The Middle East Channel

Icarus and Erdogan's corruption scandal

After monopolizing political power and dominating the public realm for years, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan clearly thought nothing could stop him from flying high. Like Icarus from the Greek myth, however, Erdogan's flight has taken him too close to the sun. Recent mounting scandal and protest have forced Erdogan into a cabinet reshuffle that resulted in the resignation of four ministers accused of corruption. Icarus did not survive his encounter with the sun's rays. It may be too early to count Erdogan out, but Turkey's internal dynamics and relations with its allies have been altered permanently.

Erdogan, like Icarus, has been badly burned by the sin of hubris. In his 12 years of power, he has come to completely dominate Turkish politics in a way that no other leader since Ataturk's one-party state days. He achieved this dominance not just because he was a good politician but also because he faced a hapless opposition unable to challenge him or elaborate a convincing alternative vision. Ironically, early on in his term one of his closest advisors, who is now in the cabinet, confided "Turkey's greatest misfortune was that it lacked a credible opposition." 

The current crisis erupted when prosecutors armed with search warrants raided the residences of three serving ministers' sons and the CEO of Halkbank, a government owned bank that had raised eyebrows in the United States and Europe for having been the intermediary in the gold trade with Iran designed to help Tehran avoid sanctions. The prosecutors found $4.5 million dollars and other currencies stashed in shoeboxes as well as numerous safes and money counting machines. The sons and other suspects were accused of money laundering, influence peddling, and bribery among other crimes. The three sons were those of the interior minister, who had been in office less than a year, the economy minister, and the environment and urban planning minister. A fourth minister in charge of relations with the European Union was also implicated.

Erdogan's current challenge is not simply the loss of credibility that the corruption scandal entails. There are few people in Turkey who had not suspected or gotten a whiff of scandal. But for years the Turkish public had an implicit social contract with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its leaders: As long as the economic picture improved and more services were made available to the public, the corruption would be overlooked. As extra insurance, Erdogan also made sure that the majority of the press, print and electronic, would be controlled by his allies and he cowed journalists into submission by pressuring their bosses.

So what has changed? In May and June, Istanbul and other cities were rocked by demonstrations against the government that took Erdogan and company by surprise. The size and duration of the protests unhinged the government. It was then that Erdogan made a critical mistake. Instead of searching for a political solution, he decided not just to confront the demonstrators but also to delegitimize them and their demands by inventing a vast external conspiracy as the source of the protests. He and his supporters in the government, media, and elsewhere unleashed a virulent and non-stop campaign backed by imaginary information of how "an interest lobby," the United States, European countries, the German airline Lufthansa, the foreign media, the Financial Times, Reuters, CNN, and the Economist, to name a few, and of course the Jews and Israel together cooperated in this endeavor. The protesters and their allies in civil society and even in some business circles were therefore nothing more than the pawns of this evil cabal.

There were two problems with this campaign. First, Erdogan, possibly misled by his advisors, appears to have not understood the depth of the protests and the extent to which this was about his increasingly authoritarian tendencies. More importantly, the AKP brass came to believe that this strategy solidified his electoral base in advance of the March 2014 municipal elections. Second, it damaged Turkey's image abroad and harmed Ankara's most important international alliances. Indeed, U.S. President Barack Obama, who two weeks before the Gezi protests in May and June had dined with Erdogan in the White House, has allegedly stopped talking to him. Washington and European capitals were understandably shocked that they were blamed for attempting to overthrow him.

Nevertheless, when the most recent scandal emerged Erdogan and the AKP once again unleashed the conspiracy weapon. The pro-AKP press is once again drowning in a sea of conspiracy; the usual suspects have been fingered. This time there is a bit more flourish: The AKP openly suspected the hand of the movement of the religious conservative Fethullah Gulen, once an erstwhile ally and fellow traveler who increasingly became fearful of Erdogan's accumulation of power. There is something to be said about the enmity of the opaque Gulen movement and the AKP. Gulen who has been residing in rural Pennsylvania since the late 1990s when he sought refuge from the Turkish military, has built a vast network of business associations, media properties, and schools. His adepts are said to populate many state institutions, including the police and judiciary. The alliance collapsed with the defeat of the military as both Gulen and Erdogan began to perceive each other as having accumulated too much power. The corruption inquiry is seen as another skirmish in the battle between the two.

