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Tayyip's tapes: Muslim democracy, sleaze and bribery

Can Erimtan
Dr. Can Erimtan is an independent scholar residing in İstanbul, with a wide interest in the politics, history and culture of the Balkans and the Greater Middle East. He attended the VUB in Brussels and did his graduate work at the universities of Essex and Oxford. In Oxford, Erimtan was a member of Lady Margaret Hall and he obtained his doctorate in Modern History in 2002. His publications include the book “Ottomans Looking West?” as well as numerous scholarly articles. In the period 2010-11, he wrote op-eds for Today’s Zaman and in the further course of 2011 he also published a number of pieces in Hürriyet Daily News. In 2013, he was the Turkey Editor of the İstanbul Gazette. He is on Twitter at @theerimtanangle
Tayyip's tapes: Muslim democracy, sleaze and bribery
​The Turkish corruption saga, which also appears to be the chronicle of a behind-the-scenes power struggle, gets more convoluted by the day.

Even though the graft probe started on December 17, new developments and more and more shocking revelations are ensuring that the rift between the opposing parties becomes bigger and bigger, solidifying the already-existing polarization in Turkish society. And now, the recent alleged sound recordings of telephone conversations between the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his son Bilal have really brought the whole situation to a head. On the one hand, the opposition, led by the CHP-leader Kemal Kılıçdaroglu, is calling for the beleaguered PM to stand down, while his supporters defend his soiled reputation as a sound Muslim who lives in fear of Allah.

Late on Monday, February 24, a veritable bombshell, or the "mother of all bombs" in the words of the Turkish commentator Mustafa Akyol, hit the Turkish internet: audio recordings in which Erdogan can be heard instructing his son, Bilal, to get rid of enormous sums of money, were posted on YouTube.

Quite naturally, the public's immediate reaction was outrage and disgust, although some appeared more phlegmatic, stating that it was to be expected. Yet the government kept its cool, denouncing the recordings, funnily enough called tape (pronounced tah-peh) in the Turkish media, as fakes and presenting them as yet another attempt of the Parallel Structure arguably headed by the US-residing Fethullah Gülen, to discredit the AKP government and its charismatic leader. On February 26, a second recording was uploaded to YouTube and announced on Twitter by a shadowy collective calling itself Haramzadeler – this one involving a businessman Sıtkı Ayan, and the offer of $10 million.

These taped recordings are an embarrassment to Erdogan, who has always prided himself with being squeaky clean. As I wrote some time ago, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been at pains to portray itself as a pure and clean political entity. Hence, defending his leader's reputation, Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag stated that the release of illegal sound recording was nothing but a “dirty game” and that "[t]here is an investigation into this [affair]; when that finishes the truth will come out, but we know this is fabricated. It is not possible to harm the AK party with corruption allegations; people know very well how we [have] served this country.”

In view of the potentially explosive nature of these recordings, international media outlets like Al Jazeera and the BBC have also put quite an emphasis on the tape scandal. A US-based cyber analyst with experience in other Turkish criminal cases, Joshua Marpet, has now looked into these recordings. Replying to the Twitter query (posed by @capulcucucucu on 27 February) "Have you really testified records? Are they real?" Marpet laconically replied "yes and yes." The analyst went further than that, stating to the press that "If it’s fake, it’s of a sophistication that I haven’t seen [before]." On his company Guarded Risk's website, Marpet is described in the following way: "With experience gained from many positions in industries ranging from the Federal Reserve System and law enforcement to cosmetics companies and blacksmithing, Josh [Marpet] has been around the block more than once." As a result, Marpet now appears to suggest that Erdogan is really directly involved in illegal practices falling under the general heading of corruption, or more specifically #AKPgate.

Fireworks thrown by protesters explode near a police water cannon truck as police officers disperse a rally against Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, on March 1, 2014. (AFP Photo / Adem Altan)

