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 ...


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 work
ing 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.

Henri J. Barkey is a professor of international relations at Lehigh University and a senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. @hbarkey
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