The flourish also came with manufactured stories about the U.S. Ambassador Frank Ricciardone and his embassy personnel. Embassy and State Department denials notwithstanding, Erdogan threatened Riccardone with expulsion. One day four pro-AKP government news sites appeared with almost identical story lines if not headlines directly or indirectly calling for the expulsion of the U.S. ambassador. Now they have decided on a common narrative -- that this is a coup attempt organized by the United States, Israel, and the Gulen movement.

Erdogan's initial reaction to lock down the hatches by dismissing police chiefs and changing reporting regulations to prevent further investigations into his party and even his own family has struck a raw nerve. The public this time seems far more skeptical of the conspiracy theories. For one thing the images of the $4.5 million, money counting machines, and many safes -- almost straight out of a Hollywood movie -- are difficult to erase. Furthermore, the explanations have stretched credulity: They range from the foreign conspirators planting the money and equipment to monies collected to build a school somewhere in Turkey or to be donated to a Balkan university -- take your pick.

Uncharacteristically, Erdogan this time yielded under pressure and reshuffled his cabinet. While he may recover, he is a much more diminished person at home and internationally. He will suffer losses in the municipal elections, but he has time to recover even if not completely before the presidential and general elections. Still, the Gezi protests have had a cumulative impact on his predicament. At home it is becoming more and more difficult for the public to buy into the fantastical conspiracy theories that target Turkey and Erdogan. Business confidence, a mainstay of the AKP's rule, has been shaken to the core as its currency has plunged to new lows. 

Will Erdogan throw all caution to the wind in pursuit of short-term benefits and adopt a policy of confrontation with his real and imaginary enemies? This will further divide Turkey and, especially if the United States becomes a target, the costs, economic and political, in the long run could become prohibitive. The U.S.-Turkish relationship has been severely damaged as confidence in an ally leader who accuses Washington for fomenting a coup against him has been zeroed. The United States will continue working with Turkey; it has no other choice as everyday Turkish and U.S. officials engage in hundreds if not thousands of transactions. They range from exchanges within the NATO alliance to Afghanistan to trade and other economic relations to conversations over Syria and the rest of the Middle East. These are not about to disappear -- but Erdogan's hubris has already done real harm to a once close partnership.

Henri J. Barkey is a professor of international relations at Lehigh University.


The Middle East Channel

Egypt's Crackdown on Islamist Charities

Since Egypt's July 3 coup, its new rulers have used arrests, police and military raids, and intimidation to try to shape the country's post-Mohamed Morsi political order. But more quietly, yet no less vigorously, the government is also engaged in an attempt to repress the social and charitable dimensions of Islamic activism. The latest salvo came December 23, when the ministry of justice directed banks to freeze the assets of over 1,000 NGOs. Among the targeted organizations were those linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, Gamiyya Shariyya, and Ansar al-Sunna al-Muhammadiyya -- three organizations that make up the backbone of Egypt's Islamic social service network.

But unlike arresting activists or brutally clearing Islamist protest sites, these measures will reverberate among the millions of Egyptians who rely on these organizations to fulfill their daily needs. Shuttering hospitals or hampering food drives will not fix Egypt's endemic health and economic problems, only supercharge them. And instead of the stability the regime seeks, the more likely outcome will be to create new grievances for ordinary Egyptians, widening the opposition beyond Islamists and hard-core activists. 

