Turkey’s authoritarian ruler Recep Tayyip Erdogan, troubled by growing health problems, has put in motion plans to properly groom and prepare his son to succeed him, setting the stage for creating a family dynasty against the backdrop of dismantling democratic institutions in Turkey, a weak, fragmented opposition and amassing huge family wealth estimated to be in the hundreds of billions of dollars.
Necmettin Bilal Erdogan, the 42-year-old younger son in the family, is not in charge of any public office, but he should perhaps be considered to be the most influential person in the governance of Turkey. An ideological zealot, he operates from the shadows. He is aided and abetted by his father’s repressive, unaccountable regime and an extensive network of cronies strategically planted in key government positions.
The road markers for such a prospect were already visible in the key appointments made by President Erdogan after the elections in May and the subsequent cabinet reshuffle. While it’s unclear if Erdogan intends to voluntarily step down from politics, his deteriorating health, which includes cancer treatment, recurring epilepsy episodes and occasional memory lapses, may necessitate planning for a smooth succession in case of any future challenges to his leadership.
The younger son Bilal is seen as Turkey’s undeclared crown prince, and the president appears to be relying on him to ensure a smooth succession and safeguard the family from potential legal issues in the event of his departure. The vision of an Erdogan dynasty, inspired by the Ottomans, seems to suggest a desire for long-lasting rule in which the family treats 82 million citizens as their subjects and the assets of an entire country as their own wealth.
Nurtured in his youth at the religious Kartal İmam Hatip School in Istanbul and educated in the US, Bilal is considered the most trusted member of the family and is devoted to the ideology of political Islam. He maintains close ties with various religious sects and networks that support his father’s rule and his political agenda. Additionally, Bilal plays a significant role in coordinating outreach efforts with influential clerics and facilitates engagements with global religious networks, including the Muslim Brotherhood.
He had even worked with one-time al-Qaeda financier Yasin al-Qadi, designated by both the UN and the US Treasury at the time, received millions from him and established a shell company on his behalf in Turkey. In graft probes in 2013, both Qadi and Bilal were named as suspects by public prosecutors for violating multiple Turkish laws. It took his father’s unlawfully intervening in the investigation to save him from serious criminal charges and most certainly jail time for breaking the law.
It is obvious that Bilal has ambitions to follow in his father’s footsteps and to continue the anti-Western narrative within the country. There are concerns that he may seek to fulfill the family’s vision of transforming Turkey into a form of caliphate, where both the family’s influence and religious indoctrination play central roles in governance and society. Such a trajectory raises concerns about the future direction of Turkey’s political landscape and its relationship with the international community.
President Erdogan has entrusted Bilal with the responsibility of staffing key government positions, and Bilal appears to use various leading foundations, such as the Turkey Youth Foundation (TÜGVA), as revolving doors to fill government jobs, particularly at the entry and mid-levels. TÜGVA’s main ideology is based on political Islam, which has at times been associated with elements bordering on violent jihadism. The foundation organizes summer camps attended by radical clerics and offers scholarships and courses on various subjects, with the aim of preparing young ideologues to assume government positions. These actions have raised concerns about the potential impact on the country’s governance and the influence of political Islam within the administration.
Bilal also oversees the Foundation of Youth and Education in Turkey (TÜRGEV), a well-endowed organization that receives substantial donations from both domestic and external sources. The foundation is involved in training over 32,000 students in its schools and dormitories spread across Turkey. Furthermore, it owns Ibn Haldun University, which is situated in Istanbul.
A reference from these foundations ensures job placement within the government and facilitates swift promotion through the ranks. These practices have raised concerns about the potential for favoritism and nepotism in government appointments and promotions, further consolidating the influence of the Erdogan family within Turkey’s political landscape.
The foundations have faced allegations of being used as fronts to launder graft money and kickbacks that President Erdogan received from government contracts and tenders. TÜRGEV, in particular, has been accused of accepting illegal donations from both foreign and domestic sources. The foundation was at the center of a corruption investigation in December 2013 that involved serious allegations of bribery and irregularities.
President Erdogan intervened in the probe to protect his son from potential criminal charges. He removed the police, prosecutors and judges who were involved in pursuing the case, effectively shutting down the investigation into the foundation. These actions have raised significant concerns about the transparency and accountability of the government and the potential misuse of public funds for personal gain.
Bilal’s overseas operations were conducted through various entities associated with Turkish foundations, aiming to engage with Turks and non-Turkish Muslims in diaspora communities. One such entity is the Turken Foundation, established in 2014 and registered as a 501(C)3 not-for-profit educational organization by the US Internal Revenue Service. The foundation is reportedly funded by the Ensar Foundation, a religious network that gained notoriety due to numerous sexual abuse cases in Turkey, and TÜRGEV.
The Turken Foundation operates a student dormitory in Manhattan, indicating its active presence in the United States. These overseas activities have raised concerns about the potential reach and influence of the Erdogan family and its associated foundations beyond Turkey’s borders and their possible role in furthering political Islam in diaspora communities.
