Saturday, April 1st | 10 Nisan 5783

February 28, 2023 11:14 am

Turkish President Erdogan’s ‘Fate’ May Hinge on Poor Earthquake Response

× [contact-form-7 404 "Not Found"]

avatar by Hany Ghoraba


Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a news conference in Kyiv, Ukraine, Feb. 3, 2022. Photo: Reuters/Valentyn Ogirenko/File Photo

As Turkey continues to dig out from the rubble of a devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake earlier this month, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is being accused of botching the response. And his previous authoritarian acts may have made the disaster worse than it should have been.

More than 50,000 people died in the earthquake, and its aftershocks struck Turkey and Syria. High-rise apartment buildings crumbled to the ground, crushing countless residents.

As horrifying as the death toll is, the actual casualty count could be five times higher than what the government acknowledges, claimed Osman Bilgin, who was appointed by the government to coordinate relief efforts.

Dozens of Turkish lawyers filed a criminal complaint with the Ankara Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office against Turkish President Erdogan and several ministers and governors. It accuses them of “deliberate negligence,” bid rigging, and malpractice.

Related coverage

March 31, 2023 11:29 am

Why Our Thoughts Can Change Reality

In a 2014 interview for the Huffington Post, the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks said something incredibly profound: “Our thoughts...

First responders have been criticized for their relatively slow reactions. The NATO-trained Turkish army was mobilized too late to save many victims.

It was a total failure in the first critical 48 hours because of the collapse in the chain of command, primarily because everybody was looking for an order from President Erdogan,” Turkish journalist and director of the Sweden-Based Nordic Research and Monitoring Network, Abdullah Bozkurt told the Investigative Project on Terrorism. But Erdogan hesitated to activate the military. “He miscalculated what AFAD, the disaster response agency, could handle, which turned out to be a totally wrong assumption.”

Instead of apologizing for his government’s lack of adequate response to the disaster, Erdogan hit back at the criticism and described what happened as an act of fate.

“What happens, happens, this is part of fate’s plan,” said Erdogan.

What happens next may be in the hands of Turkish citizens. Presidential and parliamentary elections are scheduled this spring, either May 14 or in June, depending on the country’s ability to handle recovery efforts and an election.

A coalition of six parties, including one led by former Erdogan ally and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, is trying to present a united front to defeat him. It is unclear how the earthquake and the government’s response will affect the vote. But the earthquake caused an estimated $84 billion in damage and economic loss, roughly 10 percent of Turkey’s GDP, according to a report from the Turkish Enterprise and Business Confederation.

The losses exacerbated the situation for an already struggling Turkish economy.

That will certainly complicate already existing financial and economic difficulties of Turkey. But the country can still cope with it given the size of its national economy. The real industrial hub of Turkey lies in the West, not in the southeast where the quakes took place. It will have a serious ramification, however,” said Bozkurt.

But Turkish authorities reacted forcefully to criticism. “Several people have been arbitrarily detained based on nothing more than their condemnation of the poor state response to the disaster and pleas for more help,” Amnesty International reported Thursday.

Such heavy-handed tactics have been [a] hallmark of Erdogan’s governance for years,” Bozkurt said. “He shifts the blame to destiny and God to put himself in the clear and takes no responsibility for not taking measures for quake in advance. He thinks his actions are not accountable and [he] can act with impunity.”

Erdogan similarly blamed “fate” last October, after 41 people died in an explosion at a state-owned mine. Negligence and poor safety measures led to the tragedy. Erdogan ordered an investigation, but his “fate” statements provoked critics who said lax oversight was not a matter of fate.

“Sorry for your loss, May Allah give patience,” Erdogan told a woman who lost her brother in the mine. Her brother had warned of a gas leak more than a week before the explosion, but his warning was ignored.

“In England and Germany, mine workers cannot reach the level of ‘martyrdom’ because there are no officials there who put the blame on fate, said jailed Kurdish leader Selahattin Demirtaş. “Nobody should make any more nonsense. Worker massacres are deliberate killings for the sake of greater profit.”

In the earthquake, many of the collapsed buildings were relatively new. Officials are accused of allowing contractors to fail to meet strict building codes. Nearly two-thirds of Turkey’s buildings remain at risk, said Taner Yuzgec, president of the Chamber of Construction Engineers.

The massive casualties from collapsed buildings pressured Turkish authorities to arrest at least 113 contractors to pacify the growing anger. Meanwhile, critics say emergency response planning suffered after Erdogan purged the ranks of trained personnel following a failed 2016 coup.

While the Turkish government called for help from across the world, some Turkish officials were reluctant to publicly express appreciation for some of the countries, including the United States, which stepped up.

As humanitarian aid pours in — even from countries that had political feuds with Turkey, such as Egypt and Greece — there are concerns that Turkish authorities might not distribute it equitably.

“Institutional mechanisms and standard operating procedures in Turkey’s bureaucracy have been paralyzed since 2018 when Erdogan assumed imperial style presidential powers in Turkey,” said Bozkurt. “We see some discrimination in the aid delivery in post-quake efforts as [the] Erdogan government has prioritized constituencies that supported his government in the past.”

Some Erdogan supporters peddled conspiracy theories that the United States caused the devastating earthquakes using a secret weapon capable of moving the ground. The ludicrous conspiracy was widely refuted by scientists.

Observers are comparing this disaster with the 1999 Marmara earthquake, which many believe is what brought the Islamist parties led by Erdogan to power. Will this earthquake similarly contribute to Erdogan losing power?

Bozkurt is skeptical given Erdogan’s absolute power.

When Erdogan first came to power, “Turkey had still a functioning free press, [and the] political opposition [could] relatively compete in free and fair elections,” said Bozkurt. “This time, Erdogan controls the entire media, election commission, judiciary and other government institutions. The only thing he has difficulty in controlling is the financial and economic challenges as well as natural disaster such as quake. But he can shape the narrative and shift the public debate around these issues as well.”

Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT) Senior Fellow Hany Ghoraba is an Egyptian writer, political and counter-terrorism analyst at Al Ahram Weekly, author of Egypt’s Arab Spring: The Long and Winding Road to Democracy and a regular contributor to the BBC. A version of this article was originally published by IPT.

The opinions presented by Algemeiner bloggers are solely theirs and do not represent those of The Algemeiner, its publishers or editors. If you would like to share your views with a blog post on The Algemeiner, please be in touch through our Contact page.

Share this Story: Share On Facebook Share On Twitter

Let your voice be heard!

Join the Algemeiner

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.