If he knows only two things, a ruler is successful: the first is knowing when to act and the second is knowing when to do nothing. The aphorism is mentioned in the Persian classical text Marzban Nameh, one of the books popular in the Muslim world since the medieval times and known in Arabic as “Mer’at Al-Muluk” (Mirror of Kings) that try to teach the ruler, often a despot, how to do his business.
A more colorful version of the aphorism was coined by Gaius Octavius, alias Augustus, the only Roman Emperor who managed to reign for almost three tranquil decades. His motto was “Do nothing in a hurry” or, in his own words: “Make haste slowly!”
Tukey’s beleaguered President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would do well to take the advice in both its Persian and Roman versions. Having survived last month’s abortive coup, Erdogan now seems closer to achieving his grand neo-Ottoman design under which he would be at the summit of power.
The Ottoman ruler carried various titles. He was Khan or Khaqan to his Turkic tribal followers, Caliph to his Sunni Muslim subjects, Sultan to those who ran his bureaucratic and military machines, Pasha to his Persian-speaking subjects, and Qaysar (Caesar) for the Christian subjects of the Empire.
One thing he was not, was a despot. He couldn’t do whatever he liked. Reports by Western envoys, emissaries and traders over more than two centuries attest to the fact that the Ottoman Khan-Caliph-Sultan-Pasha-Qaysar exercised less power than did his European contemporaries, say the various Louis in France.
Typically, the course of action favored by most Ottoman rulers was to avoid taking any action. In the words of Amir-Alishir Navai, the great Turkic poet, we should avoid doing things that cannot be undone. And when it comes to the ruler of a great empire, something that cannot be undone could come on a very grand scale and a very high cost.
Since the abortive coup, Erdogan has been acting like a wounded giant, moving in every direction, hitting everyone in sight and groping for ghosts in the dark. To impose his image as a man of action he has ordered thousands of arrests, massive purges and favor-distribution on a gargantuan scale. He has also put into circulation a dime-a-dozen ideas for constitutional and judicial reform. In the process he has ignored another lesson of Mazrban Nameh: to think as a man of action but to act as a man of thought.
His obsession with amending the constitution to create a presidential system is especially puzzling since he is already acting as chief executive. Students of history know that the rose of autocracy smells as foul under any name: Duce, Fuhrer, Caudillo, Conducator, Supreme Guide or Helmsman.
Erdogan really needs to get a grip on himself, if only because, sadly, Turkey needs him right now as the least bad option in a confused situation. He may be every Turk’s first choice but he sure is the second choice of many.The first thing he needs to do is to take a deep breath since breathing is not one of those things that the ruler had better not do.
Next, he needs to restore a measure of discipline within his camp, at least as far as the narrative of the events is concerned.
Too many people in his camp, starting with his son-in-law and former grandees of his Justice and Development Party (AKP), are offering too many plot-lines, making it hard to know what really happened. A nation’s cohesion often depends on a commonly accepted narrative of its past history and present challenges. A commonly acceptable narrative of the recent events could only be produced by a genuine inquiry conducted by a non-partisan group with no personal axes to grind.
The cacophony unleashed by the double-barrel coup has already done immense damage to Turkish foreign and domestic policies. While some major figures in the Erdogan camp publicly blame the United States for the abortive coup, others demand that the same US extradite Fethullah Gulen, the exile cast in the role of Erdogan’s enemy and number-one foe.
The cacophony also includes accusations against Arab states supposedly supporting the failed coup and, more recently, a suggestion by the Turkish ambassador to Tehran that Turkey, Russia and Iran form a triumvirate to “stabilize the Middle East.” Interestingly, on the day of the coup, the daily Kayhan, reflecting the views of the “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei, ran an editorial that seemed to welcome the event as a sign that the “Kemalist model” had failed, leaving Islam with nothing but the “Khomeinist model.”
While one AKP grandee insists that the removal of Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad from power remains a top priority, another spreads rumors that the despot may still be part of the solution.
In the past two weeks we have heard and read so many contradictory statements that we no longer know what Turkish policy is on key issues such as the wars in Syria and Iraq, the absorption of Syrian refugees, the agreement with the European Union on asylum-seekers, and the perennial tension with Russia not to mention the sing-up-swing down relations with Israel.
Erdogan should seek a verbal ceasefire in his camp, perhaps starting with a statement to the effect that the failed coup does not mark the collapse of Turkey’s decades-old policies and alliances.
In the immediate aftermath of the coup, Erdogan’s activism might have projected an image of energy and determination. Weeks later, the same activism is beginning to look like a desperate simulation by a clueless leader.
The failed coup has provided Erdogan with an unexpected opportunity by casting him in the role of both victim and savior. Barring unforeseeable twists and turns of events, never to be excluded when one talks of Turkey, Erdogan would remain the key player in Turkish politics for the next three or four years.
The Gulenist opposition has been badly shaken, if not uprooted and is unlikely to re-emerge as an immediate threat to Erdogan Pasha. Fractures that had opened within the AKP, originally a coalition of 17 different Islamist outfits, have been patched up, at least for the time being, sheltering Erdogan from a dagger in-the-back plot in his own serail. Still stunned by the events, the parties of the parliamentary opposition would need much time to review their copies and produce anything resembling a credible alternative to Erdogan and the AKP.
Erdogan may have dreamt of a one-party system with himself at the helm far into the future. That, however, is not on the cards. Going in such a direction could deal the coup de grace to Turkey’s already sick economy by drying up foreign direct investment and fast developing trade links with Europe and North America.
What Erdogan can do is to build a “one-and-a-half party” system in which the AKP will set the agenda for the remainder of the decade while opposition parties provide the “half” needed to maintain the appearance of parliamentary democracy.
A “one-and-a-half party” system isn’t unprecedented. Mexico tried it for half a century. Japan has lived with it since the end of the Second World War. It is also the model that Vladimir Putin has imposed in Russia. The failed coup has set Turkish democracy back by at least a decade. However, had it succeeded it might have caused an even longer and deeper setback.