Man in the Middle

Why Abdullah Gul Will Disappoint the West

Gul and Erdogan at a ceremony to mark Republic Day, October 29, 2013. Umit Bektas / Courtesy Reuters

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. 

Gul has carefully cultivated his reputation as a moral voice in Turkey's transition to democracy, and in recent months he has not shied from expressing his displeasure with Erdogan's style of leadership. In response to the government’s ban on Twitter after Erdogan vowed to “eradicate” the service, Gul tweeted, “The wholesale shuttering of social media platforms cannot be approved. I hope this practice will not last long.” Months earlier, at the opening session of the Grand National Assembly, Gul distanced himself

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