A few years ago, a Turkish friend told me what he thought about the future of his country: “Things are moving too quickly,” he said. “The economy is surging ahead, development is moving forward at an uncontrollable pace. Turkey is overheating.” It was, according to him, typical of Turkey’s brief history. In the 80-odd years of republican existence, Turks have ridden the occasional wave of euphoric progress, wobbling like amateur surfers before suffering an epic wipeout. “It’s our curse,” my friend added. “Every once in a while, Turkey booms. Some people get rich. And then, things fall apart.”
The last decade has proven an era of rapid ascension. Many Turks, particularly the business and political class, have bragged of their nation’s entrance into the big leagues. World leaders have looked to Turkey as the model for a modern, secular, Muslim-dominated country. But they have missed one crucial point: Turkey’s fundamentals have remained mired in outdated concepts of group affiliation and a kind of 21st-century tribalism.
Political parties like the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) are structured along tribal lines, echoing the patterns that have dominated Turkish and Middle Eastern cultures for centuries. The head of the tribe—Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in this case—has near-absolute power. Inter-tribal rivalries, meanwhile, dominate virtually every state institution, with battles between parties and other stakeholders, including the military and judiciary, playing out for control of Turkey’s future. As James Jeffrey, the former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, put it in a 2010 diplomatic cable made public by WikiLeaks, “Turkey will remain a complicated blend of world-class Western institutions, competencies, and orientation, and Middle Eastern culture and religion. But every day is a new one here, and no one can be certain where this whole choreography will fall out of whack. Then, look out.”
The choreography is collapsing on a number of fronts. Capitalism, for example, has taken root in Turkey but control over it has at the same time become a battleground between competing tribes. Land prices have risen dramatically over the past decade and with them lucrative development profits. Construction—everything from bridges to housing blocks—is now a source of immense power and influence.
The Gezi Park protests, which began in May last year, were in reaction to the rapid pace of development in Istanbul, embarked on by the Islamist-rooted AKP. Protesters complained of the AKP’s self-interest and total disregard for social issues in their quest to modernize the city. Historic neighbourhoods were levelled to build shopping malls, hundreds of thousands of trees felled in the name of progress—progress which benefited AKP supporters in the construction industry.
Construction now sits at the heart of the biggest corruption scandal Turkey has ever seen. And the accused are a telling indictment of the tribal wars playing out in Turkey: the sons of three senior AKP party members have been charged with taking bribes related to construction projects and funnelling money to Iran, in violation of international sanctions. Erdogan Bayraktar, who resigned in late December as the minster of the environment and urban planning, has also been implicated.
AKP supporters argue their party is doing what it needs to do in the interest of all Turks. And Prime Minister Erdogan, in response to both the Gezi Park protests and the current scandals, has appealed to voters in Turkey’s conservative heartland, those who have benefited most from the AKP’s economic favouritism. His language in public addresses is the language of the tribal chieftain: the protesters are “outsiders”; he represents the “real Turks” (i.e., the people who voted for him).
The way the AKP has wrangled Turkey’s economy into its own tribal domain has become a contentious issue. Even its one-time Islamist ally, the Gulen Movement, another tribally structured organization wielding great power inside Turkey, has turned on its co-religionists.
The corruption scandals rocking the political establishment have been festering for years. The Gulenists, who have penetrated Turkey’s police services and the judiciary—a fact finally acknowledged by Erdogan recently—accepted the AKP’s crony capitalism, at least for a while. The rise of the Islamist business class benefited its people as well. But now it seems Erdogan no longer believes he needs the Gulenists, or anyone else for that matter. Consequently, the AKP now controls much of Turkey’s economic activity, cutting into the operations of the Gulenists as well as Turkey’s established secular elites and powerful underworld dons. “There are half a dozen small wars going on in Istanbul right now,” the head of one of Istanbul’s Kurdish mafia outfits told me in 2010. “AKP-linked Islamists have taken over the underground economy. Everything is changing in this city, too quickly. There is chaos.”
As it turns out, my Turkish friend was right in the end. The country had appeared to me, an outsider, to be a nation on the cusp of greatness. But what, in fact, was happening was a repeating cycle of boom and bust, the “curse” of a nation situated at what might be the world’s most enviable geographical location, a crossroads of cultures and geopolitical necessities. But some of those cultural traits are now proving a liability. “When Turkey rises, it rises fast,” my friend warned. “When it crashes, it crashes hard. And the crash is coming.” Lately, it seems it’s already begun.