Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Erdogan’s Relationship with Lebanon’s Sunnis: A Deeper Look

There are several reasons why Lebanon's Sunnis support Erdogan, including historical ties, Turkey's generous aid, and a desire for strong leadership.

Erdogan’s Relationship with Lebanon's Sunnis
Lebanese supporters and members of the Islamic group Jamaa Islamiya wave Turkish and Lebanese flags during a demonstration to support Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. MAHMOUD ZAYYAT / AFP

Dana Hourany

The streets of Lebanon overflowed as celebrators gathered to mark the victory of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the recent presidential runoff. People draped themselves in the Turkish flag and expressed joyousness through dancing, singing traditional tunes, and setting off fireworks. Cheers of “Allahu Akbar” – Arabic for “God is great” echoed as people gathered in restaurants to continue their celebrations.

Lebanon, however, was one of many countries to do so. According to Turkish news website The Daily Sabah, Brussels and Germany, two European Union countries with large numbers of Turkish expats and thousands of flag-waving Erdogan supporters filled neighborhoods and major cities. Festivities were also held in a variety of Western European nations, with Rotterdam in the Netherlands, Zurich in Switzerland and Strasburg in France all participating.

In Romorantin-Lanthenay in France, the sound of singing and music filled the air.

Scenes of the same type played out in Sweden, Austria, Italy, Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo, and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

With just 52.14% of the votes, Erdogan secured another five-year term after narrowly defeating rival Kemal Kilicdaroglu on May 28.

“The only winner today is Turkiye,” Erdogan said.

Nevertheless, his Sunni Lebanese supporters, who have supported him since his first term, declared themselves also victorious, for reasons experts and observers believe are linked to sectarian frustration, the lack of adequate leadership in Lebanon, and the perpetual requirement for humanitarian aid that Turkiye has provided in lieu of the Lebanese government.

A historic attachment

Most of the celebrations in support of the Turkish president took place in the northern city of Tripoli, Akkar region, and parts of the capital, Beirut, which are considered to be some of Lebanon’s major Sunni-dominated areas. This was no surprise given that these Lebanese cities have long harbored admiration for both Turkiye and its Ottoman predecessors.

Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city, played a major role in the Ottoman Empire, having been designated as the provincial capital and chief town of the Eyalet of Tripoli (primary administrative division). This extensive region stretched from Byblos to Tarsus and contained important towns in Syria such as Homs and Hama.

Prior to 1612, Tripoli was closely connected to Syria and relied on its internal trade as well as taxes from its mountainous areas. French merchants were especially prevalent during the 17th and 18th centuries, resulting in intense competition between European powers for control of the port. Reduced to a sanjak (district) within Beirut’s Vilayet (first-level administrative division) by the 19th century, this status did not last past 1918 when it was taken over by British forces. During Ottoman rule various projects in Tripoli included Suleiman I’s Citadel restoration, plus the addition of a military barracks – Khan al-Saboun – located at the center of the city as a way to quell uprisings.

As for Akkar, its village of Kwechra marks a lasting reminder of what once was when the Ottoman Empire reigned in the northern governorate. Residents there are thought to have descended from the Güser tribe from Konya, Turkiye who journeyed across Syria and Lebanon before settling down. This 400-year-old lineage is celebrated through the use of the Turkish language combined with local Lebanese Arabic as well as traditional Turkish clothing such as the traditional headpiece, and baggy pants (sarval). Furthermore, majestic black stone houses that pay homage to ancestral architecture can be spotted all around this small region.

Today, Tripoli is considered one of the poorest cities on the coast of the Mediterranean, and Akkar, one of the poorest governorates in Lebanon.

Extending a helping hand

Erdogan’s 2010 visit to Beirut marked the beginning of Turkiye’s investment in Ottoman-era symbols, one example being the renovation of Tripoli train station on the historical Hijaz railway. Furthermore, Turkish cultural centers were opened across Lebanon where thousands are learning Turkish language and culture.

Additionally, Turkiye has strived to revive Turkmen identity amongst several thousand people living in minority numbers between northern and eastern Lebanon. Before Turkiye expressed its interest in this community more than a decade ago, ties between the Turkmen minority and Turkiye had already weakened significantly. Today, inhabitants of neglected Lebanese towns with large populations of Turkmen openly state that they feel more supported by the Turkish government than their own national government.

Lebanon also houses a large population of Syrian Turkmen and many thousands of Lebanese who either claim Turkish origins or are Turkmen. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu visited Beirut shortly after the 2020 Beirut port explosion and declared that Erdogan had instructed him to grant citizenship to all Lebanese Turkmen or those with Turkish origins.

In 2021, the streets of Tripoli witnessed an increased presence of Turkish flags and pictures of Erdogan. This is in part due to the economic crisis gripping Lebanon since 2019, with shortages in electricity, water and fuel. However, many Lebanese citizens had already expressed interest in obtaining Turkish citizenship prior to the current circumstances. According to estimates from unofficial sources, close to 18,000 applications have been submitted as of 2019 with just over 9,600 successful cases being approved.

However, not all those taking their chance for Turkish nationality were necessarily ethnically Turkish or Turkmen.

