Elise Massicard, Street-Level Governing: Negotiating the State in Urban Turkey (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2022)

During the last century, Turkey has seen the abolition of the Caliphate in 1924, the first democratic elections in 1950, multiple coups in the following decades, the rise to power of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2003, and the move from a parliamentary to a presidential system in 2018. Throughout this time, a relatively unknown institution, the muhtarlik, has remained in place in Turkey, with only a brief intermission between 1933 and 1944.

The muhtarlik is “halfway between a state administration and a local elected body.”[1] Headed by the muhtar, the muhtarlik is the institution closest to Turkish citizens. Its functions are far from well-defined but often include issuing documents, coordinating social welfare, and liaising with municipal authorities.

In her 2022 book, “Street-Level Governing: Negotiating the State in Urban Turkey”, Elise Massicard, a research fellow at the Center for International Studies at Sciences Po University (Paris), presents a fascinating account of the muhtarlik. Massicard’s work, which sits at the intersection of anthropology and political science, is built on both secondary sources and her direct observation of how six muhtars performed their role in Istanbul during the 2013-2014 period.

Although the institution of the muhtarlik was established in the mid-nineteenth century as part of the Tanzimat reforms introduced in the Ottoman Empire, it is only since 1977 that the muhtars have received an income from the central government for their work. Furthermore, this remuneration has traditionally not been enough to make ends meet. This explains why “the muhtarlik is often a secondary occupation in the eyes of its holders.”[2] Those muhtars who have an additional job are usually self-employed or small business owners, allowing them to reconcile both positions. Pensioners and women outside of the labour force are also frequent holders of the muhtar office. Although Massicard does not present statistics on the percentage of muhtars who are women, the cases she discusses appear to indicate that this percentage is higher than that of mayors who are women – less than 3 percent in 2014.[3]

The path toward becoming muhtar does not require any kind of formal education. Instead, social embeddedness is essential. As Massicard writes, “local anchoring is key to the muhtar’s role.”[4] This is true in at least two ways. Firstly, in their ambiguous position as a mediator between the citizens of a neighbourhood and the state, the muhtar must know their constituents well in order to effectively carry out their role.

Although not all muhtars engage themselves personally to the same extent, a muhtar interviewed by the author explained, “when bedridden people need a certificate, I go to their home to check that they actually live there and that they are bedridden. If that is the case, I provide the documents, but I don’t give one without checking.”[5]

Secondly, staying close to the community is indispensable if the muhtar seeks to be re-elected. Muhtars themselves recognize that being the ones distributing voter cards gives them a certain advantage over other candidates. However, the electoral campaigns, which take place together with municipal elections every five years, can often be intense.

The muhtars are not politicians but engage in practices that bear the marks of traditional politics. This can be seen when the candidates for the muhtarlik, in advance of the election, must present their team of azas – assistants who will help the muhtar in their role if elected. Prospective azas are frequently chosen by the muhtar candidate from diverse religious affiliations, regional origins, and party sympathies to maximize support from different sectors of voters.

Massicard finds that “muhtars declare themselves to be primarily on the people’s side.”[6] Nevertheless, the muhtars have certain obligations vis-à-vis the state that might compromise this self-identification. For instance, they are required to support law enforcement agencies by assisting with police arrests and informing them about security issues.

One muhtar told Massicard that she was once asked by the police to help take a man into custody who was being investigated for murder. The muhtar had to comply despite the fact that she was a childhood friend of the suspect’s mother and was convinced that the man was innocent, as the police eventually determined.

Massicard makes clear that there is significant variation in the functions and volume of work performed in different muhtarliks. The size of the neighbourhood is obviously a determining factor, but the socioeconomic status of its inhabitants also plays a role, since “groups who are disadvantaged (…) solicit muhtars more frequently.”[7] Wealthier neighbourhoods are generally closer to administrative centres and their citizens tend to be comparatively more educated, which often renders the intermediating role of the muhtar redundant.

