turkish policy in Syria is dependent on Russia.

ABM: Of course.

AB: And now Turkey was trying to get rid of the Assad regime. Now he became, Erdogan became the strongest ally of Assad’s allies. Turkey is standing with Russia and Iran.

ABM: And Iran, of course.

AB: Which is not a success. You know, when you make the full circle switch from the position that you had in the beginning to the opposite position, this is not a success.

ABM: Well, I mean, obviously, you know, he used to be very close with Bashar al-Assad. And then when—

AB: And what else Turkey got? Turkey got four million Syrian refugees and a lot of economic, I mean, opportunities. And that started from the day that Turkey, that Erdogan and Davutoglu indeed made the decision using Turkey’s soft power, from using Turkey’s soft power to Turkey’s hard power. You know, when Turkey was transforming economically, democratically, it was an important source of inspiration for the whole Muslim world.

ABM: That’s right.

AB: And it was really positive among the people and among the regimes. So look what happened when Turkey got away from this policy. Instead of that, focused on changing regimes, using military, supporting jihadis, et cetera, and taking sides in the internal conflicts of the Middle East. So from that day onward, Turkey is losing its popularity, losing its wealth, and losing its prestige. So this is, I don’t know. But since Erdoğan controls the media, 90 percent, 95 percent of the media, Erdogan is able to portray, to sell these great failures as if he is conquering the Middle East, as if he’s the sultan of the Middle East. So this is the problem. So, I mean, if there is a real media, they will show the Turkish people that the whole Syrian effort is a total catastrophe, not a success. And so the idea of going to Libya is just repeating the same failure.

ABM: Yeah, yeah. In Somalia, in Libya.

AB: In Somalia, everywhere. So, I believe that Turkey has an important role to play in the Middle East. It has a huge history. I am proud of, with a lot of parts of that history. But this is not the way. I mean, Turkey should first focus on its own transformation to make peace with itself, with the Kurds, with Alawites—

ABM: Of course.

AB: To be a good democracy and to be a successful economy, and then could have a positive impact on the region.

ABM: One final question, unfortunately, because we’re running a little late, where do you see this going? Like, if you were to project for the next two, three, four years, where do you see Turkey going?

AB: Yeah, I am very sure that there is no exit for that Turkey under that kind of an administration. So domestically, politically, economically, socially, everything will go and crash to a wall. I don’t know when this crash will happen, but there is no way out. So I hope that Turkey corrects this way and goes back to normal before it is too late and before a lot of destruction.

ABM: But who is going to do that?

AB: So, I mean, this is what makes me a little optimistic. The opposition is getting—

ABM: Getting strong.

AB: Getting stronger.

ABM: Yes.

AB: And the support to Erdogan is not increasing from 40 percent to 50 percent, from 50 percent to 60 percent. Erdogan never was able to convince 50 percent of the society. And his very stable 50 percent is decreasing every day because of these mistakes.

ABM: Yes.

AB: So Turkey, Turkish people will never accept a full-fledged dictatorship because Turkey had a huge experience of democracy, you know, for 200 years of modernization, westernization. So I think the economy will not help Erdogan. Turkey doesn’t have as I said, resources to finance a dictatorship. So finally, I think common sense will prevail. And a lot of those problems that we are witnessing in Turkey now, from economy to diplomacy, will be solved easily. If we turn from one-man rule to a legitimate rule of law and legitimate democracy, most of the problems will be solved easily. But, I am, I don’t think that Turkey is a hopeless and lost case.

ABM: No, I don’t think it’s hopeless, but it’s going to be a while. I mean, unless he loses, hopefully, the election in 2023. I mean, still at least there is an election. I mean, that’s what might save Turkey in 2023, if the opposition parties get stronger and be able to muster more than 50 percent.

AB: But the most important thing is to understand the dynamic that for the western world, for democratic world to support Turkey, Turkey’s democracy is not just a humanitarian cause. It is also a strategic cause. As Turkey loses, as Turkey drifts from democracy, it gets away from the democratic world. It gets away from NATO. It gets closer to Russia, closer to Iran and China.

ABM: But this is already happening.

AB: S-, but the important thing is to understand that the Turkish people still aspire for democracy, for human rights, for rule of law, for free press. And that should be supported not just for humanitarian reasons, but for strategic reasons as well. So there is an overlap of humanitarian causes and strategic causes. So Turkey should be a democracy in order for it to stay as a NATO member, as part of the European alliance, as part of the democratic world.

ABM: No, this is a given. The question is, how do you bring this about as long as he is in power? That’s not going to happen. And then unless you have a fair and free election, whenever that election is going to happen, 2023, whatever.

AB: So, I mean, at least the Western capitals should not continue legitimizing a brutal leader who is oppressing his people.

ABM: Well that’s a different subject because you know, the European community needs Turkey for different reasons. It’s the hub of energy, much of the energy from the Middle East is going through Turkey. I mean, this is a bridge. He’s got cards to play with.

AB: Yeah, Turkey is a good ticket.

ABM: And then he’s got the refugees. He can unleash them whenever, you know, if he wants to.

AB: But that that way of thinking brought us here.

ABM: Yeah.

AB: It doesn’t help.

ABM: No, I know, but this is—

AB: So Turkey was better five years ago, in terms of its international standing.

ABM: Of course.

AB: Today it’s worse. So that way of thinking is not correct, and that started by Obama and Merkel and it did not help.

ABM: You know, he obviously cannot live forever. So the changes are going to happen. The question is—

AB: And the change should be coming from within.

ABM: From within. That’s my point. So he’s not the outside, you know. He’s basically not paying any attention to the EU, is not paying— He needs the EU. He’s utilizing his, for example, membership in NATO, closeness of the EU, he’s utilizing it for his personal adv-, for Turkey’s advantages. But this is not going to last. I mean, the relationship today is broken. Every European person I speak with, they feel Turkey is pretty much a hopeless case unless Erdogan leaves first.

AB: Erdogan is using Turkey as a ticket for his survival.

ABM: Yeah. Yeah. Anyway, I wish we could continue this. But it was a great. I really think what you said was very important.