Erdoğan and the crisis of modern Turkey

President Erdoğan delivers a speech during the opening ceremony of the 'July 15 Martyrs' Monument' at the presidential complex in Ankara. AFP photo

'The New Sultan: Erdoğan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey' by Soner Çağaptay (IB Tauris, 240 pages, $25)

In 2014 Soner Çağaptay published "The Rise of Turkey: The 21st Century's First Muslim Power." The book described Turkey as a dynamic force whose power had risen steadily over the past 20 years. It was not blind to the authoritarianism of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, but it optimistically argued that a stable and democratic future was still up for grabs.

Three years on Çağaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute think tank, appears to have had a change of heart. The title of his new book, "The New Sultan: Erdoğan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey," gives a darker prognosis. Such a sharp about-face illustrates the deterioration of Turkey's image abroad in recent years. It has also prompted ridicule of the conventional wisdom spouted by think tank pundits. 

But the two books are not as simplistic as they appear at first glance. "The Rise of Turkey" was more skeptical about the country's direction than its title suggested. "The New Sultan" pulls no punches in condemning Erdoğan's policies, but it also gives a sensitive background context to his life and political upbringing. It does not make the reader any more optimistic. 

The book sketches Erdoğan's upbringing in the tough Istanbul district of Kasımpaşa. The son of a city ferryboat worker who migrated from Anatolia, as a boy Erdoğan sold simits on the streets and attended a conservative religious imam-hatip school. His rugged upbringing can still be seen in his mannerisms and speech today, appealing to many ordinary Turks proud that "he is one of us." 

Çağaptay charts how Erdoğan started out among nationalist Islamists in...

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