Recep Tayyip Erdogan Image Credit: AFP

London: When Tayyip Erdogan sold bread rolls as a boy on the old streets of Istanbul, Turkey was a country caught in a cycle of army coups.

It languished on the fringes of Europe. Pious Turks were the underdogs of society.

Under his second decade as prime minister, Turkey could not look more different, but the riots across the country over the past week have presented him with the greatest political challenge since coming to power.

Turkey has one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, it is a European Union candidate and a regional heavyweight, and religious Turks have displaced the secularist elite from power.

An autocrat and a dangerous Islamist to his enemies, a hero and a man of the people to his admirers, the 59-year-old Erdogan has transformed this Muslim democracy since his AK Party swept to power in 2002, on a scale unseen since Kemal Ataturk founded the Turkish republic in 1923 out of the ruins of a defeated Ottoman Empire.

A hot-tempered but charismatic politician, Erdogan has taken risks as he has challenged the secularist military and the judiciary, while power has shifted from the Westernised, urban elites to a new class of observant Muslims from the heartland.

Market-friendly reforms pushed by his socially conservative AK have tripled Turkey’s per capita income in the last 10 years.

Bail-out programmes to clean up financial meltdowns and banking collapses are now a thing of the past.

Erdogan, who does not drink or smoke and is known for chastising his aides when he catches them smoking, has also changed Turkey’s place in the world.

A long-time Nato member and US ally, Turkey has deepened ties with the Middle East, including Iran, and opened new markets in Asia and Africa.