Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

Our research time in the United States during the academic year 2019–2020 was suddenly disrupted in March as the spread of COVID-19 and the resulting public health responses halted the normal functioning of much of the world. While a considerable number of our international colleagues immediately went back to their home countries, our initial reaction was to wait and see. Toward the end of April, the Turkish government organized its first evacuation flight from various locations in the United States. Realizing that regular flights to Turkey would not resume any time soon, we called the consulate and put our names on the list. We were going to take the risk of traveling with a five-month-old for at least ten hours on a full flight. As part of the arrangement, we had agreed to stay under state-imposed quarantine in a university residence hall for two weeks upon our arrival.

Members of Turkey’s Tourism Police patrol for people not wearing protective face masks at the main shopping and pedestrian street of Istiklal as the spread of COVID-19 continues, in Istanbul, September 27, 2020. Murad Sezer/Reuters

As we discovered, the evacuation flight was not only a massive logistical operation to bring Turkish nationals back to the country, it also turned out to be an opportunity for the state to make a political statement about its relationship to its citizens in times of crisis. The government, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development party (AKP), capitalized on the evacuation flights to brand the state as caring and effective. From the moment we boarded the plane to our departure from mandatory quarantine, government officials emphasized that they took better care of their citizens than either previous governing parties in Turkey or any other government around the world. The evacuation flights were meant to reflect the AKP government’s populist claims that it “serves the people.” With one difference, though. In this instance, the act of serving the people was presented as a sacrifice ultimately credited to the president himself.

In fact, Turkey’s new presidential system is key to understanding the state’s efforts to rebrand itself as caring and effective. After elections in June 2018, Turkey transformed its state structure from a parliamentary system to a presidential one. Introducing heavily centralized governance mechanisms, the new presidential system removed the office of prime minister and gave the president, as head of state, primary responsibility for the economy and domestic and foreign policy. As such, the state apparatus made great efforts to connect the narratives about the evacuation process directly to the Turkish president, thereby marketing the new system as an efficient and effective one as far as the protection of citizens is concerned.

 

Leaving the United States

 

When we arrived for our departure flight, the airport was calm. People tried to respect social distancing rules as much as possible. The quiet environment was briefly interrupted when a group of people, after posing with Turkish flags for the cameras, started chanting “Turkey! Turkey!” This scene was soon circulated on the consulate’s social media accounts, cheerfully announcing that the Turkish citizens stranded in the United States were saved. After security checks and passport control, we gave our passports and signed statements attesting to our health to the crew at the gate. In these statements, passengers provided the authorities with personal information, reported any COVID-19 symptoms and gave consent to stay in quarantine for 14 days once we landed in Turkey.

At the time of our evacuation, the government declared via an infographic that it had transported almost 80,000 citizens from across the world with Turkish Airlines, placed them in 159 dormitories in 77 cities across the country and provided them with nearly 4 million individual meals. [Figure 1] The total cost had reached almost 80 million Turkish Lira (over $10 million).

Figure 1: Infographic by AFAD.

The news articles on evacuations reported—as we would be constantly reminded during our quarantine—that this global movement of people, which began on April 11 from Frankfurt, was made possible by “the orders of the President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.” In other words, the president is the omnipotent figure behind the caring, serving and sacrificing by the Turkish state.

The promotion of evacuation as a service by a caring government and the data presented in the infographic might create the impression that Turkish nationals were brought back to the country free of charge, especially because the government used the term tahliye for these flights. Tahliye literally means evacuation and is used when rescuers are saving citizens stranded at sites of natural disasters such as earthquakes or floods. The term tahliye thus evokes a relationship of unconditional government service. Yet, we “the people” were now commercial passengers and as such we paid a regular price for our trip.

Something other than actual caring and service provision was going on here. It seems clear that the Turkish state was using crisis as a moment to channel attention, rebrand itself and globally communicate its capacity to provide care and services. These efforts were made to seem even more impressive through the state’s emphasis on the hardships endured by the government for the sake of its citizens.

 

The Flight

 

Paying regular ticket prices was not the only contradiction in our flight. Turkish Airlines customer service had promised to implement social distancing in the airplane, but this was far from the truth: The flight was full and there was not a single empty seat. Even though we were initially told that business class seats would not be sold, the airline made no accomodations for the elderly or citizens with children, who could have been placed in business class to lower their risks. Overall, the flight was not drastically different in terms of the passengers’ demographic composition or seating arrangements. Our flight was unusually silent, though. The entertainment systems were shut off and except for prepackaged sandwiches, there was no food and drink service as one normally receives on international flights. The usual movement and commotion one would expect in a US-Turkey flight was simply not there.

