Sultan or democrat? The many faces of Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan

In recent years, Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan has become a darling of the West, a key NATO ally and a strong pro-democracy voice in a turbulent Middle East. But at home his reputation is much different, Michelle Gagnon reports.

Beloved by the West, Turkey's PM is under increasing fire on the home front

Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan and U.S. President Barack Obama hold a joint press conference on the White House lawn last month. One of America's 'top five' foreign allies. (Jason Reed / Reuters)

On Sunday night, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan appeared on national television to make a statement about the recent turmoil in his country.

Ever defiant, he defended the controversial redevelopment plans for Istanbul's main square by saying that his electoral majority meant it was sanctioned by the people, period.

He dismissed accusations of his "dictatorial" rule — he's often decried by his poltical opponents for acting more like an Ottoman sultan than a modern-day democrat — and disparaged the thousands of protesters who have taken to the streets in Istanbul, Ankara and other centres as "extremists."

In so doing, he took his lead from one of his sworn enemies, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who initially blamed the protests in Syria two years ago on "saboteurs and vandals."

The irony was undoubtedly unintentional, but it does crystallize the many contradictions of the man who has been Turkey's prime minister for 10 years.

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For much of this period, Erdogan has been lauded in the West as an important NATO ally, and has been playing a pivotal role in the Middle East, especially in the Syrian conflict.

In 2011, he was also the first Muslim leader to call for the ouster of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, and lashed out at his former friend, al-Assad, saying the era of oppressive dictators was over.

Later that year, in the immediate aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring, he travelled to Egypt, Tunisia and Libya on a kind of democracy tour.

There he preached the virtues of a secular state in a religious society, touting Turkey as a model for the nascent democracies in the Middle East.

By end of year, Time magazine named him Person of the Year, and shortly thereafter, President Barack Obama listed him among his top five allies.

Another side

Back home, however, a different Erdogan is often on display.

Despite three impressive election wins (the last one with almost 50 per cent of the vote), he has a reputation for cracking down ruthlessly on his opponents, whether in the army or the press. 

This recent unleashing of security forces, deploying water cannon and rubber bullets on what were largely environmental protesters, is the latest and perhaps most spectacular installment.

That iron glove may well be the result of some sort of inevitable turn towards Turkish dictatorship, a teleology born of the country's history of military coups, as some Turkish analysts have suggested recently.

But that seems unlikely, or at least unprovable. Rather, it may be that the arrogance of power is nothing new to Erdogan, who often appears to have become consumed with his own successes.

Now in his third term, Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have been ruling Turkey since 2003. (Before that he was the popular, technocratic mayor of Istanbul, relentless in his attempts to modernize an ancient city.)

As prime minister, he inherited a country suffering from a flailing economy and deep divisions between rural and urban, traditional and modern, religious and secular populations.

Both a pragmatist and devout Muslim, he promised to revive the economy, loosen the rules of Turkey's strict secularism, and allow for greater religious freedom in daily life.

He has accomplished all three, garnering him much acclaim, as well as criticism that he consistently overreaches, abuses even.

His economic initiatives and reforms have led to steady growth in the country's GDP, a stellar achievement considering the current shape of neighbouring European economies.

Turks prospered and Istanbul grew. And grew and grew, becoming a seemingly ceaseless construction project that many see as destroying their city and robbing it of its past and few remaining green spaces, the trigger for the current unrest.

Erdogan's strongest challenge to Turkey's staunch secularism, though, came when he took on the military.

Turkey's anti-Erdogan protests even spread to Paris yesterday, where several hundred Parisians and ex-pat Turks gathered to show their opposition to the government crackdown. (Benoit Tessier / Reuters)

Harking back to the founding of the republic in 1923, the military has served, rather paradoxically, as the guarantor of the nation's secular identity. It has also backed four coups in 40 years.

In 2004, a handful of generals and officers were charged with plotting to overthrow the new Erdogan-led government in a conspiracy code-named Ergenekon.

The charges were initially applauded. But over the years, the number of arrested swelled into the hundreds, and included civilians and journalists accused of supporting the plot.

Many were held for years without trial, and Ergenekon became the pretext to quash any dissent.

Secular challenge?

Erdogan has long known how to appeal to his conservative base.

One of his first moves was to lift a long-standing ban against women wearing head scarves in universities and public administration.

Rather counter-intuitively, this was a liberalizing move, granting conservative women access to previously-forbidden realms.

Members of Erdogan's government, however, followed up on this opening with calls for more prohibitive laws, including the creation of single-sex beaches, and, most recently, with warnings against public displays of affection like kissing, and new regulations on the sale of alcohol.

Secular-minded Turks see such efforts as encroaching on their freedoms, an incursion into their values, and a dangerous step backwards for their country.

They were the ones who initiated the recent protests, but over the past several days, the fierce police crackdown and the growing number of demonstrators has rallied others, of many different persuasions, to join in.  Some are calling these days of unrest a Turkish Spring.

But Turkey doesn't need a so-called spring in the way Egypt, Libya and Tunisia did.

Turkey is an electoral democracy that boasts free and fair elections. And despite the increasing clamour, most observers feel that if elections were held now, Erdogan and the AKP would likely win again. The opposition is weak and his base strong.

On Monday night, as the protests, riots and crackdown continued, Erdogan boarded a plane for a four-day trip to Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, in an effort to reprise his 2011 Democracy Tour.

If the irony escaped Erdogan again, it was not lost on anyone watching.