Foreign Affairs: The authoritarian reaction

The takeover of a major opposition daily signals the demise not only of Turkish democracy but also of freedom’s global march since 1989.

RIOT POLICE use tear gas to disperse protesting employees and supporters of the ‘Zaman’ newspaper after the mass circulation daily was nationalized earlier this month (photo credit: OSMAN ORSAL/REUTERS)
RIOT POLICE use tear gas to disperse protesting employees and supporters of the ‘Zaman’ newspaper after the mass circulation daily was nationalized earlier this month
(photo credit: OSMAN ORSAL/REUTERS)
‘The triumph of the West, of the Western idea, is evident,” ruled American political scientist Francis Fukuyama in summer 1989, expressing a Western sense of victory, vindication and epiphany.
Last century that statement indeed seemed prophetic.
The current century’s Middle Eastern events, however, culminating in this week’s seminal assault on free speech in Turkey, add up to a grand authoritarian reaction.
What in 1989 seemed like “an unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism,” underpinned by “the total exhaustion of viable alternatives,” has given way to an alternative resurgence that a politically exhausted West effectively accepts.
The place where autocracy’s advance and democracy’s retreat converge is the Middle East. Now, the anti-democratic reaction that began with the theft of Iran’s presidential election in 2009 and then proceeded to Egypt’s democratic misadventure is climaxing in Turkey, whose Islamist rulers are steadily dismantling its democracy’s walls, beams and foundations.
The Turkish government’s confiscation last Friday of the mass-circulation daily Zaman, and the violent dispersal of protesters that accompanied police’s barging into its newsroom, climaxed Sunday when the emasculated paper’s front page looked like a patient rising from a sex-change surgery’s operation table: the paper that was famous for its anti-government militancy now led with a fawning report about President Recep Erdogan inaugurating a bridge, and also ignored the mayhem that took place outside its windows the previous day.
Following years of hammering at Turkey’s democracy, this particular assault will likely be recalled as the turning point. By any reasonable yardstick, Turkey has this week become impossible to catalogue as a democracy.
The government’s motivation was clear. Zaman is the mouthpiece of its former ally and current archrival, Fethullah Gulen, a preacher who exiled himself in 2013 to the US. While several other antigovernment publications have been taken over earlier, this move is different because of the newspaper’s reputation and reach, as one of the country’s leading and veteran publications with a circulation of 650,000.
That the move was technically ordered by a court seemed to impress no one. The transformation of an independent news organization into a propaganda instrument comes across as a frustrated government’s refusal to stomach criticism. Worse, suspicions are now rife that Erdogan’s ostensible acceptance of the democratic game was disingenuous all along, a tactic aimed at reaching power and consolidating it, only to then shed it.
The Turkish government’s assault on democracy has been under way for years.
What began with dubious indictments of generals who allegedly conspired to topple the Islamist government was joined by harassments of the judiciary, the media, the police and even the central bank.
More than 1,800 Turks have been indicted for insulting Erdogan since he became president, including retired international soccer star Hakan Sukur, a former lawmaker and supporter of Gulen.
Fourteen Turkish journalists were behind bars for practicing their profession as of the end of 2015, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
Most notably, Can Dundar, the editor-in-chief of the country’s oldest highbrow daily, Cumhuriyet, and his Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gul, were arrested and, though since released, now face trial for having reported about clandestine arms shipments to some of the Syrian civil war’s belligerents.
The judiciary’s servility, obtained through the incremental replacements of independent judges, is still incomplete, as manifested in last month’s constitutional court ruling that the senior journalists’ arrests violated their rights. Even so, Erdogan already felt confident enough to say that he does not respect the court’s ruling and will not obey it.
TURKEY’S SLIDE toward authoritarianism is but a detail in a much broader picture.
The Middle East initially loomed as the peculiar missing piece in the drama that Fukuyama celebrated last century. While democracy marched from Latin America through Central Europe to the Far East, the Middle East remained docile, and its dictatorships unmoved.