Despite the clear signs that this was not an ordinary trip, seeing flight attendants fully covered head to toe in personal protective equipment (PPE) was a remarkable experience reminiscent of science fiction movies.
Despite the clear signs that this was not an ordinary trip, seeing flight attendants fully covered head to toe in personal protective equipment (PPE) was a remarkable experience reminiscent of science fiction movies.

Although our boarding passes indicated that Ankara was our arrival airport, we knew that we would most likely land in a different city. Passengers asked the crew about the final destination, but they did not disclose any information. They simply said they did not know any more than we did. When the announcement about the arrival airport was made, we were briefly shocked that our destination was a small city located in the eastern part of Turkey. We had done some research about evacuation flights and had never come across this city as a potential destination. While we did hear some enthusiasm about the destination among the passengers, it was not an ideal destination because many of the passengers would ultimately have to return to cities far from where we landed.

As we were getting ready to leave the plane, an announcement was made. Doctors would come and inspect all the passengers and we would get off the plane one by one. Soon, another announcement was made: “From this moment on, the cabin crew is no longer in charge. Everyone, including ourselves, will follow the instructions of local authorities who are outside.” About a half hour later we left the plane after two doctors checked our temperature at the door. It was unclear if there were any passengers with fever. Later, as we ended our quarantine period, we did hear rumors that around ten passengers had tested positive. Whether they caught the disease before, during or after the flight is unknown to us.

Figure 2: Passengers from the Turkish Airlines evacuation flight collecting baggage upon arrival. Photo courtesy of the authors.

There were three ambulances and more than six buses waiting for us at the airport along with an army of people covered in PPE. Some would sanitize our carry-on bags. Some were media professionals covering the event. Some worked for AFAD (the Ministry of the Interior’s Disaster and Emergency Management Authority) and guided people to their buses.

In contrast to a typical flight, we did not go inside the airport to collect our luggage. Passengers’ suitcases (at least 1,000 of them according to a rough estimate) were all placed next to the plane. [Figure 2]

The buses, escorted by police cars, left for the dormitory once all passengers were off the plane. Since this convoy was quite a scene, curious city residents watched us from their balconies. We were also filmed. Cameras followed us as we left our buses, entered the dormitory, filled in the registration forms and went through a health inspection. [Figure 3]

Figure 3: AFAD workers and camera crew welcome citizens into the dormitory for quarantine. Photo courtesy of the authors.

We soon discovered that AFAD, Kızılay (the Turkish Red Crescent) and their local branches circulated these photos and videos on social media. The photographs show the passengers receiving food, medicine or some service from state employees. The captions under these photographs often depict the citizens as guests enjoying the hospitality of the state. Videos also emphasized the gratefulness of the guests. In one such video, a passenger said: “We were quite content during our stay here. May Allah be supportive of our state and nation. Everything was well thought and planned prior to our arrival. During our 14-day stay, the officers served us very well. We felt safe.”

These social media productions convey a particular image of the state’s capacity, one where its top officials and rank and file workers would never refrain from stepping up to protect and care for its citizens, now portrayed as its guests. We were soon to experience first-hand the inseparable relationship between hospitality and care and also to witness during our quarantine how the state branded its service as extraordinary through a paternal language of sacrifice.

 

The Quarantine Begins

 

We entered our room around noon. With three single beds and a private bathroom, our room had clean sheets, towels, slippers, shampoo, soap and nail clippers. We had a kettle to make tea and instant coffee. We had free Wi-Fi. There was a sign on the wall that demonstrated qibla (kıble, the direction to turn toward during prayer). Two hours later, we received our first lunch box: hot soup, rice, chickpeas with meat and ayran.

Every day, Mr. Ismet—the pseudonym we use for the high-ranking official working for the government in the city where we were quarantined—came to our residence hall.

We never met Mr. Ismet but we heard his voice through the speakers in our room, which gave the impression that he was invested in his work and our well-being.
We never met Mr. Ismet but we heard his voice through the speakers in our room, which gave the impression that he was invested in his work and our well-being. Mr. Ismet began his remarks by welcoming us to his city. Similar to many other politicians, he deployed military language to describe how COVID-19 had “gripped the whole world (Covid-19 bütün dünyayı pençesine aldı).” But then, “our state” was waging a major struggle against the pandemic. He believed that Turkey would win the struggle more successfully than other countries. “With the outstanding efforts of our state, but primarily the initiatives of our president, more than 75,000 citizens were brought back home,” he said to emphasize the scale of the evacuation.