Throughout its post-WWII history, Turkey's political landscape has been marred by corruption scandals, implicating the country's political leadership in shady deals and venal shenanigans. The AKP supposedly put an end to this tradition with its own brand of Muslim Democracy and reliance upon a God-fearing electorate. But in contrast, international observers of Erdogan and his political cohorts seem to have harbored suspicions for a long time. These misgivings first came out in the open in November 2010, when WikiLeaks started releasing classified cables that had been sent to the US State Department by 274 of its consulates, embassies, and diplomatic missions all around the world – sent between December 1966 and February 2010 the cache is now known as Cablegate. This veritable treasure trove of juicy information contains quite a few dispatches to do with the now-beleaguered Turkish PM as well. In December 2004, then-US Ambassador Eric Edelman described his host country's political leader in the words of a "former spiritual advisor to Erdogan and his wife Emine" as someone who "believes in God . . . but doesn't trust him."
Turning specifically to the issues of sleaze and bribery, Edelman informed his Washington overlords, “Among the many figures mentioned to us as prominently involved in corruption are Minister of Interior Aksu, Minister of Foreign Trade Tuzmen, and AKP Istanbul provincial chairman Muezzinoglu. As we understand it from a contact in the intel directorate of Turkish National Police, a continuing investigation into Muezzinoglu’s extortion racket and other activities has already produced evidence incriminating Erdogan. In our contacts across Anatolia we have detected no willingness yet at the grassroots level to look closely at Erdogan or the party in this regard, but the trend is a time bomb."

In this way, one cannot but conclude that former US Ambassador Eric Edelman was most prescient indeed, talking about a "time bomb" with a very long fuse, a fuse that needed nine years to burn down and lead to an explosion. At the time of the first release of WikiLeaks' Cablegate, precocious German journalist Maximilian Popp, who had spent three years in Istanbul studying International Relations, wrote on Der Spiegel Online that these "rumors sound outrageous. A senior government advisor is said to have confided to a journalist that Erdogan enriched himself from the privatization of a state oil refinery. Furthermore, a source within the Ministry of Energy told the US that the prime minister pressured the Iranians to ink a gas pipeline deal with a Turkish company owned by an old schoolmate of his. The deal surprised observers: the company builds ports, but has little experience in the energy business. Two unnamed US sources claim that Erdogan presides over eight Swiss bank accounts."

A protester gestures as riot police use a water cannon to disperse a rally against Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, on March 1, 2014. (AFP Photo / Adem Altan)

In other words, word of the PM's fallibility was out on the street already but his reputation was able to throttle these rumors before they could spread across Turkey. Until now, that is. The feminist, Islamist writer and doctor in theology Hidayet Şefkatli Tuksal, who was one of the PM's most outspoken female supporters, recently declared: "Turkey is now entering a new era."

This new era began March 3, when two more recordings surfaced and Erdogan acknowledged the veracity of them. The following day he held a press conference for local media in Ankara, speaking frankly about the so-called MILGEM tender and his dealings with the businessman Metin Kalkavan, which were revealed in the recordings. The tender was for the construction of a so-called 'National Ship' (or Milli Gemi in Turkish leading to the just-mentioned acronym) – a national warship program with locally-produced anti-submarine warfare and high-seas patrol capabilities as well as stealth technology capacities. The tender was discontinued, but Kalkavan instead got the $3 billion tender for a so-called LPD amphibious warfare ship.

Erdogan admitted that the recording was real and that he had effectively spoken with Kalkavan, explaining that "[a] lot of tenders are made, [and] one of them gets eliminated, [one can] make an appeal to me personally, [and] I [will] say, carry on." In this way, Erdogan appears to be acknowledging that he was not above personally intervening on behalf a "friendly" businessman acquiring a tender.

In view of these surfaced recordings of telephone conversations – the Turkish Presidency of Telecommunication recently maintained that their investigations have revealed that in the course of 2012-13 more than half a million people have been subject to surveillance by listening devices – it would seem reasonable to assume that the upcoming elections could see a sea change in Turkey, that the Turkish electorate would abandon Erdogan and the AKP en masse. Still, the PM seems confident that his base won't forsake him or his party, confident that his supporters will see his personal piety as a safeguard against the corruption allegations he now faces. As revealed by WikiLeaks' Cablegate, in 2010 US Ambassador James Jeffrey thought that "religiosity has been increasing in Turkey in past years, just as has been seen in many other Muslim societies. The AKP is both a beneficiary of, and a stimulus for, this phenomenon."

In this way, the now-beleaguered PM seems positive that his personal image as a righteous Muslim will suffice to sway voters he is a victim rather than a perpetrator of illegal transactions. In the words of Turkish journalist Semih İdiz, Erdogan "is telling his supporters that a strong vote will clear his and his government’s name of corruption charges and enable him to fight his enemies who have established a 'parallel state' within Turkey." The upcoming local and presidential contests on March 30 and August 2 will thus determine whether the piety of the Turkish population will suffice to absolve the nation's current administrations of its alleged "sins" or whether these "sins" instead will have pushed support away and redirected electoral backing to current opposition parties.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.