Turkey: Another Egypt?

On many occasions the «Turkish-style» political system has been viewed as an example for Egypt to follow after the «Jasmine Revolution». Visiting Cairo in 2011, Prime Minister Recap Tayyip Erdoğan, who is also the chairman of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), tried to look as someone who has won victories without actually going to war and a leader who has succeeded in getting back the lands lost by the Ottoman empire, the process revived under the new historic conditions. He strongly praised the performance of his country, which has really reached telling economic and foreign policy achievements in the 2000s.

But things do change and the Middle East is a volatile region. Now the events in Turkey are acquiring increased similarity with what took place in Egypt, where peaceful protestors filled the Tahrir square in Cairo. The Prime Minister appears to have somewhat overestimated the country’s resources and capabilities. The local protest spurred by ambitious construction plans in the area of Taksim square has grown into a nation-wide mass unrest with dozens, or even hundreds, of protestors hitting the streets. The calls for ecology protection have turned into political slogans. The key demand is the resignation of Erdogan and his government. The protest keeps on spreading to encompass new areas and walks of life. Fierce clashes between protesters and police (it’s not without reason some units are viewed as Erdogan’s «private guards») take place in Istanbul, Ankara and other large provincial centers (like Izmir and Konya), the offices of ruling party being smashed up. Even soccer fans of rival teams have gotten together against police violence. The Turkey’s Confederation of Public Workers’ Unions (KESK) has joined the protests. Some say in case strikes expand across the country, the Padishah’s position will become really shaky. Of course, Turkey has not been immune from crises before, but the armed forces intervened any time it happened. Today they are destitute of such functions; the ruling party has effectively crashed on the military to eradicate any attempts of conspiracy adding to confusion and uncertainty in its ranks. (1)

As previously in Egypt, the unrest movement has thrown up no leader (or a group of leaders) and social networks have an important role to play uniting over 8 million people. More than two million massagers highlighting the Turkey events were sent by Twitter users in just 24 hours. Around 90% of posts came from inside the country, half of them from Istanbul. Approximately 88% of massages were in Turkish language leading to the conclusion that it was the internal audience the messages were addressed to.

The are other signs telling the activists of unexpected unrest are perfectly prepared for information warfare, while the powers that be appear to be on the defensive and at a loss in mass media and Internet (unlike the police facing the protesters on streets and squares). According to the Guardian, Mr. Erdogan blamed foreigners and attacked Twitter saying, «Now we have a menace that is called Twitter. The best example of lies can be found there. To me, social media is the worst menace to society». The role of media in the modern world is well known, so making similar statements is the shortest way to acquire the image of «oppressor of freedom» and a «dictator». No wonder, there is no de-facto support for the Prime Minister from the West: the media and politicians lash out against the Turkish police being too tough quelling the unrest. For instance, US Secretary of States John Kerry expressed concern over the anti-government demonstrations in Turkey calling for restraint. This statement is in line with the one made by Brussels on the same occasion.

Obviously not each and every political group or informal organization, whose activists hit the streets of Istanbul, Ankara and other cities, is liberal and West-oriented. The radical participants of Occupy Taksim movement include Erdogan’s opponents from all political specters, including ultra-nationalists, who despise him for starting a dialogue with Kurds, and left-wing groups opposing his excessively «pro-capitalist» social and economic policies, as well as the support of Syrian anti-government militants. (2) In case the unrest goes on, the most steadfast forces, which follow coherent plans of action and are ready to go to any length to achieve strictly defined goals, will be the ones to gain.

Evidently, the insight into the events of such gravity and scope requires having a look at the whole range of internal and external causes. The situation could be caused by surfaced tensions between «soft» (gradually becoming hard) Islamism of Erdogan and the sentiments spread in the ranks of secular oriented part of society. These are the very same tensions that one way or another have been a specific feature of the Ottoman caliphate and the Cembalist Republic after 1923. No matter the Justice and Development Party has won a string of elections; the Westernization has gone too deeply into the fabric of Turkish society. Even in such traditionally conservative cities as Konya, the Western influence has taken deep enough roots. Erdogan would hardly be able to substitute secular legal system with Islamic laws, but he insists on the priority of religion-oriented values and symbols. For instance, the recently adopted law restricting alcohol consumption. Defending the expediency of the measure, Erdogan said he liked his people and wanted to protect them from bad habits. But many people don’t want to live under the watchful sight of caring father.

