Crises in the Middle East: Exploring the Shaping Role of Leader’s Perceptions

Egypt and Turkey continue to make front-page news, for different reasons. At the heart of much reporting concerning these two nations is the discourse surrounding democratization in the Middle East. A large share of the media analysis focuses on the ethnic and religious divisions that exist in these two countries and how those affect their citizens and the prospects for democracy in the region. Related to these issues are analyses concerning how the leaders of these two nations are managing the conflicts afoot in their respective countries.

This essay employs an argument first advanced by Margaret Hermann and Bruce Dayton of the Moynihan Institute of Global Affairs of the Maxwell School at Syracuse University (2009) to analyze recent developments in Turkey and Egypt. Those authors have suggested that crisis definition and framing by the head of state in the initial phase of a situation determine how the leader will react to it thereafter. The authors analyzed 81 crisis situations around the world to assess the importance of leaders’ perceptions of ‘triggering events’ in shaping their later decisions as crises unfolded. I consider how leaders in these two nations have reacted to unforeseen events in their countries: widespread protests concerning government policies in Egypt and demonstrations against the proposed development of Gezi Park in Istanbul, Turkey. Using Hermann and Dayton’s framework, I argue that the scenario confronting each nation today could have been different if each leader had perceived the ‘triggering event’ for these situations in another way.

Defining the “Crisis” in Turkey and Egypt

Turkey was recently rocked by popular protests of that government’s initial decision to press ahead with an urban development project at the site of Taksim Gezi Park in Istanbul. The Gezi Park demonstrations began on May 28, 2013 with organized sit-ins to oppose the construction of a shopping mall in the park. The magnitude of the protests grew as the government responded with a brutal eviction of participating citizens and that action garnered widespread media attention. The Park protests soon became anti-government demonstrations and came to be seen by Western media and some Turkish media organizations as epitomizing public reaction to the increasingly autocratic behavior of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s Prime Minister. The opposition party already had accused[i] him of pressing an Islamist agenda and had criticized his leadership as a result of his government’s efforts to ban the sale of alcohol and to censure artists, actions that included accusing one famous pianist of blasphemy. As a recent New York Times article pointed out, “Throughout the recent upheaval, Erdogan’s seemingly autocratic behavior has given new fuel to already-simmering questions about his aims and methods — whether he has turned more autocrat then democrat, or at the least whether a deft politician has fallen into overconfidence.[ii]” The prime minister’s actions prior to his handling of the Park sit-ins had already been perceived by a wide segment of the Turkish population as part of an Islamist[iii] agenda. Some observers also described his statements as having a divisive effect on Turkish society. In a story about the protests, The Guardian quoted an Amnesty International official, Andrew Gardner, as saying, “His rhetoric from the start has been negative and inflammatory, provocative. But his speeches have increasingly turned not only against protesters, but also against people who defend the rights of protesters.[iv]

News accounts suggest Erdogan initially perceived the Park sit-in as a small environmental group protest of no consequence and that framing, and the impunity with which he acted thereafter on it, cost him much political capital and represented a deep misunderstanding and miscalculation on his part. Originally, the prime minister chose to dismiss his critics as so many “cranks” and he went so far as to label the protestors “capulcu,” (looters) and sought thereafter to ignore them. His position only hardened later when the police forcibly removed protestors from the park. Strong criticism and media attention from the West and within the country forced Erdogan to rethink his stance. Though his rhetoric and stand were harsh in the beginning, the prime minister accepted a court decision against the proposed Park development and ultimately expressed willingness to negotiate with protestors, thereby demonstrating a certain measure of pragmatism.[v]

Mohamed Morsi, the now deposed President of Egypt, behaved in an autocratic manner during his one-year tenure, as many observers, both within and outside of Egypt have pointed out. The Army and a large segment of Egyptian society perceived his actions and policies during his presidency as a threat to democracy. His efforts to entrench an Islamist agenda by modifying the nation’s constitution, and his failure to deliver on his promise to work to fix the economy in his first 100 days in office while also distancing himself from the Army were some of his blunders. But he seemed oblivious to the impact of his actions and the sense of urgency with which he had to react, when the citizens of Egypt demanded a different approach to handing their fragile democracy, in the first few months of his presidency.