That the Brotherhood headlined the ministry of justice's list was no surprise. On September 23 a Cairo administrative court banned the Brotherhood and ordered the seizure of its assets, and the case has since then chugged through Egypt's court system (which has a fascinating capacity to modulate alacrity and sluggishness). Shortly before this week's asset freeze, the ministry of education ordered the confiscation of 147 "Brotherhood schools" across 10 of Egypt's 27 governorates for financial and administrative "irregularities." Now that the Egyptian cabinet has legally designated the Brotherhood as a terrorist group, this campaign is poised to escalate.

But including the lower-profile Islamic organizations Ansar al-Sunna and Gamiyya Shariyya in the recent asset freeze demonstrates the government's determination to bring an even wider swathe of Islamic organizations to heel. The Brotherhood has for decades spurred commentary for its social service network, including the aforementioned schools, around 30 hospitals and medical facilities, religious institutes, and periodic charitable initiatives that serve millions of people. For instance, in the 2010 to 2011 fiscal year Brotherhood medical facilities treated nearly 1.5 million cases. In the group's recent "Together we Build Egypt" campaign, it claimed to provide medical caravans that treated 1.75 million more.

But Ansar al-Sunna and Gamiyya Shariyya each oversees its own impressive charitable networks, and both organizations actually predate the Muslim Brotherhood. The decidedly Salafist Ansar al-Sunna was founded in 1926, while Gamiyya Shariyya dates even earlier to 1912. Just in the field of medicine, Ansar al-Sunna -- a relative latecomer to social service provision -- operates around two dozen charitable hospitals, in addition to small clinics and disaster relief programs.  Gamiyya Shariyya's charitable reach is certainly larger than Ansar al-Sunna's, and likely even larger than the Brotherhood's. According to statistics the group provided, it operates around two dozen hospitals and more specialized centers, including for premature infants, kidney and liver diseases, eye care, and a burn center. It also sends out an average of two medical caravans a week, treating over 43,000 cases annually. This is in addition to smaller, often part-time, one doctor clinics. I often asked health providers who else in the area provided medical services. The respondent would usually mention "Gamiyya Shariyya" and indicate multiple facilities, "there, there, there ... ."  

These organizations' social service networks expanded significantly during the rule of former President Hosni Mubarak and, before him, Anwar Sadat. A tacit bargain between the Islamic groups and the regime secured their social service networks. Specifically, all these organizations registered with the ministry of social affairs, as required by the onerous Law 32 of 1964 and its successors. This put them under strict government supervision, but gave them freedom to operate. In the background, the security services were always poised to respond if the organizations stepped out of bounds. Successive Egyptian regimes found this arrangement conducive because these social services helped cushion the blow of economic reforms -- first the infitah and later structural adjustment and privatization -- that began to chisel away at Egypt's already crumbling system of public services.

But by the time of Mubarak's ouster in February 2011 this arrangement was under stress. Islamic service provision networks had expanded, and the Brotherhood in particular had more assertively challenged the regime in elections and by cooperating with other opposition groups. In response, the security services began to elbow out other bureaucratic organs like the ministry of social affairs and directly administrate sectors, including civil society. Despite the regime's ideological opposition, their fate was to some extent lashed to the Islamists, and they knew it. As the administrator of one Brotherhood hospital related to me, during a particularly intense inspection in the 1990s, a security official turned to him and said "if you weren't helping us carry the load, I'd toss you all in prison."

Although not as conspicuous or contentious as the relationship between the regime and the Brotherhood, Ansar al-Sunna also had its problems. The regime had always been wary of the group, and in the late 1960s the Nasser regime had even forcibly merged Ansar al-Sunna with the larger Gamiyya Shariyya for a few years. It did this in response to Ansar al-Sunna's criticism as well as the group's strong relations with Saudi Arabia. Since regaining independence under Sadat, the group officially moved closer to a Saudi pietistic orientation and steered clear of most opposition activities. Nonetheless, the regime occasionally arrested some members of the organization for allegedly plotting attacks, and leaders of the group were regularly monitored and harassed.