Recent years’ events gave hope that this is changing.
In Iran, a semi-democracy was taking shape, allowing some genuine contest of ideas and policies in parliament and also an electoral contest between presidential candidates who, while screened by the mullahs, still represented opposing political circles and schools of thought.
That experiment ended in 2009, when the regime jailed thousands of dissidents and placed presidential candidates under house arrest.
In Egypt, the experiment that was sparked by the rallies in Cairo five years ago seemed momentarily to pick up from where last century’s events left off.
The presidential election which Islamist candidate Mohamed Morsi won narrowly in 2012 was free. For a moment it seemed democracy was finally arriving in the Middle East.
However, Morsi’s effort to create a constitution that would grant him absolute power, including the power to pass laws without judicial scrutiny, was widely interpreted as the beginning of the end of the democratic experiment that brought him to power.
Morsi’s consequent removal by the military, coupled with the Iranian and Turkish setbacks, add up to a region-wide authoritarian upsurge that makes a mockery of previous assumptions that freedom’s march is predestined, universal and unstoppable.
There is one exception, Tunisia, which has emerged from the upheaval of 2010-2011 as a functioning democracy, and there are also mild autocracies like the constitutional monarchies of Jordan and Morocco, and there are some flirtations with advisory legislatures and councils in the Gulf. Still, democracy in the Middle East is evidently on the retreat, a trend that is accelerated by the superpowers’ regional play.
THE AMERICAN passivity in the face of Russia’s renewed penetration is being registered throughout the Middle East not only as the West’s strategic retreat but also as its ideological defeat.
In Turkey, suspicions are rife that Erdogan has come to view democracy as a Western ploy. As he sees things, the West undid Egypt’s democracy because it didn’t like the Egyptian people’s democratic choice. Similarly, from his viewpoint, the European Union rejected Turkey’s admission requests despite its democratic credentials.
If that is Europe’s reward, he apparently wonders, why bear democracy’s burden? Now, as he sees Washington tolerate the establishment of a Russian outpost in his Syrian backyard, a fuming Erdogan has additional motivation to undo his democracy: Not only does it enhance his grip on his country, it also unsettles Washington, which he now distrusts and also openly attacks.
In all, the region’s regimes realize that the post-Cold War era, in which the US was the dominant superpower in the Middle East, is over, and so are Washington’s expectations that local leaders temper their authoritarian ways.
With Egypt’s resumption of its Russian arms purchases after a 40-year hiatus, other regional rulers understand that they, too, can deal with a superpower that does not care a fig for their domestic conduct, and will happily back any strongman that keeps his country intact.
The region’s authoritarian restoration is inspired not only by an American retreat and a Russian return, but also by a Chinese arrival.
President Xi Jinping’s visit in January to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran signaled first and foremost that Beijing now sees the Middle East as part of its geopolitical sphere of interests.
Knowing that its industry will in the foreseeable future rely heavily on Middle Eastern oil, the world’s second-most important economy wants to nurture ties with its oil suppliers. Egypt is part of this vision, despite its lack of oil, because China understands Cairo’s historic centrality in the Middle East and the key it holds to its stability.
In the same vein, Beijing also made an unprecedented move when it offered itself as a mediator in the Syrian civil war while hosting in Beijing representatives of the Syrian opposition, shortly after hosting Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem.
China, then, has noticed the geostrategic vacuum the Obama administration has created, and seems ready to get sucked into the Middle Eastern fray.
Unlike Russia, which does not need the Middle East’s oil but sees it as part of its historic imperial sphere, China’s motivation is mainly economic. However, like Russia, China also has a political motive, having also seen last century’s democratic drive as a problem at best, a threat at worst.
Now, the power that in 1989 blocked at Tiananmen Square freedom’s global march is joining the authoritarian reaction that Russia is happy to join and inspire.
Turkey, once the Middle East’s political antithesis and the Muslim world’s democratic hope, is but a part of this global drama which inverts last century’s common feeling that “the Western idea” – as Fukuyama put it – has triumphed.