The life of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who survived a coup, bent an entire nation to his will, and owned Trump over Syria

ReutersTurkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
  • Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan moved with deadly speed and purpose into Syria after Donald Trump pulled US troops from the country in early October.
  • Trump and US officials have since tried in desperation to sway Erdogan from shelling and displacing thousands of Kurds, but have so far only succeeded in gaining a short-term ceasefire.
  • Through a series of power moves Erdogan has outmaneuvered Trump, highlighting the dwindling power of the US in the Middle East.
  • Erdogan rose through the ranks of Turkish politics to centralize power in the president’s office, and has taken Turkey from a country constantly on the verge of coup to a sturdy, authoritarian regime.
  • Here’s everything we know about Turkey’s commander in chief.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan took full advantage of the fallout from Donald Trump’s decision to pull troops from northern Syria in early October.

Turkish forces swooped into northern Syria soon after, displacing thousands of Kurds and killing dozens.

Trump was slammed by officials in his own Republican party, who considered the withdrawal a betrayal of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which fought alongside US troops to defeat ISIS in Syria.

In turn, Erdogan has resisted hurried attempts from the US to secure a ceasefire, humiliating Trump on Thursday, after a letter from the US president warning him not to be a “tough guy” was put straight “in the bin,” according to the BBC.

Here’s the full story of Turkey’s commander in chief, who inherited his country in a state of constant coup or rebellion, and turned it into an authoritarian one-leader, one-party powerhouse straddling the Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.


Recep Tayyip Erdogan was born in Istanbul on February 26, 1954, the son of a captain in the Turkish Coast Guard.

Associated PressTurkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gives a military style salute toward his supporters during a rally in Kayseri, Turkey, Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019.

Source: Presidency of the Republic of Turkey


His family weren’t rich, so Erdogan spent his after-school hours selling lemonade and sesame buns to make ends meet.

Associated PressTurkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses the supporters of his ruling Justice and Development Party, AKP, on March 26, 2019,

Source: BBC


The young Erdogan was politically active from the get-go.

CNN TurkErdogan as a young man.

While at Eyüp High School in the 1970s Erdogan was elected chairman of the youth organisation of an Islamic political party called the National Salvation Party.

Source: al-Jazeera, Presidency of the Republic of Turkey


Erdogan went to Marmara University in Istanbul, and was drawn to Political Islam after meeting Necmettin Erbakan, the former Turkish Prime Minister.

ShutterstockMarmara University in Istanbul.

Turkey had been a secular country since the Ottoman Empire was expelled after the First World War, and Political Islam was unpopular, considered to be dangerous by the administration.

While most Turks were practicing Muslims, the country had passed several versions of a Constitution, as well as operating a judiciary free from religious law.


Though Erdogan was making a name for himself in youth politics, any future in politics was halted by a short stint as a semi-professional soccer player.

CNN TurkErdogan (back row centre) while playing semi-professional football.

Erdogan claims that on two occasions Turkish soccer giants Fenerbahce S.K. tried to sign him, but he turned them down twice.

Source: Foreign Policy


He hung up his boots, and began a career in politics with a job at Istanbul’s transport authority. Erdogan was fired soon after, however, after he refused to shave off his now-iconic mustache.

Presidential Press Service via AP, PoolErdogan and his signature facial hair.

In 1994, after rising through the ranks of the Islamicist Welfare Party, Erdogan was elected mayor of Istanbul, and got his first taste of high public office.

ReutersErdogan, then mayor of Istanbul, and his wife Emine in March 1998.

He was the city’s first non-secular mayor.

Source: Presidency of the Republic of Turkey


He took to the job quickly, banning alcohol in cafes, cleaning up Istanbul, and clearing the city’s huge debts.

Associated PressThis photo shows a view of Istanbul’s skyline with the Suleymaniye Mosque, in the background.

Source: Presidency of the Republic of Turkey


But in 1998 he was fired as mayor and jailed for four months for inciting religious hatred after reading a poem comparing Islam to a war.

ReutersErdogan shortly after he was convicted of inciting hatred in a speech holding a news conference.

The poem read: “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers.”

Erdogan said after his conviction: “We will continue our democratic struggle to the end. We will not bow our heads before repression.”

He was also banned from running in parliamentary elections.

Source: Presidency of the Republic of Turkey


The love of tradition and devotion to Islam which defined Erdogan’s later life were already plain to see early in his career.

ReutersPresident Erdogan and his predecessor Abdullah Gul pray during a funeral service in Istanbul, 2016.

In 2001, Erdogan, despite his ban from politics, founded the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which in 2002 swept to victory in national elections.

ReutersJustice and Development Party (AKP) leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan (C), former Istanbul mayor, is greeted by supporters after winning the elections in Istanbul November 3, 2002.