Over the course of his two-decade rule, President Erdogan has taken measures to remove influential figures within the Justice and Development Party (AKP) to create a path for his son to succeed him within the party. The AKP’s party delegates and parliamentary members are now predominantly composed of loyalists and supporters who are unlikely to challenge Erdogan’s decisions or his choice of successor. This consolidation of power within the party indicates the further entrenchment of the Erdogan family’s influence in Turkish politics.
The appointment of Abdullah Güler, a lawmaker from Sivas province, as head of the AKP’s parliamentary group in June appears to align with the president’s game plan for possible succession. Güler’s previous involvement as a board member of Okçular Vakfı (Archery Foundation) between 2016 and 2018 is significant, as the foundation is known to be a pet project of Bilal Erdogan. Bilal has utilized this foundation to promote the idea of reviving the Ottoman Empire under the pretext of encouraging youths to engage in traditional sports such as archery.
The selection of Güler for such a key position within the AKP suggests a strategic move by President Erdogan to place individuals with close ties to his son in influential roles within the party. This could signal a deliberate effort to ensure that the succession plan, involving Bilal, is effectively executed within the AKP.
Okçular Vakfı has benefited from substantial government contracts and secured leases on free or low-cost properties from municipalities controlled by the AKP. Additionally, the foundation has received donations from businesses seeking favorable treatment from the government thanks to influence-peddling by Bilal in government dealings.
Indeed, the foundation’s active involvement in establishing the Archery Federation, with Abdullah Güler as vice president, highlights its strong connections to influential figures within the AKP. These developments suggest that President Erdogan is carefully laying the groundwork for a possible succession plan, with his son playing a prominent role in the party administration.
The removal of long-serving cabinet members Hulusi Akar, former defense minister, and Suleyman Soylu, former interior minister, from government can be seen as another strategic move by President Erdogan to clear a smoother path for his son, Bilal, to potentially enter government in the future. Both Akar and Soylu are known to have political ambitions and have been positioning themselves as potential successors to Erdogan.
By removing them from their cabinet portfolios, President Erdogan may have diminished their immediate ability to challenge Bilal’s potential succession within the government. This move consolidates Erdogan’s control over the party and government administration and reinforces the perception that he is actively paving the way for Bilal to take on a more significant role in the political landscape in the future.
The appointment of İbrahim Kalın, a former aide of President Erdogan, as the new head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT), is a crucial move in supporting the potential succession of Bilal. MIT is a vital institution in maintaining the current regime and wields significant influence over the judiciary, police and military. It is involved in conducting influence operations through the media to support President Erdogan and is also engaged in acts of violence and intimidation against critics, opponents and dissidents.
Kalın’s appointment is noteworthy because of his loyalty to President Erdogan and the fact that he is a distant family relative through Bilal’s mother’s side. This familial connection, along with his unquestioning loyalty, suggests that Kalın is likely to direct the agency according to President Erdogan’s desires, which may include facilitating Bilal’s succession within the government. This move further reinforces Erdogan’s efforts to solidify his control and secure his family’s influence in Turkey’s political landscape.
The issue of wealth and financial control is a significant factor in President Erdogan’s efforts to ensure loyalty and support for his chosen heir, Bilal. The younger son has been entrusted with managing a substantial amount of money, most of which has been acquired through illegal means, such as kickbacks and bribes. The accumulation of hundreds of billions of dollars by the family, dispersed through multiple corporations, necessitates a trusted network to handle such vast sums.
Bilal’s association with various radical clerics and religious networks comes into play in managing these finances. These ill-gotten funds were justified among religious networks and political cronies as a war chest needed for supporting the global jihadist movement and propping up Islamist regimes, including the one in Turkey. The necessary religious edicts (fatwas) were secured from a cleric who blesses bribes and kickbacks as contributions necessary to pursue a worldwide Islamist agenda.
Indeed, despite not holding an official position in the government, Bilal has been increasingly included in President Erdogan’s official entourage and granted access to important government meetings. He has accompanied his father on official visits, a trend that has been observed in recent times, including during Erdogan’s tour of the Gulf region earlier this month. During such visits, Bilal has been given a prominent role, sitting right behind his father in high-level meetings.
The appointment of Ali Yerlikaya as interior minister and Yılmaz Tunç as justice minister in the new cabinet indicates another noteworthy move by President Erdogan to place loyalists who are likely to support his son Bilal’s interests. As heads of the interior and justice ministries, they wield significant power and influence over the judiciary and the police, making them crucial figures in the administration.
Due to the fact that these ministers are loyal to Bilal, concerns about potential interference in the judicial system and the police, compromising their independence and impartiality, will not disappear any time soon. Political influence in legal matters, in the administration of justice and in police investigations will continue in Turkey for the benefit of the Erdogan family.
If Bilal were to assume control of the ruling AKP and potentially the country, handed to him on a silver platter by his father, the extensive network he has built within the bureaucracy could indeed play a significant role in supporting his leadership. Having learned from his father’s approach in handling political opponents with sham investigations and bogus trials, Bilal would no doubt maintain the climate of fear and repression in Turkey while challenging Turkey’s allies and partners at every opportunity.
Therefore, maintaining a vigilant stance, imposing pressure and holding the Turkish government accountable to the rule-based global order will be essential in curbing the enthusiasm of the Erdogan dynasty and thwarting the dangerous ambitions of Turkey’s new crown prince.