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Coronavirus: The Middle East’s lessons not learnt and missed opportunities

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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There is little indication that Middle Eastern rulers are learning the lessons of the Coronavirus’ devastating effect.

Nor is there any suggestion that they are willing to see the pandemic as an opportunity to negotiate new social contracts at a time that the virus has temporarily taken the sails out of mass anti-government protests in various countries and discontent continues to simmer in others.

On the contrary.

Iran has become the poster child of what happens when the public distrusts a government that has a track record of being untransparent from the outset of a crisis, limits freedom of expression that often creates early warning systems that could enable authorities to take timely, pre-emptive measures to avert or limit the damage, and is perceived as corrupt.

Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei saw himself forced last week to bring in the military to clear the streets after Iranians, already struggling under the impact of harsh US economic sanctions, refused to adhere to public health warnings regarding large gatherings, social distancing. and advice to stay at home.

Mr. Khamenei assigned the task to the regular armed forces after the Revolutionary Guards Corps failed to persuade Iranians to heed government advice regarding the epidemic that as of this writing has infected some 14,000 people and caused 724 deaths and turned Iran into one of the world’s hardest hit countries.

The distrust has fuelled reports and rumours that casualties exceed by far government figures and that mass graves were being prepared to cope with a much higher than stated death toll.

The Coronavirus hit Iran, that was slow to acknowledge the severity of the crisis, only weeks after large numbers took to the streets of Iranian cities denouncing Mr. Khamenei and the Guards in protest against the government’s initial reluctance to live up to its responsibility for the mistaken downing of a Ukrainian airliner that killed 176 people.

Multiple Middle Eastern states, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Jordan and Israel have ordered closures of educational facilities, quarantines and taken steps to curtail, if not halt travel to and from Asian and European nations badly affected by the virus or temporarily interrupt all travel to their countries.

Nonetheless, an exponential spread of the virus could stress test the national health systems in both energy-rich countries that have invested in state-of-the-art medical facilities as well as war-ravaged nations like Syria, Yemen and Libya where hospitals have been prime targets of devastating air strikes.

Potential stress tests that fail could prove risky.

Countries like Iraq, which is particularly exposed with its close ties to neighbouring Iran, Algeria and Lebanon, where many like in Iran defy advice to stay at home, have witnessed months of sustained mass anti-government protests demanding a complete overhaul of a political system perceived as corrupt and incapable of delivering public goods such as jobs, proper healthcare and other services.

Governments have, however, shown little incentive to capitalize on the temporary dwindling of protests to forge new social contracts using the need to confront the virus threat nationally as a wedge.

Fear of the virus coupled with government repression have seen the numbers of protesters in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, where demonstrators initially insisted that Iraq’s political elite was a virus worse than Corona, drop from the thousands to several hundred at best.

The same is true for Algeria and Lebanon, hit not only by the virus but also a financial crisis that is forcing it to default on its ballooning debt.

“You won’t be of much help to Algeria if you’re dead,” quipped one person on Twitter.

Embattled governments see opportunity in the virus, just not one that will prevent the temporary lid on what is a boiling pot from exploding again once the crisis is over, possibly with greater vengeance if Corona exposes the authorities’ and the health system’s inability to cope.

“In Algeria, the government’s calls for cancelling the protests are not motivated by sanitary concerns as it is the case in France, the US or elsewhere,” said Riad Kaced, a US-based activist who flew to Algiers almost every second week to take part in the protests.

“The Algerian regime wants to seize this opportunity to strangle the Hirak and kill it off,” Mr. Kaced said, referring to the protest movement by its Arabic name.

In that mould, the virus, which has so far infected 62 people in Saudi Arabia  did not stop Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman from rounding up potential opponents whom he suspected of plotting against him and launching an oil war with Russia that has wreaked havoc at a time that the global economy can least afford it.

Another clear indication that Middle Eastern autocrats and discredited elites see no reason to use the virus crisis as a monkey wrench to reduce regional tensions and create political and social structures that would make their societies more resilient is their failure to crackdown on opinionmakers, influencers and rumour mongers that seek to weaponize Corona on tightly controlled mainstream and new media.

The Saudi and United Arab Emirates governments remained silent while pro-government voices came to the defense of Saudi-based journalist Noura al-Moteari who tweeted that the virus and its spread had been funded by Qatar in order to undermine Prince Mohammed’s plans for social and economic reform and the UAE’s upcoming Expo 2020.

They also looked the other way, despite a Saudi government warning that rumour mongers could face jail terms of up to five years and a fine of up to USD 800,000, after analyst Zayed al-Amri claimed on Saudi television that Turkey and Iran were using the virus to target Arab tourists and attack countries across the globe.

Said social media scholar Marc Owen Jones: ´Coronavirus is being opportunistically weaponised through disinformation and propaganda tactics aimed at demonising political opponents, while exposing latent prejudices.”

The Coronavirus crisis is taking its toll, including the lives of many that good and transparent governance possibly could have saved. Ultimately, authorities will get a grip on it.

However, Corona wasn’t the first such crisis and won’t be the last. The risk is that weaponization serves rulers’ short-term interests but contributes little to building the kind of national and regional resilience and cohesion needed to confront the next one.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Between Missiles and Flour: The Inside-Outside Game of Hezbollah in Lebanon

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The Hezbollah is armed. Gunfire of Hezbollah and Amal supporters became audible on Beirut’s streets on early Sunday morning on June 7, 2020 after protesters called for the realization of the UN Resolution 1559 from 2004 which requires the disarmament of all militias. Several people were wounded. Actually, the nation-wide protests which started in October 2019 due to the dramatically grave economic situation in Lebanon carried the unprecedented feature of cross-sectarian support. However, the demonstrations on June 6, 2020 were thought to be dominated by parties opposing to Hezbollah because some protesters mentioned directly the Shiite militia when they called for its disarmament.  This created a division among the demonstrators because the original aim of the protests was to overcome the sectarian system by chanting “All that mean all”, when it comes to their demand that politicians resign. By doing so, they avoided targetting certain sectarian groupings. Hezbollah and the Christian parties allied with them are getting more and more under pressure due to the economic disaster the small multireligious country is experiencing currently. The economic crisis depicts one of the biggest threats to Lebanon’s stability since the end of the civil war in 1990 and jeopardize its stability. The Lebanese pound lost more than the half of its value in exchange to the US Dollar, the unemployment rate climbed up to approximately 35% and about 45% of the population has to live now below the poverty line. The state’s budget deficit raised to more than 150% of the GDP. While the Lebanese currency remains to be in the free fall, the demonstrations against corruption and sectarianism has continued after the violent clashes of June 7, 2020.

The Inside-Game Of Supply And Demand

The pressure in Hezbollah’s game inside Lebanon is rising. Their long-term coalitions which made it possible for the Shiite militia to dominate the Lebanese political system after 2008 and especially after the elections in 2018, start to crumble. The internal pressure grows because of supply shortages of electricity and food. A blame game about responsibilities has started for example in the electricity field. Sometimes the parties even fall back on somewhat bizarre offers in order to meet the expectation within the patronage system of clientelism. Other times, oppositional parties from the Christian bloc, which were part of the current Lebanese political proportional representation as well, held Hezbollah responsible for the miserable economic situation and questioned their actions in Syria. By taking advantage of inner-sectarian struggles in the Druze community, reigniting unity against Israel among Christian or simply by paying better salaries to converted fighters, Hezbollah sought to extend their influence outside the Shia community in the past. After the 2018 elections the Shiite militia was able to gain a dominant role together with its allied parties. Although Hezbollah showed at least some resources during the Corona Crisis, the US sanctions against Iran continue to influence the budget of the Iran-supported militia. Therefore, Hezbollah’s social services like extra food or other additional subsidies for fighters had to be cut, also amid the corona pandemic. Some analysts say that Hezbollah tries to bypass the manifold crisis in Lebanon with their own parallel systems like the quasi-bank-system “Al-Qard”, an electric generator supply, and by opening towards new products like Marijuana. Moreover, Hannin Ghaddar claims that the Shiite groups seeks to get rid of Nabih Berri, the head of the partially competing and simultaneously partnering Shia party  Amal.  Protests took place in Shia dominated cities and parts of Beirut as well.

Lebanon is very dependent on food imports because, despite of the fertile Beqaa valley, the country is not able to meet the demand of its citizens and the Syrian refugees living in tents. Lebanon continued to host the largest number of refugees relative to its national population, where 1 in 6 people was a refugee (figures from 2018. Just refugees under the mandate of UNHCR, the ones under the mandate of UNRWA are not included). However, importing food with a weak domestic currency entails several obstacles, some prices have already doubled and some importers consider stopping the trading of certain imported products if no profit can be extracted from it. Hezbollah tried to step in this gap by expanding its smuggling activities between Syria and Lebanon and by substituting some imports with cheaper and tax-free imports from Iran. But the militia provides petrol and flour to their Syrian allies who are facing serious economic problems because of the sanction resulting from the US Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act. New protests broke out even in as-Suwaysa, a city controlled by Assad because of exploding prices for food. Hezbollah’s Nasrallah lashed out at the USA because of the sanctions. Petrol and flour have been subsidized by the Lebanese state. Despite of that, the smuggling activities now are conducted quite more openly than before with truck convoys using the main roads and in daylight. At the verge of the economic precipice the Lebanese state’s economy is approaching the losses caused by the smuggling are immense. Just recently, talks with the IMF about a potential bailout for Lebanon have started. Hezbollah formally supported the start of talks as a member of the central government, but at the same time warned against conditions which would violate the Lebanese sovereignty.

The Outside-Game Of “Resistance”

Lebanon’s sovereignty is the reason for Hezbollah to remain the only militia after the civil war which have not been disarmed. The so-called „Resistance“ against Israel has built the ideological ground for the Shiite terroristic group since its establishment in the 1980s during Israel’s occupation of Lebanon. Hence, the main source of the legitimacy of Hezbollah’s preeminent role has to be located in the field of foreign politics. Over the years the preeminent role of Hezbollah’s arms within Lebanon created a military dualism and constant power scrambling between the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and the militia.

The outside-struggles of Hezbollah are continuous. The so-called “resistance” against Israel experienced a peak last year. Several Israeli airstrikes in Syria and in Beirut and skirmishes at the Israeli-Lebanese border, when Hezbollah blew up an armed vehicle of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), erupted after the IDF unveiled material about a missile production place in the Beqaa valley. The Iranian efforts to equip Hezbollah with precision-guided missiles would pose a major threat to Israel’s air defence system because even if the system would shoot down 99 % of the missiles, the remaining ones would hit a target with a very high probability. This led to a serious situation close to war-like confrontations. Both sides had already climbed up the ladder of verbal escalations. Nasrallah denied the existence of such a programme and accused Israel of being aggressive, whereas Israeli officials warned Nasrallah not to put the whole Lebanon at stake by launching an attack against Israel. Since some of the targets and delivering routes from Iran to Hezbollah went through Syria, Russia had to enter the stage to calm down the heat. Though the situation has cooled down compared to the last summer, still several incidences at the border or airstrikes take place. However, both sides try to avoid casualties and thus a large-scale war. The hostility between Hezbollah and Israel is something more than a border conflict. Nasrallah’s perception of the USA and Israel as mutual agents towards each other shows that “resistance” fight is the founding base for the militia. Two regional coalitions clash with each other in Syria. Will the Israeli intelligence be able to distinct flour from weapons in convoys?

“War on Iran is war on all the axis of resistance. War on the Islamic Republic means the entire region will be set on fire.” – Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah made this deterrent vow. Israel und the USA seek to reduce Iran’s influence in Syria. Turkey wants to secure its own influence area against Assad, and it even might have comparable strategic aims against Hezbollah’s influence like Israel has. The USA, Israel and Turkey are against the Assad regime. However, Russia and Hezbollah support the Assad regime together with Iran. It should not be forgotten that the war in Syria went on despite the corona crisis. Yet, maybe Iran and Hezbollah shifted their strategies in the face of the corona pandemic and its financial consequences for Iran and Lebanon. Assad’s regime made a great step towards regaining its territories in Syria. Nonetheless, Assad’s Syria is still on war with Israel, and the US recognition of Israel’s sovereignty on the Golan Heights have not changed anything about this status and neither did Assad or Israel with negotiations, nor had Assad the resources to engage in escalation with Israel during the war in Syria. Now the two partners in the “axis of resistance” have to figure out the next steps with the Assad regime, while Syria’s economic situation is rapidly deteriorating. Israeli and American sources claimed that Iranian forces have retreated from Syria.

Hassan Nasrallah indeed declared the threat of a “great war” against Israel during the speech on the 20th anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon, however, he also gave the priority to the still fighting armed groups in Syria. The formal approval of talks with the IMF can be interpreted so as Hezbollah and Iran are missing the financial potential to bring up an alternative for Lebanon’s state finances. In the same announcement on TV Nasrallah addressed domestic problems inside Lebanon like for instance fighting corruption. Nevertheless, it is important to recap Hezbollah’s internal activities in Lebanon based on parallel structures partially competing with the Lebanese state which include smuggling or corruptive clientelism. These networks are challenged by the corona crisis and the devasting economic situation. Would it be surprising if Hezbollah return to its foundational ideology of “resistance” by acting out the resistance outside Lebanon instead of trying to solve structural problems inside the country Hezbollah are part of themselves? The militia’s aim is to preserve the current status quo which secures their legitimacy. It is for this reason that the group has become hostile against the protests.

Conclusion

Inside Lebanon several regional and external actors assert their influence on Lebanese politics. Among them are the two regional rivals: Iran and Saudi-Arabia. Therefore, an almost constant struggle for power balances between sectarian groups marks the Lebanese history – amongst them the two prominent ones: Iranian-supported Hezbollah and Hariri’s alliance backed by Saudi-Arabia. This is nothing new. Hezbollah is playing an inside-outside-game with Lebanon. The Shiite party and terroristic group is gambling on two fields: inside Lebanon within the government and outside Lebanon with fights against Israel and others in the face of the looming risk of war due to a single error. Polls of 2019 show, how the Lebanese people perceive the situation: on the one hand, the vast majority of them consider Israel the greatest threat; on the other hand, the three most important challenges in the eyes of the Lebanese are the economy, corruption and public services, and not foreign interference. The news of 2020 are a stand-off with Israel, an unsure situation in Syria, a devasting economic situation amid the pandemic and huge cross-sectarian protests on the streets of Lebanon. These developments challenge Hezbollah’s internal and external influence currently conducted by means of deterrence, providing services and clientelism. If these means fail, one major strategic asset will remain for Hezbollah against their competitors inside and outside of Lebanon. They are armed.

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Arab-Chinese Cooperation Forum: Crucial Decisions in Difficult Times

Mohamad Zreik

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The ninth session of the Ministerial Meeting of the Arab-Chinese Cooperation Forum was held on the sixth of July. The meeting took place through live broadcasts due to the unstable global health situation as a result of the pandemic. It was a successful meeting rich in firm decisions, and the following documents were agreed upon: “Amman Declaration”, “Executive Program of the Arab-Chinese Cooperation Forum 2020-2022” and “Joint Statement of China and Arab Countries Solidarity in Fighting Pneumonia caused by Corona Virus”.

This session touched on security, political and health issues of mutual interest. The “Amman Declaration” has denounced the Israeli attacks that do not stop against the sovereignty of Palestine; it is an expression of an official Arab-Chinese rejection of Israel’s attempt to annex any other part of the Palestinian territories and dissatisfaction with Israel’s hostile policies against the Palestinian people. This document is an expression of the permanent Chinese endeavor to achieve international peace and security (which is the highest goal that neutral countries and international organizations, especially the United Nations, praise). The Amman Declaration cannot be classified as a Chinese bias alongside the Arabs. China pursues a policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries and respects the sovereignty of its international partners, and Israel is a huge economic and trade partner of China in West Asia.

Therefore, the “Amman Declaration” is a Chinese political tool to stop Israeli attacks. In this context, I remember the Sudanese issue. At a time when the world boycotted the government of President al-Bashir and was classified as a terrorist, China did not break its ties with him. Rather, it sought to make peace in Sudan and stop fighting. Some described this incident as direct Chinese interference in internal Sudanese affairs, however, this intervention was in the interest of the Sudanese people and in the service of international peace and security, as is the issue in the Arab-Israeli conflict. China raises its tone to ease the dispute, not the other way around. Another example, when many international groups branded Myanmar (formerly Burma) a terrorist state that assaults Muslims, China was making tremendous efforts and was almost the only international actor to make peace and create an atmosphere of harmony, so the “Amman Declaration” is a new Chinese step in the path of international peace and security.

The Chinese delegation affirmed the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination. China is always on the side of the oppressed peoples. Although China is an ally of the Assad regime in Syria, it has never stopped standing with the Syrian people with self-determination, freedom and human dignity. From this standpoint, Chinese diplomacy has never worked contrary to its principles, as the People’s Republic of China has been and will continue to be on the side of the Palestinian people, which is a priority for the Chinese. China has called for the enhancement of the Arab-Chinese relations and pushed them forward and to use all legitimate means to develop this relationship. The Arab region is important for the Chinese, due to the great Chinese dependence on Arab oil and other natural resources, as well as the important and huge market for the disposal of Chinese goods.

The distinguished geographical location of the Arab region constitutes a commercial and economic link between East and West. The Arab region contributes to establishing new markets for China in the world, and this region may turn to be a hub for Chinese trade, regardless of the obstacle of the US military presence. The Arab countries are an important political partner of the Chinese government and a key supporter of “One China” in international forums.

I would like to touch here on the issue of Xinjiang. The Western and other anti-China media have sought to promote a propaganda “aimed at tarnishing the image of the Chinese government and portraying it as being against Islam and Muslims in China”. The United States supports this campaign under the pretext of defending the rights of Muslims as it claims, but the irony is that the United States has a bloody history against Arab and Muslim peoples everywhere, and the US regime has committed the most heinous crimes against Muslims, it is the summer and winter policy under one roof. Surprisingly, the Arab governments did not submit to this dirty game. Rather, the Sino-Arab relations became stronger and the majority of the Arab people were not in a position to accept the Western campaigns against the Chinese government. This position has shocked the West and all those who harbor hostility to China. The Chinese soft power has succeeded in the face of the military machine and western greed. Is it reasonable for the Algerian people to forget the revolution of the million martyrs? Will African peoples forget their slavery and treatment on the basis of inferiority? Will the Arabs forget the treachery of the Westerners since the Sykes-Picot agreement and the accompanying Zionist occupation and wars against oil and others?

The Arab region has a prominent role in the Belt and Road initiative, “The Economic Belt and the Maritime Road”, given the strategic location of the Arab region linking Eurasia, Mediterranean Europe and Africa, as well as the sea lanes that are part of the initiative. Arab natural resources are the engine for this initiative. Chinese consumption of Arab natural resources will increase dramatically with this initiative, according to Chinese officials. Members hailed the Chinese efforts made to strengthen the ties of the Arab-Chinese partnership, which supports the progress of the Belt and Road Initiative. Concerning Arab and regional situation, China has called for dialogue and resort to international resolutions and agreements in order to end conflicts and create an atmosphere of calm and stability. China has always advocated peace and dialogue as an economic partner of Arab countries and governments, and it is not inclined to be an international arms factory or a promoter of wars and discord in order to establish armament deals; on the contrary, China is absolutely opposed to wars and the use of weapons, and this is not in the interest of China’s overseas opponents. Also, China has assured that it will be the protector of the unity and sovereignty of the Arab countries. It has openly called for no division of Yemen, Syria or Libya among others.

Emphasis has been placed on adopting the executive program of the Arab-Chinese Cooperation Forum 2020-2022, which strengthens the strategic partnership between China and the Arabs, and which is in the common economic and political interest. On the other hand, the Arab countries have been and will continue to support the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China, refusing to establish relations with Taiwan and denouncing separatist religious and nationalist groups. The Arabs always affirm the principle of one country with two systems followed by China in Hong Kong, and the two sides agree to support and protect minorities in the Arab region and China. In this context, the Chinese invited Arab officials to visit Xinjiang to inspect it closely and to learn about the Chinese policy followed in this region. In China, many concessions are granted to Muslim and other minorities in China, in addition to the freedom to practice religious rites. The Chinese have gone to Arab officials to promote Arab-Iranian relations, support the policy of good-neighborliness, non-interference in internal affairs, and resolve disputes by peaceful means in accordance with the principles of the United Nations Charter and international law.

It was confirmed that the decision of US President Donald Trump to grant the Syrian Arab Golan to Israel was rejected, as it is a blatant attack on international charters and laws, Israel was also called upon to withdraw from the Golan and the occupied territories to the line of June 4, 1967, in accordance with Security Council resolutions 242, 338 and 497. Israel was also called upon to withdraw from the occupied Lebanese territories and to stop violating the land, sea, and air sovereignty of Lebanon, which could have serious consequences that might not be commended. China contributes to Lebanon’s security and stability by participating in the international peacekeeping forces operating in southern Lebanon.

China has supported Lebanon in the most difficult circumstances, and today China reaffirms its readiness to stand firmly on the side of the government and the people in Lebanon, at a time when many countries have abandoned Lebanon for political interests and considerations, but China has remained steadfast in its positions and has not changed its policy towards Lebanon. In light of the financial crisis that Lebanon is going through, China announced that it will not abandon its partnership with Lebanon, and considered that Lebanon is a host for Palestinian and Syrian refugees, and this will not change from the right to resort to settlement.

The convening of the Arab-Chinese Cooperation Forum in this unstable international circumstance is a message in itself on the strength and strength of Arab-Chinese relations. This relationship has become a role model for international cooperation against all odds. Some groups seek to stir up discord between Arabs and Chinese under the pretexts of religion and human rights, but both sides demonstrated the amount of awareness and sufficient and great insight that drove the progress of this relationship despite all the difficulties. Many reports indicate that China has a promising future in the Arab region and this partnership will have a distinctive position.

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AKP and the Evolution of a New Brand of Populism in Turkish Politics

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Authors: Nadeem Ahmed Moonakal and Dr.Nanda Kishor*

The rise of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey has had several impacts on Turkish politics and Turkey’s foreign policy outlook. The political situation in Turkey today is largely dominated by the AKP. The recent conversion of UNESCO world heritage site Hagia Sophia into a mosque was one of the election promises made by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. His decision indicates AKP’s appeal to the people and the populism it resorts to with an assertion of religious pride and nationalism.

AKP’s initial rise in Turkish politics should be observed in conjunction with the context in which it came to prominence. The 2001 economic crisis of Turkey is recorded as one of the worst economic crises the country faced ever since World War II. Throughout the 1990’s Turkish economy largely relied upon foreign investments for economic growth. Since the government was already facing budget deficits it lacked the financial means to address the crisis. The political instability that was prevalent in the 1990s in Turkey became another factor for many foreign investors to reconsider their investment plans in Turkey. 

Several foreign business enterprises also withdrew billions of dollars during this period and it reflected in the dramatic plunging of the Turkish economy. However, the existing government pushed for several neoliberal policies that also opened the doors for privatization. Turkish economy faced serious challenges concerning its fragile banking sector and poor macroeconomic performance. This also largely led to the currency crisis. The country faced economic turmoil however some of the structural economic reforms and a successful debt-swap helped the country recover and improve investor confidence.

After the collapse of the fragile alliances, a new party came into prominence which changed the political landscape of Turkey significantly. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002 with Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the Prime Minister of the country. The election reflected a clear discontentment and dissatisfaction of people for the traditional political parties. The newly formed government absorbed the direction set by the predecessor and accentuated its efforts in further transforming the economy with neoliberal measures. The government also privatized state-owned enterprises and became more assertive in implementing these measures amid political oppositions and criticisms. The economy grew rapidly during 2003-2007 however the 2008 global economic crisis slowed down the growth. A year later the country showed positive signs of economic growth although in the later years the economic crisis and the corruption allegations did cause severe discontentment towards the government.

Some of the researches have shown that AKP voters are relatively less educated than the Republican People’s Party (CHP) voters. The traditional voter base of AKP also relies much on the lower-middle-class of the society whose income levels are just below the national average. AKP also receives a critical share of votes from people who identify themselves as religious conservatives. Evaluating the recent trends, it is clear that Erdogan is more conservative in terms of religious traditions and societal norms and values whereas liberal in economic measures which the AKP inherited to an extent from the early 2000 economic reforms in Turkey.

What AKP under the leadership of Erdogan also has managed to do overtime isto create a social assistance system that has received significant popularity among economically weaker sections. One of the most popular slogans from Erdogan’s election campaigns rightly captures the perception AKP has built around Erdogan. ‘Milletin Adamı Erdoğan’ (People’s Man Erdogan) resonates with the larger aspirations of the party to project Erdogan as the leader of the common people. However, there is much pressure on Erdogan now with rising unemployment rates and new challenges from his own traditional voter base. The reaction to incidents like protests post-Soma mine disaster indicates Erdogan’s intolerance towards dissent. Crackdown on protests and dissent has become a severe concern as the government now is vying for more control over social networking websites and apps as well.

The conditions for the rise of a populist leader remain conducive in contemporary Turkish politics. With high levels of unemployment, poverty, and religious conservatism– some populist appeal still can attract certain sections of Turkish society. With the foreign policy adventures of Erdogan and his with his strong anti-Israel stance he has also managed to garner wider popularity in the Muslim world. Hence, despite Erdogan’s decrease in vote share over several elections, the Milletin Adamı remains very popular not just in Turkey but among several Muslim societies across the Middle East and South Asia.

The democratic backsliding witnessed specifically in AKP and in the state as such may not sustain for a long time. The concept of Laiklik (Secularism) which served Turkey for a long time being sidelined will further push it to be branded as a religious fundamentalist state and an autocratic one worldwide. Unlike the understanding of AKP that existed till 2013 along with the Gülen Movement with a friendly approach towards the Western Powers, Erdogan has taken anti-Western move by playing to the gallery of Islamist groups such as Naqshbendi, İsmailağa, and Menzil. His policies were not impressive enough to steer through the economic and political challenges in 2019. CHP managed to win the elections in Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir. Istanbul’s new mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu is seen as a serious threat to Erdoğan. Apart from these, 2019 September also saw defection within AKP by former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and former Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan and their followers. This is precisely the reason why Erdogan thinks religion as a soft power that has the strength to cement his hard power.

The foreign policy challenges to Erdogan are manifold. Turkey’s role in Syria and Libya has been challenged in the region. Failure of any of these would give teeth for the opposition to further challenge him. His blackmailing of the European Union on the refugee issue may not work in the long run. After locking horns with the United States for over ten months, there seems to be some temporary respite with Erdogan and Trump both making certain amendments to their behavior. However, at the backdrop of the conversion of Hagia Sophia to a mosque, the US expressed its “disappointment” in its statement. With respect to the situation in Libya, the US sees a faceoff between Turkey and Russia as Turkey supports the Fayez al-Sarraj government whereas Russia backs Khalifa Haftar with weapons. Egypt is gearing up for a showdown with its partners and allies against Turkey in the Mediterranean and warming up ties with Iran and Qatar may not help Turkey economically.

AKP faces serious economic challenges amid the coronavirus pandemic. While Turkey is now entangled in the conflict in Libya and AKP faces dissent within the party, Erdogan has taken refuge in religion once again and aspires to get the support from the conservative Muslim factions in Turkey and the Muslim societies in the larger Islamic world. The populism he and his party are resorting to indicate elements of an authoritarian regime. This can also cater to the arguments put up by scholars pointing out that political Islam often exhibits a high incidence of authoritarianism. Turkey was seen as a light in leading the Middle East reform movements after World War I. However, in recent years, that credibility is being destroyed brick by brick by Erdogan’s populism. The idea of using religion to ‘control’, ‘eliminate’, and ‘subjugate’ the society is leading to ideological hegemony that would threaten the very foundations of the modern Turkish republic envisaged by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

*Dr.Nanda Kishor is an Associate Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, India. His area of experience and expertise lies in the geopolitics of the Middle East and South Asia. 

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