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Man in the Middle
Why Abdullah Gul Will Disappoint the West
STEVEN A. COOK is the Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square.See more by this author
Many observers, both in Turkey and abroad, believe that this is Turkish President Abdullah Gul's moment to shine. In recent months, Turkey's democracy has careened wildly off its democratic path, as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has resorted to increasingly authoritarian measures -- including a ban on access to Twitter and YouTube -- to suppress what he believes is an existential threat posed by his onetime ally Fethullah Gulen, a charismatic Turkish cleric who has followers in positions of influence throughout the government. Erdogan seems intent on trying to excise Gulenists from Turkish society entirely. Erdogan's paranoia has also moved the AKP toward becoming an authoritarian cult of personality.
This is where many Turks, Europeans, and Americans have hoped that Gul would step in to steer Turkey back onto a democratic course. In mid-February, Gunay Hilal Aygun, a columnist for the Gulen-affiliated Today’s Zaman, asked, “Will President Gul let the Turkish people down?” The Financial Times picked up on this theme a few weeks later when the editorial board called on Gul “to take a stand” against Erdogan. What these observers seem to want is for Gul to come down from the apolitical confines of his presidential office and directly challenge Erdogan for leadership of the AKP, with a promise of restoring the party's original coalition, which included pious Muslims of all stripes, Kurds, secular liberals, and the business elite. These hopes aren't entirely fanciful, but they are far too optimistic. In fact, they have fundamentally missed Gul's broader reading of Turkish politics.