The Jamal Khashoggi case has cast a mildly flattering light on Turkey’s acerbic, authoritarian president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. For the first time in years, Mr Erdogan is being listened to by the world with sincere interest rather than sour suspicion.
This, because Mr Erdogan presents a contrast to the Saudis. Anyone would. There can be nothing more shocking than the crude cover-up, cruelty and sheer barbarism allegedly displayed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Saudi behaviour has allowed Mr Erdogan to play the role of honorable truth-teller, committed democrat and fearless crusader for justice.
But that may not last especially if Mr Erdogan plays base political games with a gruesome and tragic case. As Michael Stephens, a research fellow at London’s Royal United Services Institute, has said, the impression in the past fortnight has been of Turkey dragging things out to keep the story alive. “The moral high ground is slipping, fast,” Mr Stephens tweeted.
Indeed, Mr Erdogan needs to, at the very least, pretend to the high-minded judiciousness needed in this horrific matter. He should press for an international inquiry, hand over audio and video recordings, if any, of October 2, the day Mr Khashoggi walked into the Saudi consulate. That will appear statesman-like rather than callous and calculating. This may be the only chance Turkey’s president has to appear noble.
The last time Mr Erdogan got even a mildly complimentary headline from the heart was 2012. Then, he was in his third and final term as Turkey’s prime minister, and widely expected to seek the presidency. At the time foreign observers wondered if Mr Erdogan was an “elected sultan or a Muslim democrat” and in that question was the hint of a compliment. In 2012, the jury was still out on Mr Erdogan’s basic instincts and whether he would make or break Turkey. Was he, The Guardian asked “dictator or democrat, visionary or villain, swaggering bully or charismatic reformer”?
That was then. In the past six years, no one even asks the question. Mr Erdogan’s actions have revealed he is an authoritarian bully. In the 15 years that Mr Erdogan has been in office (first as prime minister and then as president from 2014) he has turned the Turkish media into a government mouthpiece, intimidated and imprisoned journalists and rights activists and built a cult rather than a confident 21st-century country that joins east and west. The Committee to Protect Journalists now says that more journalists are imprisoned in Turkey than in any other country.
Mr Khashoggi was a friend of Mr Erdogan. In his grisly death he has bequeathed him a priceless gift – the ultimate one: A second chance to appear – and to be – an honorable leader. To have and to hold a moral philosophy.
Or, at the very least, to be a decent individual.
It’s not clear Mr Erdogan is the man to take it.