Recep Tayyip Erdogan, 63, is the current president of Turkey, an office he has held since 2014. He was previous the prime minister from 2003-2014, under the Islamist party called the Justice and Development Part (AKP), which he founded in 2001.
Erdogan has taken Turkey from the secular state it was founded to be under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923 to the emerging Islamist nation that it is today.
Erdogan’s ascent to power began as mayor of Istanbul in 1994. In 1997, his Welfare Party was on the verge of collapsing as it was deemed unconstitutional. During a street protest, Erdogan recited the following poem for which he was arrested, tried for religious incitement and sentenced to 10 months in jail (of which he served four):
The mosques are our barracks, the domes are our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers.
Since 2012, Turkey has reportedly been the top financial supporter of the terror organization Hamas, with Erdogan arranging for the transfer of $250-300 million to the terrorist group annually. The funding comes from private sources he is close to and not from the official budget. Turkey is also said to have trained Hamas security forces in Gaza through non-governmental groups.
During summer of 2014, when Hamas initiated a war with Israel, a terror-linked charity closely linked to the Turkish government organized an event to sign up human shields for Hamas. At least 73 signed up, 38 of whom were women.
Under Erdogan, the Turkish government admitted its intelligence service funneled arms to al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra. The government was caught in a cover-up and threatened to shut down social media outlets that didn’t block the reporting of the scandal, a common governmental response (see below).
After ISIS gained control of large swaths of territory in Iraq, trucks, arms and fighters flowed freely between Turkey and the terror group. A former ISIS communication technician said he would routinely “connect ISIS field captains and commanders from Syria with people in Turkey on innumerable occasions,” adding that “the people they talked to were Turkish officials… ISIS commanders told us to fear nothing at all because there was full cooperation with the Turks.”
However, the life-blood of the Islamic State, crude oil, which largely financed the terror group’s operation, was sold in Turkey. Estimates of ISIS oil sales in Turkey by by the end of 2015 were as high as $1 billion.
Erdogan is known as an autocratic leader who deals harshly with anyone who opposes him. After assuming the office of prime minister, he instituted civilian control over the army.
In 2013, he had a large number of senior military officers, opposition politicians, journalists and academics imprisoned on spurious charges in an affair known as Ergenekonh. Although most of those accused were later acquitted after forensic experts concluded that the evidence against them was faked, some of the accused died in prison due to the horrific conditions to which they were subjected.
During his tenure as prime minister and president, mass arrests of journalists have taken place. In 2012, Reporters Without Borders called Turkey “the world’s biggest prison for journalists.” Since then, the situation for journalists has significantly deteriorated.
Erdogan has arrested dissenters ranging from a 16-year old for the crime of “insulting the president” to a former Miss Turkey for sharing a poem criticizing him.
Erdogan’s government blocked social media a number of times. For example, in March 2014, in the run-up to local elections, Twitter was blocked after Erdogan vowed to “wipe out” the social media network used by 10 million Turks. The move came after Twitter refused Erdogan’s censorship demands.
At the time, recordings were published on social media regarding the shocking corruption scandal in which high members of Erdogan’s government were involved. Erdogan said, “We’ll eradicate Twitter. I don’t care what the international community says. Everyone will witness the power of the Turkish Republic.”
Under Erdogan’s leadership, secular schools have been limited and more religious schools are emerging, a move viewed as Erdogan’s way of making good on his vow to raise “a pious generation.” In the first 12 years of his tenure in power, religious schools (called imam hatip, “one who delivers the Friday sermon”) increased from 63,000 to close to 983,000.
Between 2005 and 2015, close to 9,000 new mosques were built in Turkey. At the same time, in just one example, Orthodox Christian liturgy in a historic monastery in Trabzon, was banned.
An enormous challenge to Erdgoan’s rule came with a wave of demonstrations beginning in May 2013 initially due to plans to develop Istanbul’s Gezi Park. After participants in a sit-in at the park were violently evicted, demonstrations across Turkey emerged, protesting issues ranging from freedom of the press, expression and assembly; and the government’s increasing attacks on secularism, including recent curbs on alcohol and a ban on kissing in public.
Three and a half million people (out of Turkey’s population of 80 million) were estimated to have taken an active part in almost 5,000 demonstrations across Turkey. By the end of the demonstrations, after riot police were instructed to clear the protesters, police had killed 11 people and injured 8,000, many critically. Erdogan dismissed the protesters as “a few looters.”
A major scandal hit Erdogan in December 2013 where a number of members of his government were arrested for corruption, including the sons of three cabinet ministers. Erdogan’s response was to purge the police and judiciary. He ferociously accused “plotters” outside of Turkey as the instigators, namely his nemesis Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish Islamist cleric (and former ally) who now resides in the United States.
A botched military coup in July 2016 gave Erdogan the impetus to arrest all persons suspected of not being loyal to him. The purges included members of the military, judiciary, police, academia and more – in total, more than 135,000 people were removed from their positions and/or jailed.
Turkey’s parliament gave preliminary assent to Erdogan for sweeping constitutional amendments that would abolish the office of the prime minister and see Turkey’s president gain executive powers. The vote will be put to a nationwide referendum April 16, 2017.
While prime minister, Erdogan built a presidential palace costing more than $600 million. The palace is 30 times the size of the White House, has 1,000 rooms and reportedly has a laboratory where scientist work around the clock to make sure Erdogan is not poisoned. After the 2015 election when he became the president of Turkey, Erdogan announced it would become the official residence of the president of Turkey.
Ultimately, Erdogan’s dreams for Turkey include the reinstating of a renewed Ottoman Empire.