Erdogan sidestepped his ban by immediately changing the law and running for election after the AKP had ascended to power.

Erdogan was appointed Prime Minister after winning a seat in the local elections in Siirt province.

In 2004, the AKP extended its power by dominating local elections across Turkey.


Between 2002 and 2013 Erdogan travelled the world as Prime Minister, while the AKP won a string of elections at home.

ReutersUS President George W. Bush meets with Tayyip Recep Erdogan (L), in the White House, December 10, 2002.

A key task of Erdogan’s was to lobby the European Union to let Turkey join. Formal talks between the two opened in 2005, but as of November 2019, Turkey has not been approved to join the bloc.

Erdogan also spent much of his time engaged with the US. Washington believed that Turkey would be a key player in a then-potential war with Iraq, which ultimately started after the US invasion in 2003.

During the war Erdogan refused to let the US deploy troops from Kurdish areas in northern Iraq and southern Turkey, straining US-Turkish relations.

Between 2002 and 2014 the AKP won three successive elections.

Source: CNN, Washington Post, Guardian


In May 2013, Erdogan faced his first major set of protests and riots over allegations of corruption and plans to turn an Istanbul park into a shopping centre.

APClashes erupt between police and protesters in May 2013.

Eight people died after protesters clashed with police using tear gas and water cannons.

In the wake of the protests, Erdogan said social media, which had played a role in coordinating protests and spreading information, was “the worst menace to society.”

25 protesters were arrested for using Twitter and for “spreading untrue information.”

10 months later, in March 2014, Erdogan banned Twitter for two weeks.

After the protests subsided, Erdogan faced a new problem after a voice recording allegedly showed him ordering his son to dispose of vast amounts of cash. Erdogan said the tapes were fake.

Source: Tech Crunch, CNN, Washington Post, Guardian


In August 2014, Erdogan was elected as President of Turkey.

ReutersAn election poster of Turkey’s Prime Minister and presidential candidate Tayyip Erdogan reading ‘Adds strength to Turkey’s power’ is seen in Istanbul, August 8, 2014.

Prior to 2014, Turkey’s Parliament had appointed the president, but a 2010 referendum result gave Turks the power to elect the president themselves.

In the first vote since that referendum, Erdogan emerged as winner with 52% of the vote, beating back two challengers.

At the time, critics saw the move as an attempt by Erdogan to use the normally-ceremonial powers invested in the president’s office – which were substantial – to turn Turkey into an authoritarian regime.

Source: Guardian


Days after his election, Erdogan declared a new Presidential Complex would be built in Ankara. It was ambitious, and a symbol of his new power.

GettyTurkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech during a ceremony at the Presidential Palace on July 9, 2018 in Ankara, Turkey.

The Ak Saray palace (White Palace) is built on a 150,000 square-metre side on top of a hill in Ankara. It cost at least $US615 million, has 1,150 rooms, and a garden with thousands of trees, costing $US4,000 each, imported from Italy.

It is far bigger than both the White House in Washington, DC, and the Kremlin, in Moscow, Russia.

Erdogan’s critics slammed his lavish palace, regularly mocking him with rumours of golden toilet seats. In 2015, Erdogan vowed to resign if anyone could locate a golden toilet seat.

Source: BBC,Reuters


More powerful than ever before, Erdogan soon cultivated the titles “beyefendi” which means “sir” and “reis” which means “chief” from his admirers.

ReutersRecep Tayyip Erdogan in Bursa, November, 2002.

Source: al-Monitor


But after two turbulent years of his presidency, Erdogan was struck by a whirlwind coup attempt.

APA tank in Ankara, Turkey, July 16, 2016. Members of Turkey’s armed forces said they had taken control of the country Friday as explosions, gunfire and a reported air battle between loyalist forces and coup supporters erupted in the capital.

On July 15, 2016, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım said the military was moving “outside the chain of command” and had made an “illegal attempt” to seize power.

Reuters/Huseyin AldemirPeople stand on a Turkish army tank at Ataturk airport in Istanbul, Turkey July 16, 2016.

The government and military factions still loyal to Erdogan clashed with the rebels using tanks, and F-16 jets.

Rebels stormed Turkish state media broadcaster TRT and ordered them to make a statement saying the military was now in charge.

The coup failed, however, and Erdogan’s government restored order by arresting over 100 rebels, with senior military officials later condemning the coup as a rogue operation.

161 people were killed and 1,140 were wounded in the failed coup. Erdogan claimed it had been orchestrated by his opponent Fethullah Gulen, exiled in the US.

Source: Guardian, CNN.


In 2017, Erdogan won a controversial referendum which gave him more power, effectively turning Turkey from a parliamentary democracy to a presidential republic.

AFP OZAN KOSEErdogan supporters in Istanbul on the eve of the 2017 referendum.

European nations criticised the move, saying it showed Turkey was straying down the path of authoritarianism instead of democracy.

Erdogan defended his new powers, saying; “We’ve got a lot to do, we are on this path but it’s time to change gears and go faster. We are carrying out the most important reform in the history of our nation.”

Source: Guardian


Some believe Erdogan staged the coup and used it to silence and detain dissidents in the aftermath, known as the “purge.”

ReutersSoldiers on trial are taken to the courthouse by Turkish authorities as part of Erdogan’s 2016 purge on dissenters.

There were 4,000 arrests, which came from the military, civil service, media, and police.

50,000 people were detained, with 150,000 suspended from work in the year since the coup started.

A quarter of judges and prosecutors were sacked.

Opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu said it was clearly a despotic move: “All powers of the legislative, judiciary and executive have been concentrated in one person.”

Source: American Enterprise Institute, Reuters


Erdogan’s style as Turkey’s supreme leader has been forceful, disconcerting, and even bizarre at times.

Associated PressRecep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey, sits on a stage during a ceremony in Sremska Raca, Belgrade, Serbia, Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019.

In 2014, Erdogan couldn’t attend a meeting so instead beamed a pirouetting hologram of himself into a room of shocked party members.

Source: Business Insider


In 2016, Erdogan declared all Turkish women should have three children and said those who wouldn’t were “deficient.”

ReutersErdogan’s family: (L-R) daughter Esra Albayrak, wife Emine, son Bilal and daughter Sumeyye Erdogan in Ankara August 28, 2014

“Rejecting motherhood means giving up on humanity,” Erdogan, who has four children, said.

Source: Daily Mail


And in 2016, amid the military coup, Erdogan gave a crisis statement on TV — except he appeared on an iPhone screen via Apple’s FaceTime from a safe house.

CNN TurkErdogan appearing on CNN Turk via Apple’s FaceTime.

At the time of the coup, Erdogan was vacation at the Aegean coast and was taken to a secure location while military forces attempted to depose him in Ankara.

Source: Vox


In June 2019, Erdogan was the surprise best man at the wedding of German soccer star Mezut Ozil.

GettyTurkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) at the wedding ceremony of football player Mesut Ozil (C) of Arsenal FC and Amine Gulse (L) on June 07, 2019.

Ozil, a German national with Turkish heritage, announced his retirement from German international football after photos of him with Erdogan in May 2018 were met with damning criticism.

Source: The Guardian


In August 2019, Erdoğan said he was in favour of reinstating the death penalty, after a woman was brutally murdered by her ex-husband in a public cafe.

ReutersTurkish President Erdogan talks to media in Istanbul

Source: Hurriyet Daily News


Erdogan’s temperament is not to be tested. The president is extremely sensitive when it comes to caricatures and parodies of his appearance.

Wikimedia CommonsThe character Gollum (L) from Lords of the Rings by JRR Tolkien, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R.)

Between 2014 and 2017, nearly 13,000 instances of insulting the presidency were filed by the government. Most related to newspaper cartoons, memes, political sketches, and jokes.

Article 299 of the Turkish penal code states that insulting the president can lead to as many as four years in jail.

One example which saw Erdogan’s criticised was the guilty verdict of a Turkish man who depicted Erdogan as Gollum from “The Lord of the Rings” in a Facebook post.

Source: BBC


Despite occasional protests and constant allegations of corruption, Erdogan was reelected President in June 2018 with 53% of the vote.

Presidential Press Service via AP, PoolTurkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan waves to members of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), after addressing them at the parliament in Ankara, Turkey, in October 2018.

In light of the Turkey’s advances into northern Syria in October 2019, it’s clear Erdogan’s appetite for control is not waning as he nears his 18th year in power.

ReutersTurkish President Erdogan speaks at North Atlantic Council Mediterranean Dialogue Meeting in Ankara.

Turkey has taken in two million Syrian refugees fleeing the 2011 civil war. Erdogan wants to reclaim a large “safe zone” of land in northern Syria to resettle them.

Associated Press/Lefteris PitarakisA motorist passes by in Akcakale, Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey, at the border with Syria, Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019.

On Thursday, after a fortnight of fighting, Turkey agreed to a five-day ceasefire so that Syrian-Kurdish forces could move out of Turkey’s path. It expires on Tuesday.

BULENT KILIC / AFP) (Photo by BULENT KILIC/AFP via Getty ImagesA Turkish army’s tank drives down from a truck as Turkish armed forces drive towards the border with Syria near Akcakale in Sanliurfa province on October 8, 2019.

Turkey’s defence ministry claims Syrian Kurdish fighters have violated the cease-fire at least 20 times.

Turkey considers the Syrian forces terrorists.

Source: Washington Post

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