Ansar al-Sunna's travails continued under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). In the fall of 2011 a leaked judiciary report implicated Ansar al-Sunna for receiving an approximately $28 million deposit from Qatar. The group went all out to defend itself, including statements to the major Egyptian papers, and even released documents on its website. However it was still prosecuted for taking foreign funds (with, ironically, a number of prominent U.S. organizations as well). This case has continued, and was likely behind the decision to freeze the organization's funds (although an Ansar al-Sunna official expressed surprise at being included).

Gamiyya Shariyya's inclusion, on the other hand, is more puzzling. In contrast to the Muslim Brotherhood and Ansar al-Sunna, the Egyptian government tended to favor Gamiyya Shariyya for its perceived quiescence and broad social service network. This is why Ansar al-Sunna was placed under Gamiyya Shariyya's umbrella in the 1960s, and it is also why Gamiyya Shariyya's mosques tended to escape periodic mosque nationalizations. Although the relationship between the regime and Gamiyya Shariyya began to fray in the 1990s reportedly due to the increasing influence of Brotherhood figures in the group, it still enjoyed the ability to operate relatively freely.  

Fearful of falling afoul of the government, both Gamiyya Shariyya and Ansar al-Sunna attempted after July 3 to distance themselves from the Brotherhood and accommodate Egypt's new regime. Despite its maneuvering, however, Gamiyya Shariyya still was forced to defend itself from rumors it was linked to the Brotherhood. Prior to the asset freeze, some Gamiyya Shariyya institutes had already been shuttered because of links (either real or suspected) to the Brotherhood.

In addition to the court cases, the Egyptian bureaucracy, particularly the ministry of awqaf (religious endowments) has also sought to reassert control by presenting these organizations with new or restated codes of conduct. Reportedly, Gamiyya Shariyya and the ministry of awqaf signed a new agreement requiring that instructors in Gamiyya Shariyya's preacher-training institutes possess PhD degrees from Al-Azhar (thus increasing Azhar's role in the monitoring). The ministry also signed another agreement with both organizations to regulate the content of sermons and to prevent the use of mosque facilities as platforms for campaigning or other political activities. But the recent asset freeze appears to show that the regime is also prepared to rely on blunter measures to control this sector.

Much will depend on how the court cases and assets freeze are actually carried out, and already there are indications that Gamiyya Shariyya may be excluded from the ruling. Nonetheless, there have already been some wrenching scenes as patients, many of them children (Gamiyya Shariyya specializes in caring for premature infants), have suddenly been left without medical care. But even if these organizations escape the crackdown a precedent has been set, and they now know that they too -- along with the growing numbers of activists and human rights organizations -- are in the regime's crosshairs. Given the impunity with which the regime has acted up to this point, this is dire news.

Egypt's deterioration has led many to speak of a return to the Mubarak period. But the country's new rulers' vigorous attempt to cow and curtail the sprawling Islamic social sector is a step further than that regime ever attempted. It is probably true that Egypt's rulers currently feel buoyed by the anti-Islamist sentiment currently predominant on Egypt's streets and the lukewarm western response to Morsi's overthrow. But that these organizations are the only avenues by which many Egyptians, Islamist and not, meet their daily needs ensures that continuing the current crackdown will likely lead to the exact opposite of the stability the regime currently seeks. 

Steven Brooke is a PhD candidate at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is focusing his dissertation on Islamic medical charities in Egypt. A Project on Middle East Political Science (POMEPS) travel grant contributed to the research for and writing of this article. This essay is part of a special series on Islam in a Changing Middle East supported by the Henry Luce Foundation.

This essay is part of a special series on Islam in a Changing Middle East supported by the Henry Luce Foundation. - See more at:
This essay is part of a special series on Islam in a Changing Middle East supported by the Henry Luce Foundation. - See more at:
This essay is part of a special series on Islam in a Changing Middle East supported by the Henry Luce Foundation. - See more at: