Although Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan cast doubt on the credibility of the whistle-blowing Internet site WikiLeaks when it started publishing a massive release of confidential US diplomatic cables in 2010, many about Turkey, I think one cable that profiled him back in 2002 was right on the mark. The US Embassy cable, dated Dec. 4, 2002, and dispatched from the US Embassy in Ankara to Washington, was a good analysis of Erdoğan's character. The cable was dispatched on the eve of his departure for a visit to the White House on Dec. 9-10, 2002, as the chairman of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party). He was not the prime minister at the time because of a court ban preventing him from running for a seat in Parliament during the November 2002 elections, while the party he headed won the majority of the vote.
The cable described him as a man “prone to emotional reactions and cool in wielding political power. He has a huge self-image and heightened sense of pride, both easily wounded when he thinks he is not being shown due respect, and reacts badly to criticism,” it read. The embassy in Ankara suggested to interlocutors in Washington to treat him gently. “The best way to convince him to take a tough decision is to appeal calmly but man-to-man to his sense of destiny as Turkey's leader,” it said. “He reacts badly to overt pressure or implied threats,” the embassy cable warned.
People who know Erdoğan in his close circle corroborate this description as well. I recently sat down with Hüseyin Besli, a man who has shadowed Erdoğan for almost his entire political career. He knew Erdoğan since the early '70s and was next to him for almost every step of the way, preparing his speeches and political statements in the period between 1991 and 2007. He even wrote a book, “Bir Liderin Doğuşu: R. Tayyip Erdoğan” (The Birth of a Leader: R. Tayyip Erdoğan), in 2010. He told me that he did not include some of the things he did with Erdoğan in the past, fearing that it might place the Turkish prime minister in difficult position. “Otherwise the book could have been double the size of its current volume,” he noted.
Besli says whoever profiled Erdoğan at the embassy in Ankara in 2002 was right on the point that Erdoğan reacts very badly to pressure and criticism. “Even if you are 100 percent right in your point, when you say this to him loudly and in a condescending manner, he will never accept it,” he said. Besli studied psychology as his major and knows about profiling. Though he rejects the popular label of being “a black box” for Erdoğan, he is nevertheless blunt in saying, “I think I can read him very well.” The fact that he wrote many speeches without even talking to him may be a testament to his ability to figure out what Erdoğan thinks and really wants. “I can tell you what kind of reaction he would adopt in a given situation. If we run a test for different contingencies, I think I will hardly be wrong,” he says. He even claims that if Erdoğan sets his mind to something, he is closed to consultations and suggestions. But if he has not yet decided, he holds numerous and unusually long meetings until a thought forms in his mind. “He gives a chance to all 50 people who sit on the party's Central Decision and Administration Board [MKYK] to speak. That is why the MKYK meetings last longer than usual,” he states.
Erdoğan was a young 22-year-old politician when he became the İstanbul provincial chairman for a small religious party called the Welfare Party (RP) headed by the late Necmettin Erbakan, the founder of political Islam in Turkey. He first got involved in politics in İstanbul, starting as a youth branch leader, then as a district head and finally as the city's mayor in 1994. Besli says holding the mayoral position as well as trips abroad have changed him, exposing him to different cultures and people. “The UN Habitat II conference in 1996 was a peak point for him,” he recalls. The event was categorized as the largest international event Turkey had ever hosted at the time and Erdoğan learned a lot from this experience. He later split from his own party, establishing the AK Party.
The former speechwriter describes Erdoğan as a charismatic leader with a deep emotional side, although he admits these two are hardly compatible in a leader. “I think leaders distance themselves from emotions under the burden of national interest and in consideration of what will be a benefit and loss to the country. But Erdoğan did not lose his sensitive side,” he explained. This may have landed Erdoğan in hot water at times, Besli admits, stressing that this may be the weakest link in his leadership skills. “What is expected from a politician of his caliber is to filter his thoughts 10 times before saying them out loud. But Erdoğan can say things without even putting them through the filter,” he remarks. One example was the Turkish prime minister storming off the stage at the World Economic Forum (WEF) panel in 2009 after a heated exchange with Israeli President Shimon Peres, who strongly defended Israel's offensive in Gaza.
Another weakness in Erdoğan, according to Besli, is to carry the men who proved to be performing poorly on his team. Having served as a captain in a local football team, Erdoğan is good at managing the team, he says. However, Erdoğan compensates for weak players by assuming more responsibility. "This wears him down, unfortunately," Besli criticizes. Though Erdoğan is not in the habit of giving up his men when they are involved in a political scandal, he waits and reshuffles them a year later, Besli says. He doesn't carry them forever. “There have been many dropouts in our voyage together with Erdoğan,” he recalls.
Erdoğan is good at handling crisis management, Besli claims. “Contrary to expectations, he becomes calmer during crises. He adopts a softer and slower approach, designates assignments to his team and motivates them in a very controlled environment,” he explains. But he is very pragmatic and knows where to take a stand and with whom he should take a stand. For example, when he split from his old party, he defined the AK Party as a “conservative democratic” party rather than “Islamist,” lest the latter land him in jail for a second time and to a ban of the AK Party under the military-dominated regime in Turkey at the time.
Erdoğan is closer to social democratic values than nationalist ones since ideas during his youth were formed under the influence of Islamists like Egypt's Sayyid Qutb, the leading member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s and '60s. Qutb's emphasis on social justice made an impact on Erdoğan and his friends, Besli argues. The fact that the AK Party government pursued many social policies is a reflection of this ideology. Besli argues that most of the time conservative and socialist concepts are not easy to separate but, although Islamist intellectuals do not openly admit it, they regard themselves as being closer to leftists than nationalists.
The prime minister's confidant says the place where Erdoğan was brought up also played a role in shaping his character. “Kasımpaşa in İstanbul's Beyoğlu district, a tough and poor neighborhood, and Pera, an upscale neighborhood, sit next to each other. It is impossible for a young man who grew up in Kasımpaşa not to have any connection to Pera, its upscale neighbor. This is like a classic Hollywood scenario but happens in real life. Growing up between these two contrasting lifestyles had a positive impact on Erdoğan's character,” Besli said, adding that Erdoğan developed sincere relationships with people from other communities and was accepted by the people of those communities as one of their own.
Besli underscores that Erdoğan's education at imam-hatip schools, modern religious schools combining both a middle and high school curriculum with an emphasis on science education in Turkey, may have had an impact on the prime minister. “İmam-hatip schools have played an essential role in the integration of religious people into the education system,” he said, adding: “Those who do not know how important a role religion plays in the lives of Turks cannot truly be intellectual or successful politicians [in Turkey]. Unfortunately, we have suffered from this disconnect in the past.” The recent education reform aiming to bring imam-hatip schools back to life may have been partially driven by the prime minister's experience in these schools.
Besli predicted that whoever gets selected to lead the party after Erdoğan becomes president would undoubtedly face harsh competition from rivals. “The only exception is Abdullah Gül, the current president. If he decides to return to the party and lead, there will be no challenge to his leadership,” said Besli. “All others will face a bitter fight.”
Besli also hinted that the prime minister's leadership might be suffering from the like-minded team of advisors who are afraid of raising a dissenting opinion to his own. From his recollection, he shared a story. “We were discussing one particular issue when we were on the road. It was obvious that Erdoğan very much wanted to pursue this issue. Everybody said affirmative things while I was strongly opposed to that. He turned around and said to me: ‘What kind of man are you. Everybody thought it was a beautiful idea and you are the only one who opposes it.' I said very calmly. ‘You have to be thankful that you still have a man like Abu Dharr al-Ghafari by your side.' Abu Dharr lived during the Prophet Muhammad's time and was one of the first Muslims and close companion of Muhammad. He has a reputation of being an outspoken orator who always spoke his mind,” Besli recalled, adding to that that “mine was an opposition from inside and should not to be confused as negative campaigning aimed at destroying him from the outside. In a sense, it was an opposition from an insider who said the prime minister was doing something wrong.”
Asked if there is anybody like Abu Dharr around Erdoğan today, Besli simply said people like Abu Dharr should always accompany him. “Otherwise communities and societies who lack an Abu Dharr will be destined to degenerate,” he warned. In the final analysis, Besli believes the country's most powerful man is still the same man today as he was 40 years ago. If that is the case, I think it is easier to understand Erdoğan's overtures to religious symbolism these days as well as his desire to rule pretty much everything.