“Street-Level Governing”presents a comprehensive picture of what it means to be a muhtar in Istanbul. Massicard studies muhtars working in neighbourhoods that differ in size, socioeconomic conditions, and history. Whereas some of the muhtarliks under study are found in historical districts of the city, others belong to the precarious gecekondu settlements that emerged as a result of mass rural migration to Turkey’s major cities in the second half of the twentieth century. The interview snippets that Massicard introduces in the book, in conjunction with her meticulous contextualization, provide an incomparable window into the work of the muhtars.

Nevertheless, it is evident that some of the main findings in “Street-Level Governing”can not necessarily be extrapolated to more rural settings or Turkey’s southeast, with its significant Kurdish population. Since 2016, following the collapse of the peace process with the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) in government has implemented a severe crackdown on local autonomy in the Kurdish areas of Turkey.

In this context of repression, many of the municipality representatives aligned with the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) have been replaced by government-appointed officials.[8] Drawing on Massicard’s work, it would be extremely relevant to investigate how muhtars in these contested municipalities navigate the open conflict between the central state and the HDP local authorities. As Massicard notes, many muhtars close to the HDP, as well as to other opposition parties, have resented Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s calls for a closer connection between the presidency and the muhtars, viewing this as a threat to their authority.

Throughout his almost two decades in power, Erdogan has introduced significant changes affecting the muhtars. In 2014, the remuneration of the muhtars was doubled and is now above the national minimum wage. These new benefits, however, do not come without demands from the government. Instead, they are part of the process by which, as Massicard remarks, “central authorities have asserted growing control over muhtars” in recent times.[9]

The immediate future of the muhtarlik institution is far from clear, even less so as Turkey finds itself in the prologue to decisive presidential and parliamentary elections that could bring the opposition into power. Nevertheless, what is certain is that the role of the muhtars will continue evolving, as it has been doing since it was created in the Ottoman era, while remaining the institution that, as Massicard aptly puts it, “collapses the assumed social distance between the “state” and the residents.”[10] “Street-Level Governing” is a commendable study that approaches contemporary Turkey from an original angle with both rigour and scholarship. It certainly deserves to be read and discussed.

[1] Massicard, Elise. Street-Level Governing: Negotiating the State in Urban Turkey (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2022), p.2.
[2] Ibid., p. 52.
[3] Sumbas, Ahu. “Gendered Local Politics: The Barriers to Women’s Representation in Turkey.” Democratization 27, no. 4 (2020): 573.
[4] Elise Massicard, Street-Level Governing: Negotiating the State in Urban Turkey, p. 60.
[5] Ibid., pp. 93-94.
[6] Ibid., p. 152.
[7] Ibid., p. 164.
[8] Güvenç, Muna. “Mayors and Municipalities: How Local Government Shapes Kurdish Politics in Turkey.” Middle East Brief. Waltham: Crown Center for Middle East Studies, May 2022, p. 5. Retrieved from https://www.brandeis.edu/crown/publications/middle-east-briefs/index.html.
[9] Elise Massicard, Street-Level Governing: Negotiating the State in Urban Turkey, p. 268.
[10] Ibid., p. 124.

The Syrian Conflict: Reflections and Prospects

Held on 10 November, 2022


Ola Rifai | Senior research fellow and the Deputy Director for Outreach at the Centre for Syrian Studies.

Mohamad al-Ashmar | Humanitarian professional and consultant in international development and humanitarian crises. International Relations doctoral researcher at the University of St Andrews (UK).

Dr Francesco Belcastro | Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Derby (UK) and a Fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies, University of St Andrew.

Professor Raymond Hinnebusch | Professor of International Relations at the University of St Andrews. Founder and director of the Centre for Syrian Studies.


“Agency has largely passed from Syrians to external powers.”

The nature and impact of external influence in the Syrian conflict was the most prominent issue discussed by the panel. The speakers concurred that the persistence of international interference by powers such as Russia and the US play a harmful and restrictive role in the region, which ultimately prevents the resolution of the conflict.