With this significant number of Erdogan supporters and Turkish nationals preexistent in the country, several French and Turkish media outlets viewed Lebanon as having given Erdogan “the highest [votes] in the world.

Additionally, Turkiye has provided aid for higher education in Lebanon through awarding of thousands of university scholarships.

Saudi Arabia versus Turkiye

Gulf States have been more influential in the MENA region for far longer than Turkiye. Saudi Arabia has particularly dominated Lebanese Sunni politics. Furthermore, Lebanon has been supported for many years by humanitarian help from the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

However, as Saudi Arabia grew more dissatisfied with the local political scene, namely Hezbollah’s seemingly unchallenged dominance in the country, relations started to sour. In 2021, then Information Minister George Kordahi’s comments on Yemen proved to be Saudi Arabia’s last straw, with Riyadh withdrawing its ambassador to Lebanon, opening the door for Ankara to swiftly fill the vacancy.

Former Lebanese prime minister and prominent Sunni figure Saad Hariri resigned from office in 2021, halting his political career months later. His resignation left a leadership gap in the Sunni community that has not been filled to this day.

By investing heavily in Lebanese enterprises, Turkiye has seized this opportunity to gain the favor of the Sunnis. According to the local publication L’Orient Today, it is challenging to identify or estimate the scope or worth of these projects because Ankara has kept its operations under wraps amid allegations of internal meddling.

However, when Riyadh chose to send its diplomats back to Beirut last year, a diplomatic icecap between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon started to thaw. This was a crucial step in the process of repairing the tense relationship between the two countries.

The extent of power

The celebrations honoring president Erdogan’s win, in the words of Mustapha Hamui, a Sunni Lebanese social analyst and blogger, were “shameful and embarrassing.”

“After the official departure of Saad Hariri, Lebanon’s Sunnis are noting the absence of a unifying leadership and feel that their role in regional and national sectarian power sharing has diminished,” Hamui told Fanack.

Tripoli-based blogger and social observer Chirine Abdallah, echoed this sentiment, stating that the Sunni sect is experiencing loss of power in the country.

“Considering the sectarian system under which Lebanon is governed, the Sunnis perceive that they do not possess the connections that were once available during Hariri’s tenure and that other sects are getting stronger while they are weakening,” Abdallah told Fanack.

Political expert, Karim Bitar, believes that this ardent support for foreign political leaders has been consistent throughout Lebanese history and is not restricted to any particular sect.

“The mediocrity of the Lebanese leadership is partly responsible for this. The people are always on the lookout for strong authoritarian figures and often succumb to the cult of personality,” Bitar explained.

In the case of Erdogan, Bitar says that the appeal lies in the idea that the Turkish president restored Turkiye’s presence in the entire region. Furthermore, his supporters believe that he has managed to reconcile a certain degree of economic growth – until recent years – with a certain degree of democratization, and with an element of Islamo-conservatism; he is also regarded as a figure who stands up to foreign intervention in the region.

In terms of the extent of Turkiye’s soft power expansion in Lebanon, Hamui and Bitar believe that Lebanon is not Turkiye’s highest priority, with Bitar stating that Lebanon’s culture wars will be the decisive factor.

“You have a conservative camp supporting Erdogan and which admires authoritarian nationalism, and there is a liberal camp (there are large segments in Tripoli who are liberals) and which is more attached to modernity and democracy, those liberals would have preferred Kilicdaroglu to win,” Bitar stated.

Filling the void & creating problems

To Abdallah, the Turkish president portrays himself as a “caring, compassionate and humble leader” in contrast to the Lebanese leaders who merely show concern for their personal interests.

“We, as Lebanese, do not have leaders who feel for the people’s woes, so we turn to foreign figures who do just that,” she stated, citing Turkish aid and contributions to Lebanon as primary examples.

Having Islamic conservatism is another area in which Erdogan holds an advantage over his opponent, who has a more secular approach and does not appeal to conservative Lebanese Sunnis, Abdallah explained.

A controversy arose when Kilicdaroglu was photographed standing on a prayer rug with his shoes on – an act prohibited by Islam.

For 27-year-old Armenian-Lebanese Alice, the celebrations surrounding Erdogan’s reelection were a disconcerting experience.

This goes back to the irreparable scar left by the Armenian Genocide of World War I (1914-18). Following the campaign of deportation and mass killing, conducted by the Young Turk government against the Armenian subjects of the Ottoman Empire, Turkiye has been hesitant to recognize these atrocities as genocide. Instead, they have argued that although horrendous crimes occurred, there was never an official policy to eradicate all Armenians from existence.

“Some Ottoman enthusiasts dismiss our existence due to the fact that Lebanese Armenians are evidence of their beloved empire failing to accomplish their mission to erase us and serve as a reminder that we remain present and demand reparations and justice,” Alice told Fanack.

In the meantime, the future of Erdogan’s second term remains uncertain as the Turkish president is currently dealing with runaway inflation and a collapsing lira that have put millions of Turks at risk of financial ruin. There is no doubt, however, that he will remain the preferred “Sunni strongman” until a new candidate is identified.

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