As these remarks reveal, Mr. Ismet was imagining the guests and the broader nation as a family, whose survival and flourishing depended on the “outstanding efforts” and “initiatives” of the state. He invoked those efforts in the spirit of what one might call Third World nationalism where Turkey would outperform the developed Western nations in the struggle against the pandemic. It was implied that this epic struggle was unsuccessful elsewhere simply because the governments in other countries failed to make the necessary sacrifices, unlike the Turkish state.

Mr. Ismet took this opportunity to detail what the sacrifices entailed. Because we were staying in the dormitories used by undergraduate students, who were now engaged in remote education, these students were already sacrificing for the citizens by leaving their rooms for strangers to use. But it was emphasized again that the Turkish state had devised this strategy, which he implied was costly. The state would, however, not balk at that financial sacrifice. He said: “This opportunity provided by the state is big, because no other country gives such long accommodation and food catering services.” The state’s historical responsibility to provide for and protect its citizens was here turned into a performance of caring and beneficence by the government. During his visit the next day, he said more on this:

No other country shows this level of özveri (self-sacrifice) for its own evlat (children). You are coming from the US and are also seeing this. I watched in yesterday’s news the police detain a mom in New York as her mask fell below the level of her chin. This happened in front of her kid. I mean, if this happened in our country, I am sure we would be castigated.

This statement adds a powerful affective dimension to the otherwise mundane duty of serving the people. Turkey, this discourse suggests, is not simply providing accommodation and food, it is doing so with care and affection, as only the Turkish state can. Evoking the paternalistic notion of the state, citizens become children who have to be protected.[1] Then Mr. Ismet makes a global comparison to highlight the dimensions and successes of the state’s care.   

Mr. Ismet also emphasized the government’s capabilities by contextualizing how the state quarantines began and how they were organized. He explained that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs brought citizens from abroad, AFAD put them up in dormitories (while also providing personal care items as gifts, hediye, to citizens), the Red Crescent offered food and the Ministry of Health provided 24-hour health services by “measuring the temperature of citizens every three days.” Because the novel coronavirus spread quickly, the Turkish government made a decision to “pay for the expenses of the Turkish citizens coming from abroad.” It was emphasized over and over that it was the president who initiated these evacuation flights and quarantine processes, which according to Mr. Ismet “many countries were unable to offer.” For instance, international students living in Turkey were unable to return home, while Turkey was able to bring Turkish students back to the country. Moreover, the government was allowing these international students (Mr. Ismet called them “brothers and sisters”) to stay free of charge in line with the president’s orders. Again, the capacity to care and make financial sacrifices was promoted as an integral part of the new Turkey brand that was not found in other countries.

The evacuation process involved 200 workers on the ground—from doctors and health workers to Red Crescent, AFAD and security forces—who were on duty to serve the guests and the dormitory staff. This gigantic organization was made possible thanks to “the order of our state structure” which was modeled after Sheikh Edebali’s motto: “Insani yasat ki devlet yasasin (The state survives only if it takes care of its people).” [2] Taking care of the people, in this case ensuring a smooth and healthy evacuation, is a fundamental part of normal governmental services. But although such services are citizens’ rights, they were presented as products that were bestowed through sacrifices made by the presidential system. Mr. Ismet continued: “We are honored and proud to participate in this evacuation organization as a foot soldier. We would like to extend our gratitude to our president and everyone else who was involved.”

 

Serving the People with Care and Affection

 

The AKP government has long been invested in branding the state during its uninterrupted tenure since 2002.[3] During the initial periods of its rule, the emphasis was on multiculturalism and egalitarian service for the people. This choice was made deliberately to differentiate itself from previous governments but specifically the Republican People’s Party (CHP) governments, whose style, the typical AKP argument holds, was elitist and indifferent to the people. Under the new presidential regime, the emphasis on care giving and serving the people continues. The CHP’s bureaucratic distance has been replaced by the AKP’s personalized, performative and affective gloss on state mechanisms of service provision.

What is new is how services are not simply presented as core duties of the state but instead are said to stem from the omnipotent presidential regime and the will of the president himself.
What is new is how services are not simply presented as core duties of the state but instead are said to stem from the omnipotent presidential regime and the will of the president himself, with the implication that the president and his team are willing to work day and night to serve and protect the people.

