The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How a death sentence in Egypt feeds paranoia in Turkey

Turkish supporters of deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi protest the court case against him in Istanbul, Turkey, May 24 2015. (EPA/DENIZ TOPRAK)

On Tuesday, an Egyptian court upheld a death sentence on former President Mohamed Morsi, an Islamist politician who went from being the country's first democratically-elected leader to its most high-profile inmate on death row in the space of a couple of years.

The sentence is associated with Morsi's alleged role in a series of jailbreaks and attacks on police during the 2011 uprising against the regime of Egypt's long-ruling President Hosni Mubarak. Morsi won a presidential election in 2012, but was ousted in a military coup the following year by then army chief Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, who installed himself as the country's ruler and has presided over a ruthless crackdown of Morsi supporters and other dissidents.

The latest news prompted a tightly-worded White House response, with the Obama administration saying it was "deeply troubled" by Morsi's sentence and other similar verdicts handed out to members of his Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and warned that such political trials were "not only contrary to universal values but also damaging to stability that all Egyptians deserve."

But the greatest outsider ire came from Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an outspoken critic of the Sissi government. Erdogan described the Egyptian verdicts as "a massacre of law and basic rights." And he urged the international community "to act to withdraw these death sentences, given under the instructions of the coup regime, and to put an end to this path which could seriously endanger the peace of Egyptian society."

Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish abbreviation AKP, have watched with horror what befell Morsi and his political allies.

In 2011, Erdogan and other AKP officials had championed their brand of moderate Islamist politics as a template for a democratizing Middle East, caught up in the upheavals of the Arab Spring. The Islamist electoral victories that followed, particularly in Egypt, the Arab world's most populous state, seemed to vindicate their position.

Four years later, though, and you won't hear much of the once-vaunted "Turkish" model.

That is, first, a consequence of the hideous turmoil that has flared in the region, from Iraq to Libya. Only little Tunisia can boast sustainable, democratic gains. In the case of Egypt, a hopeful revolution foundered during Morsi's divisive spell in power and now seems to be fully in reverse under Sissi.

It's also the result of the sheen wearing off Erdogan's long tenure. The AKP has dominated Turkish politics since it came to power in 2002, and is credited with lifting a whole swath of the country into the middle class through sweeping reforms of the economy and health system. Erdogan, a charismatic albeit demagogic leader, served three terms as prime minister and won election as Turkey's president last year. No figure in Turkish politics has had much of an impact on the country since Mustapha Kemal Ataturk, the republic's founder.

But earlier this month, Erdogan suffered a blow when the AKP failed to secure a parliamentary majority in national elections. The outcome of the vote likely put to bed Erdogan's plan to scrap the country's existing parliamentary structure for a presidential system where he would have fewer checks and balances and a greater mandate for executive action. Turkey's four main parties are still wrangling over the formation of a new government.

Before the election, Erdogan, who as head of state technically was not supposed to participate in the AKP's campaign, brought up Morsi's plight during stump speeches. On May 16, the day Egyptian authorities originally handed down Morsi's death sentence, Erdogan addressed AKP supporters sympathetic to the cause of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood.

"Unfortunately, Egypt has given a death sentence to a president elected with 52 percent of the vote. Egypt is returning to the old Egypt," said Erdogan, referring to the decades of quasi-dictatorial rule under Mubarak. Not long thereafter, a pro-AKP newspaper ran a headline that read "Egypt's fate is tied to June 7," the date of the national elections in Turkey.

The issue here was not simply one leader's conspicuous support for a jailed politician elsewhere.

Both Egypt and Turkey have a long history of secular elites working hand in hand with a meddling army to quash dissent and suppress political Islam. And this history animates Erdogan's rhetoric and politics.

According to Ceren Kenar, a columnist for the Turkiye newspaper, the memory of Adnan Menderes -- a liberalizing Turkish prime minister who was friendlier to Islam than Ataturk and eventually overthrown and hanged by a military junta in 1961 -- haunts Erdogan's palace chambers.

Over the past decade, Erdogan has subdued Turkey's military, dismantled the state's old bureaucracy and chipped away at some of its secularist foundations. Earlier this month in Istanbul, one AKP supporter told me how liberated she felt being able to wear a headscarf -- a symbol of her piety and faith -- in public institutions where the garment was once banned. "I have real freedom," she said.

That sentiment of enduring Muslim grievance is vital to the AKP's narrative, say critics, despite all its years in government.

"Although Erdogan has been in power for 13 years, and has accumulated power unprecedented since the time of Ataturk, the oppression of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt provides him and his supporters a strong sense of victimhood," writes Turkish columnist Mustafa Akyol.

Fear-mongering over foreign and domestic threats inflamed the AKP's election campaign last month, with pro-AKP newspapers blaring headlines that warned of a "crusader alliance" plotting Turkey's downfall. There was an implication that, just as the West and its regional proxies had tacitly allowed the coup against Morsi, they would now conspire to undermine the AKP's position of dominance.

When I asked Muhammed Akar, the AKP's chairman in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir, about the effect of recent corruption scandals on the party as well as about wider concerns with Erdogan's increasingly authoritarian style, he offered up a simple answer. Akar blamed my misconceptions of the situation in Turkey on "the international Jewish lobby," which apparently speaks through the Western media.

Most would rightly say this response simply reflects his ignorance and prejudice. But it also shows the mentality of a politician who, fully aware of cautionary tales of coups elsewhere, sees enemies constantly hovering in the shadows.

See also

Turkish voters deliver blow to Erdogan, victory to Kurds

Uncertainty grips Turkey after national elections