Tracking Russia and Iran’s support of the Syrian regime since the 2012 uprisings, Dr Belcastro argued that the Syrian regime is reliant upon these powers to the extent of surrendering its autonomy. In light of recent distractions which threaten Russia and Iran’s support of the regime, namely civil unrest in Iran or Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the question of the regime’s ability to hold its ground can be brought into question. Belcastro argued that regardless of the extent of engagement, these external powers will continue to play the role of ultimate guarantor for the Syrian regime, as the regime remains too weak to stand on its own.

Professor Hinnebusch discussed the role of US interference and influence on the conflict, highlighting the superpower’s recent shift in approach from primary to secondary sanctions. Painting a bleak picture, Professor Hinnebusch outlined the key consequences of these sanctions as economic collapse and escalation into further humanitarian crisis. At the societal level, he argued that the sanctions are failing to spawn revolt and have instead instilled a sense of hopelessness, with the struggle for daily economic survival debilitating the Syrian people’s political agency.

“Demographic engineering is reconstructing identity and provoking identity clashes.”

A key theme evoked by the speakers was the relevance and centrality of identity within the Syrian conflict. The speakers explored the topic of identity through the perspective of different players within the conflict, from the Syrian diaspora to Syrian people who remain in the region.

Emphasising the delicate historical process of identity construction and reconstruction for the Syrian people, a panellist criticised Turkey’s recent inorganic transplantation of 1 million Syrian refugees into North Syria, a land which was historically ethnically mixed and is surrounded by Salafi militias, as disruptive to the natural process of identity construction. Taking a more positive stance, a panellist explored the role of Syrian identity as a mobilising force. Focusing on the power of the Syrian diaspora in the Syrian relief effort, they emphasised the force of the
Syrian diaspora in constructing hundreds of charitable organisations worldwide in support of those in Syria, and the way in which the common Syrian identity felt by those involved has helped fuel collective mobilisation. However, the panellist resigned to the limitations of this form of resistance, acknowledging that the diaspora is ultimately incapable of significantly impacting the political situation in Syria.

“The importance of sect was over romanticised.”

The panel was critical of the tendency of Western political figures and media to overemphasise the role of sectarianism in the Syrian conflict. Dr Belcastro cited this as an oversimplification of multifaceted political tensions by Western powers. Similarly, a panellist identified this tendency as a manifestation of the wider historical trend of the West imposing orientalist lenses upon Middle Eastern subjects. This depiction of the Syrian conflict in sectarian terms ultimately places identity groups as oppositional forces, ultimately fuelling inter-group conflict.

Dr. Belcastro expanded this thought beyond the immediate context of Syria, suggesting that this sectarian lens is imposed by the West onto the wider Middle Eastern geopolitical landscape, such as the ongoing tensions between Iran and the Gulf nations. The speakers posed the question of how, acting from within this imposed sectarian lens, the Syrian regime will attempt to negotiate reintegration into regional politics in the near future.

“External Interference is unlikely to ever withdraw entirely.”

Ultimately, the panel agreed that moving forward, the prospect of a Syria without any form of external interference is a fantasy. External actors have invested too much into the conflict to completely absolve themselves of all influence. Ultimately, as we have seen with the US’s shift toward secondary sanctions, it is expected that external powers such as the US and Russia will simply recalibrate the way in which they choose to interfere. Neither Russia nor the US are predicted to completely abandon their role within the conflict.

“The Success or failure of the US’s secondary sanctions on Syria have implications on the global order.”

Russia and China are expected to push back against the US’s secondary sanctions imposed upon the Syrian regime, which punishes any company or state who chooses to do business with those that do business with Syria. Moves such as attempting to reduce the use of the dollar in international trade and producing an alternative world banking payment system have been triggered, in part, by these sanctions imposed upon the Syrian regime. This has implications far beyond the Syrian context. This act of defiance suggests a gradual shift toward a multipolar global financial order, which would see the US removed as the global financial hegemon.

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