From the very first day of quarantine, we were given the opportunity to ask questions and request what we needed. Following every announcement, Mr. Ismet took questions from citizens and responded to them collectively. He constantly emphasized his open-phone policy to us. While we were able to ask our questions when he was in the dorm, he also left his business card and cell phone number in the rooms. “If there is a problem, you can always Whatsapp me,” he reminded us every now and then. He continued: “Please be sure that your requests and demands are by no means a burden for us. We cannot know and resolve your problems unless you communicate them to us. We are at your service 7/24.” He even took the time to knock on everybody’s door to both welcome them and ask for their requests from outside. Almost like a service worker, he would always thank us for our patience and understanding. Obviously, he said, the entire evacuation was a huge operation and it potentially involved mishaps. “Perhaps, you didn’t receive adequate information. Maybe this led to difficulties. We apologize for these. Nobody had knowledge and experience about this system. It was only developed as a response to the pandemic,” he said.

These apologetic remarks represent the emergence of what Bülent Küçük and Ceren Özselçuk call the “enterprise state” (şirket devlet) that is ready to serve the people.[4] As they underline, this transformation rests on a utilitarian fantasy where the goal is to satisfy the citizens as customers. Our experience shows that, because of the changing circumstances of the pandemic, the state also perceives an urgent need to emphasize a sacrificial dimension to its provision of care and services.

The end of quarantine came earlier than planned. Because the Ramadan feast was around the corner, fellow passengers asked to continue the quarantine in their homes. Soon it was decided that we would be tested and if negative, we would be allowed to leave the dormitory and spend the rest of the quarantine at home. We were indeed thankful. As we were getting ready to leave, Mr. Ismet made an announcement that hinted at the state’s desire to keep records for branding purposes. In our rooms, there were “memory notebooks,” in which Mr. Ismet asked us to write down our thoughts. We thanked the workers.

 

The Omnipresent State in the New Turkey

 

What does this experience with the government during a global health crisis tell us about the configuration of state power in Turkey? Here we were, confined by the state in a dorm room in an unfamiliar city. We had consented to this. Yet, self-confinement for medical purposes had been turned into a branding exercise by the government.

The state’s relationship to the citizen in this situation was based on a performance meant to generate loyalty through a discourse of care, service and sacrifice.
The state’s relationship to the citizen in this situation was based on a performance meant to generate loyalty through a discourse of care, service and sacrifice. We were never able to see our interlocutors, we only heard them through speakers located in the ceiling. We did not personally know them, but we were familiar with their discourse. They had become representatives of presidential power based in the capital city of Ankara.

Ultimately, the fact that government officials came to our dorm every day, consoled us and even gave us their phone numbers reveals something unique about state power in the “new Turkey.” State power is not only omnipresent but also modulates affect to create relations of trust between the citizen and the state. We were able to call state officials, ask for things and demand better services. We were treated with care and affection as if we were engaged in a transaction with a corporate entity. The state was there to make us happy and feel welcome. There were apologies for potential mishaps. They promised to do better. Such communicative performances of the enterprise state were what former governments lacked. This new trust relation is not unconditional, though. In return, state officials ask for our loyalty and our complicity in its messaging. In this experience of evacuation during a pandemic, our bodies were targeted as sites of theatre by a state working to convince its citizens that its practices of care and service are enabled by the sacrifices initiated by the president. The president is positioned as the ultimate holder of power in the new Turkey to whom citizens are expected to be ever grateful.

 

[Ergin Bulut and Başak Can are faculty members in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities at Koç University in Turkey. During the 2019–2020 academic year they were on research leave at the Institute for Advanced Study in the United States.]

 


 

Endnotes

[1] Elif M. Babül, “The Paradox of Protection: Human Rights, the Masculinist State, and the Moral Economy of Gratitude in Turkey,” American Ethnologist 42/1 (2015).

[2] Sheikh Edebali was an influential Islamic scholar, who is also considered to be the moral founder of the Ottoman Empire.

[3] Aslı Iğsız, “Brand Turkey and the Gezi Protests: Authoritarianism in Flux, Law and Neoliberalism,” in Umut Özkırımlı, ed. The Making of a Protest Movement in Turkey : #occupygezi (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

[4] Bülent Küçük and Ceren Özselçuk, “Mesafeli Devletten Hizmetkâr Devlete: AKP’nin Kısmi Tanıma Siyaseti,” Toplum ve Bilim 132 (2015).

 

How to cite this article:

Ergin Bulut, Başak Can "Rebranding the Turkish State in the Time of COVID-19," Middle East Report Online, September 29, 2020.
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