Thus, there is a civil division, or even, a cultural and civilization split reflecting the vibrant and contradictory social, economic and political processes going on in the country. The Turkey’s NATO membership and it’s standing in the Middle and Near East is no less important bringing the country into focus of the recent West-led geopolitical experiments. The country’s destructive role in the Syrian crisis is evident. Those who follow the events closely have paid attention on unprecedented pressure the United States has exerted on Turkey. Let me recall that Hosni Mubarak, the former leader of Egypt, was also seen as a reliable US partner. Not long before the overthrow he had started to display some certain degree of independence…

Talking about the near future forecasts, it is quite possible Abdullah Gül, the President of Turkey, will take conciliatory steps. Formally an Erdogan’s political fellow traveler, he keeps some distance away from Prime Minister’s unwavering course and has a reputation of a moderate politician. One of possible outcomes could be gaining strength by some political elite groups. The glaring example is Fethullah Gülen, who went into self-imposed exile in 1998 and resides in Pennsylvania. He enjoys strong support back home. A spiritual leader of the Hizmet global movement, which comprises media outlets, schools and charitable organizations (to large extent it is funded by entrepreneurs based in Anatolia), the Muslim scholar has significant political clout in Turkey, as the Economist reports.  Many (if not the majority) of those, who vote for the ruling Justice and Development Party, are the supporters of Fethullah Gülen and his Hizmet network, no wonder his opinion on a wide range of issues (the emerging dialogue with Kurds, for instance) has fundamental importance.

On May 31 he met Ahmet Turk, the leader of pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP), who was visiting the United States. Before that a meeting between him and Erdogan’s Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc had taken place. Perhaps it’s all not about the Kurdish issue only. Reading a sermon in the middle of May, Gülen came out with veiled criticism of Erdogan’s vanity. No doubt, it reflects the Erdogan’s style. Some reporters of Zaman, the newspaper closely linked to his movement, have also made critical remarks about the Prime Minister’s arrogant attitude. The Gülen’s followers, who have acted as the ruling party’s allies recently (but more friendly to the West), may take a more definite stance if the unrest continues. On the other hand, other parties and groups, including those who are rather on the radical side, may intensify their activities too.

All of it is hardly surprising. Let me recall the «hard work to go from a tyranny to a democracy», a sway from long time support for dictatorships to bolstering democracies as a fundamental principle of foreign policy outlined just a few years ago by President Bush Jr., when his tenure was nearing the end. Other actors, who maintain kind of «competition/cooperation» relations with Washington, may pursue their own interests. The voices have already been raised calling the situation in Turkey a «milestone turn of events» to promote more mature «Turkish democracy». It’s quite evident. The matter is that in concrete terms the emergence of this type of democracy will entail further fragmentation of Turkish society (taking into consideration its historically complex ethnic composition and rather complicated character of relationship with the neighbors) influencing the ties with all adjacent states in the future.

Endnotes: 

(1) Moreover, the rumors are going around in Istanbul that the secular oriented military have refused to meet the police requests to lend a helping hand in quelling the unrest, the protesters have even been reported to be given gas protection masks in military hospitals – Dorsey J. Tahrir’s Lesson For Taksim: Police Brutality Unites Battle-Hardened Fans‏
(2) After the May 11 blasts a few thousand protesters hit the streets of Reyhanli discontent with the government policies, not Syria, which the Erdogan’s cabinet tried hard to lay the blame on. Earlier in 2012, Faruk Logoglu, deputy chairman of the opposition Republican People’s Party, said the events were a direct result of the government’s policy on Syria. One can hardly put into question the competence of former deputy Foreign Minister, an experienced diplomat, involved in preparation of many important events (including those related to Syria and the Middle East in general).

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