To outsiders, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan can appear to be a tub-thumping, monologic rabble-rouser, but he isn’t, or not quite. Childishly proud of having attended one of the Imam Hatip (preacher training) schools that were once a marginal but are now a central part of the educational landscape, he was also a semi-professional footballer; he can talk down to strangers and shout across at teammates.
As the coup attempt unfolded in the early hours of Saturday 16 July and some of his teammates failed him, Erdoğan’s face appeared in public for the first time in six days – he was on holiday – on an iPhone held by a presenter on CNN Türk; with as much calm as he could muster, he appealed to his people to go out on the streets, confront the rebels and save democracy. Two hours later, at Atatürk Airport, flanked by his entourage and confident that he wouldn’t be deposed, he was more expansive, calling the coup a ‘gift from God’ and outlining plans for retribution.
The following Tuesday evening, at a rally near his Istanbul residence, he was back at full throttle, shouting at his adoring audience, who have heard it all before, that he will build the Ottoman-style barracks and museum on Gezi Park ‘whether people like it or not’, and telling of his plans for ‘Turkey towards 2023’ (the 100th anniversary of the republic’s founding) and ‘Turkey towards 2071’ (the 1000th anniversary, apparently, of the arrival of Turks in Anatolia).
Between Wednesday evening and early Thursday morning, Erdoğan gave us his full repertoire. Fresh from chairing a four-hour meeting of the national security council, at around 11 p.m. he gave a live interview to an international audience on al-Jazeera that was so laid back he sounded almost reasonable and conciliatory; then he remembered who he was and told us that the real problem with Fethullah Gülen is that he doesn’t understand that all authority comes from God.
An hour later, on the stroke of midnight, at a lectern in the presidential palace in front of assembled dignitaries, Erdoğan was the statesman, using carefully chosen phrases, with elongated, heavy nouns, to describe what had happened the previous Friday. He declared a state of emergency and explained its rationale. The crowds in squares at ‘democracy rallies’ all over the country watched him on big screens; the rest of us, having waited all day to hear the important decision that would be ‘good for all citizens’, were glued to our TVs.
Half an hour later, with the dignitaries packed off to bed and the TV audience exhausted, he returned to the lectern; alone now with his fans who still thronged the squares, gazing up at the big screens, he was once again the demagogue, repeating the phrases he has used for the last fifteen years, telling them that tomorrow belongs to them, and signing off with the four-fingered wave, thumb tucked in, that symbolises solidarity with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.
The next day, the website of the pro-government newspaper Yeni Şafak (‘New Dawn’) published a video of Thursday’s early morning prayers at the mosque at the presidential palace, and claimed that the ezan ringing through the darkness was being read by the president himself. His office later denied this, but that didn’t stop people believing it; and if you have heard any of his voices, you might believe it too, and hear it as at once prayer, a cry of relief as order is restored, and exultation at the theocracy to come.