By Abraham ThickeTurkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent brief, though highly anticipated, encounter with US President Donald Trump was overshadowed by a fight involving his security team and protesters outside the Turkish embassy in Washington DC. Nine people were hospitalized.
What provoked the brawl is disputed, though video footage appears to show the violence was initiated by Erdoğan’s bodyguards, possibly acting on direct instructions from Erdoğan himself. The DC police are conducting inquiries.
Condemnation was not long in coming, notably from Senator John McCain who characterized the behavior of Erdoğan’s security detail as “thuggish” and called on the US government to press charges against the Turkish officials involved.
Not many were surprised by the unpleasant events. Brawls involving Erdoğan’s security detail are a predictable feature of his trips to the US. Last year they clashed with protesters outside the Brookings Institute in the spring and with a local security detail assigned to protect Erdoğan at Muhammad Ali’s funeral in June. Back in 2011, they were involved in yet another brawl, this time with security staff at the UN headquarters.
It’s not just Erdoğan’s visits to the US that are plagued by violence. In Ecuador in 2016, women shouting slogans during a speech given by Erdoğan were beaten up, as were a group of protesters outside the same building. Among the injured was an Ecuadorian lawmaker, Diego Vintimilla whose nose was broken.
The above examples demonstrate a clear pattern of violence. In none of the situations was there any physical threat to Erdoğan or his security staff, raising questions about why Erdoğan’s bodyguards are so violent.
One obvious explanation is that Erdoğan and his bodyguards are cultural illiterates. Over the years, Erdoğan has transformed Turkey from a nation state into something resembling his own private estate, one in which normal democratic standards have long since been abandoned and security forces respond brutally to all forms of protest. So, when assaulting protesters abroad, Erdoğan’s bodyguards are merely following their usual script.
A problem with this explanation is that the leaders of many other authoritarian regimes manage to visit the US without getting involved in physical altercations, despite the presence of protesters. Such leaders clearly reason that the potential repercussions of violent clashes with protesters, at least when abroad, outweigh the benefits. It seems unlikely, though not impossible that Erdoğan and his advisors have decided clashes with protesters are in some way beneficial. Perhaps, they reason, images of Turkish security beating protesters will go down well back home.
A further problem with the explanation is that some of the incidents, such as the fights at the UN headquarters or Muhammad Ali’s funeral do not appear amenable to any rational explanation. Protesters were not present at either incident. Rather the conflict involved Erdoğan’s security detail and other security staff.
What characterized both incidents are background events in which Erdoğan and his entourage perceived they were being humiliated, thus implying that the violence is best explained in psychological terms.
When attending Ali’s funeral, Erdoğan appears to have expected to be treated as the unofficial leader of the Muslim world. This did not happen. His requests to make a speech and to place a holy relic on the coffin were refused. Erdoğan took umbrage and cut short his trip, though not before his security detail had scuffled with local security staff.
At the UN, tensions between’s Erdoğan’s entourage simmered for several days before coming to a head. UN officials complained about the aggressive nature of his security team. The physical altercation was triggered by UN security staff preventing Erdoğan from accessing the assembly hall through the wrong door. Again, what preceded the violence were circumstances in which Erdoğan likely believed he was not accorded sufficient status or respect.
Whilst such humiliations are part and parcel of daily life for most of us, they are not for Erdoğan. He has, for years, been accorded semi-divine status in Turkey, cosseted by an inner circle composed almost entirely of brown nosers. It is thus likely that events at both Ali’s funeral and the UN represented an unpleasant emotional shock for Erdoğan. In short, he is likely to have become extremely angry and transmitted that anger to his security staff, all of which anger could not long be suppressed and eventually found violent expression.
A similar explanation may also account for the violence towards protesters. A man who has is accustomed to seeing any form of protest against him violently squashed and is likely to experience a negative emotional response when exposed to unchecked protests. This response is likely to be intense and to precipitate an overwhelming desire to suppress the source of emotional discomfort, with little or no regard for the consequences.
The fact that Erdoğan may not have given direct instructions for the assaults to be carried out is of little consequence. Provided his bodyguards have some degree of empathy they are likely able to appreciate what angers Erdoğan and to anticipate the desired response. Erdoğan, it is important to mention, has never condemned his guards’ violence. Indeed, during his visit to Ecuador, as protesters were violently expelled from the auditorium in which he was speaking, he commented, “Appropriate responses will always be taken to handle these disrespectful people.” That is how he sees it. The appropriate response to peaceful, if perhaps unpleasantly worded, protest is violence.
What is remarkable about all this is not so much Erdoğan’s grandiosity, nor his intolerance of criticism ― such traits are hardly unusual among the leaders of authoritarian regimes— but that there does not seem to be any counsel wise, brave or strong enough to warn Erdoğan of the damage he leaves in his wake.
The assaults Erdoğan’s bodyguards mete out on their trips abroad are but one symptom of this disturbing malaise. The same illness wrecked of Turkey’s international relations and killed its democracy.
Erdoğan is a man who is proud to say his heart rules his head, and this has made him an extremely successful politician in Turkey, adored by the masses who, like him, value hearts overheads. But how does this benefit Turkey in the long run?
Ask the diplomats who face the thankless task of cleaning up the messes he leaves behind in foreign capitals. Or the people back in Turkey where Erdoğan was recently handed unchecked power via a flawed referendum. They’re just finding out.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.