Addressing a gathering on completing one year in office, he roundly criticized the opposition and secularists for dividing the country. Yet, the facts suggested otherwise. An article published in the British newspaper, The Guardian, during the crisis pointed out, for example, “Activists claim 15 million Egyptians have signed a petition calling for his departure, and expect a significant proportion of that number to turn out on Sunday to force him from office.[vi]” A disconnect from ‘reality’ haunted Morsi’s presidency and he lost his post to what some observers have dubbed a ‘coup’ and others have called a ‘popular vote’ against his rule. I argue that his decision to ignore both the Army’s ultimatum to negotiate and the de facto ‘popular vote’ of 15 million citizens, who took to the streets to protest his regime, provide evidence of his inability to grasp the gravity of the situation confronting his government.[vii] As a recent article in The National Interest noted, perhaps Morsi saw the Army’s ultimatum and the demonstrations as little more than a demand to step down, and from his perspective, he was justified in staying in power as he was a democratically elected leader.[viii] In any case, this stance framed his handling of the crisis. He saw himself as the rightful representative of the ‘great people of Egypt,’ the one who embodied their true aspirations, irrespective of the millions protesting in the streets.

Role of leaders in crisis definition, response

The leaders in these two cases had to decide whether the situation confronting them constituted a crisis. Hermann and Dayton contend that contraction of authority, in the sense of ultimate power of framing the situation resting with the leader, may well determine how a situation is managed and addressed thereafter. Morsi’s refusal to change his position and his view that he was the ‘legitimate’ representative of the people and as such, need not compromise or shift his positions or actions, and Erdogan’s labeling of the original Gezi Park protestors as petty thieves and their protests as a minor disturbance for the country, are illustrative of the importance of this insight. Previous research has also pointed to the impact of the long-term implications of how a crisis is framed. For example, the George W. Bush administration framed September 11, 2011 terrorist attacks as “America under attack” and this understanding has remained dominant for more than a decade, despite frequent criticism. Given that framing of a crisis necessarily occurs and that the individual perceived as in charge plays a vital role in that process, at least in its initial phases, a leader’s narrative concerning a triggering event and how to address it becomes crucial.

I am persuaded that Morsi might still be in power had he addressed the concerns raised about his mismanagement of the economy as those arose and had he also behaved less autocratically and actually listened and responded to alternate points of view and actively pursued compromise positions as a result. Had he framed the Army’s ultimatum to negotiate and street protests as legitimate demands for reform and acted accordingly, things could arguably be different in Egypt today. The same can be said about Erdogan’s political standing, both locally and internationally, had he agreed initially to make the concessions concerning Gezi Park to which he ultimately acceded.

Implications of this research

While this inquiry points to the critical significance of leader responses in crisis scenarios, it is not predictive. The role of leaders is crucial when unexpected events occurs as the public turns to them to help it understand and make sense of what is happening. These two recent cases illustrate the key role that the head of state’s perceptions and choices play in defining a crisis and how it develops. Their sensitivity, flexibility, understanding of events and responsiveness can make a profound difference in how events unfold.


End notes

[i] Traynor, Ian and Constanze Letsch, Turkey Divided More than Ever by Erdogan’s Gezi Park Crackdown. The Guardian. June 20, 2013.

[ii] Arango, Tim. As Turks seek to challenge their leaders’ power, he seeks to expand it. New York Times, June.3, 2013.

[iii] Safak, Pavey. Courage Lies in the Grey. Huffington Post. July 30, 2013

[iv] Same as note i, above

[v] Reuters,Turkey shows willingness to negotiate settlement. Reuters News Service,June 13, 2013.

[vi] Kingsley, Patrick. Mohamed Morsi: I have made Mistakes. The Guardian, June 3, 2013.

[vii] Kirkpatrick, David. Morsi defies Army call to bow to protestors demands. New York Times, June 2, 2013.

[viii] Borghard, Erica. Behind the Egyptian Army’s ultimatum. The National Interest. July 6, 2013.


Hermann Margaret, Dayton Bruce. (2009). “Transboundary Crises Through the Eyes of Policymakers: Sense Making and Crisis Management.” Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management, 17, 4 (December), pp. 233-241.

Khan sabithSabith Khan is a second year PhD student in Planning, Governance and Globalization. His research focuses on community based philanthropy among American Muslims. He has a passion for the Middle East and South Asia and issues related to US foreign policy, Philanthropy, Religion. When he isn’t working, he can be found trying out a new recipe or planning a new adventure. He also volunteers as the Executive Director of MENASA, an NGO engaged in citizens diplomacy that he co-founded in 2011.

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