Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has responded to the unprecedented protests sweeping his country by suppressing dissent and adopting threatening and socially divisive rhetoric against his perceived enemies. The result of this attempt to tighten his grip on power has been to deepen the fissures in Turkish society, creating the risk of sustained uncertainty and even of severe domestic instability.
Erdogan has refused to accept that the protests could have been caused by his own policies. Instead, he has blamed the unrest on a Western conspiracy to try to halt what he maintains has been Turkey’s rise to greatness during his premiership. However outlandish such claims may appear, there is little doubt that Erdogan believes them. Consequently, although the long-term repercussions of the protests remain unclear, in the short term they appear likely to accelerate Erdogan’s identification with the predominantly Sunni Muslim countries of the Middle East and North Africa in an attempt to establish Turkey as a regional power in apposition to the West.
Ideology and ambition
Most of the leading members of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) began their political careers in explicitly Islamist parties. However, when he founded the AKP in August 2001, Erdogan publicly insisted that he had abandoned the firebrand Islamism of his youth, describing it as a conservative party and repeatedly affirming his commitment to secularism and democratic pluralism. After the AKP came to power in November 2002, Erdogan remained circumspect, rejecting suggestions that he had a religious agenda and instead focusing on stabilising Turkey’s notoriously volatile economy and opening it up to foreign investment.
Buoyed by robust economic growth, and facing a weak and divided political opposition, the AKP was re-elected in July 2007, winning 46.6% of the popular vote, up from 34.3% in November 2002. It was elected to a third successive term in June 2011, increasing its vote to 49.8%. As it grew in confidence, the AKP began targeting its perceived rivals and opponents through a series of highly politicised court cases, imprisoning hundreds of military personnel and prominent secularists on allegations of plotting coups and belonging to terrorist organisations. It also began to apply increasing pressure on the media, jailing journalists and threatening media owners with tax fines.
In 2007, the AKP defied pressure from the staunchly secularist Turkish military and appointed Abdullah Gul, a devout Muslim who was then foreign minister, to the largely titular post of president. The appointment not only demonstrated that the Turkish military was a spent force politically, but also removed from the AKP the one person who might have been prepared to defy Erdogan. This move left Erdogan free to concentrate ever more de facto political power in his own hands. He also started to pursue an increasingly conservative domestic political agenda reminiscent of the Islamism of his youth. By 2012, it was an open secret that Erdogan was preparing to stand as a candidate for the presidency when Gul’s term in office expired in August 2014 – after which Erdogan planned to replace Turkey’s parliamentary system with a presidential one and rule the country singlehandedly for the next decade.
Bereft of any hope that the opposition parties would ever mount an effective challenge to the AKP, older members of Turkey’s traditionally secularist middle class watched in impotent despair.
However, particularly after the AKP’s election victory in June 2011, Erdogan’s policies have increasingly impinged on everyday life. In September 2012, he introduced a radical restructuring of the education system, increasing compulsory lessons in Sunni Islam and boosting the specialised religious training schools known as Imam Hatip Liseleri. He also tightened restrictions on what he regarded as un-Islamic practices, such as the consumption of alcohol and the content of television programmes. Court orders now block access to over 25,000 websites.
Since the beginning of 2013, Erdogan has begun to implement a series of major infrastructure projects in an attempt to make his mark on Istanbul, the city of his birth. It is possible to argue that some of the projects, such as the building of a new airport and a third bridge across the Bosphorus, are responses to need. However, others appear to be primarily motivated by ostentatious self-aggrandisement. They include plans to build a large mosque on a hill overlooking the city and to dig an artificial canal to link the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara. No attempt has been made to consult the inhabitants of Istanbul on these plans.
The tipping point
Although Erdogan has been an outspoken supporter of the rebels fighting to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, there is little popular enthusiasm in Turkey for any Turkish involvement in the conflict. Fears that Erdogan’s policies were nevertheless dragging Turkey into the war were reinforced when, on 11 May 2013, 52 people were killed by a double car bombing in the town of Reyhanli close to the Turkish–Syrian border. Although the identity of the perpetrators remains unclear, few Turks had any doubt that the bombings were related to Erdogan’s support for the Syrian rebels.
Over the weeks that followed, the sense of impotence among the secular middle classes started to grow. In the early hours of 24 May, Erdogan rushed a law through parliament that forbade all advertisements for alcohol. As Turks slept, additional articles were added to the bill at the last moment, including the banning of any depiction of alcohol on television and cinema screens. On 29 May, the 560th anniversary of the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul, the AKP held a groundbreaking ceremony for the third Bosphorus bridge. It was announced that the bridge would be named after Yavuz Sultan Selim I, the Ottoman sultan notorious for massacring during the early 1500s tens of thousands of Turkey’s heterodox Alevi religious minority, who today account for around 15% of the country’s population.
On 27 May, a small group of environmentalists had begun a protest against Erdogan’s plans to redevelop the Taksim Square area in the centre of Istanbul, including building a shopping mall on the adjacent Gezi Park. Shortly after dawn on 31 May, the police raided the makeshift camp that the environmentalists had erected in the park, setting fire to tents and beating and tear-gassing the demonstrators. Reports of the police brutality rapidly went viral and within hours hundreds of protesters had begun to gather in Taksim Square in support of the environmentalists. When these demonstrators were also baton-charged and tear-gassed, thousands more took to the streets in their support. By 1 June, tens of thousands of protesters had converged on Taksim Square. Hundreds of thousands more staged demonstrations in secular middle-class neighbourhoods in Istanbul and across the country. Eventually, the exhausted police were forced to withdraw from Taksim.
Populism and paranoia
The clashes drew in members of militant left-wing and Kurdish nationalist groups, who threw stones and other projectiles at the police. However, the vast majority of the protesters were peaceful, mostly students or young white-collar workers. Surveys of the participants showed that over 90% had never engaged in any political activity before. As the elation and bewilderment at their success began to fade, Taksim Square and Gezi Park took on the appearance of a youth festival, bringing together a vast kaleidoscope of people – ranging from environmentalists, yoga groups and gay and lesbian activists to Alevis and anti-capitalist Sunni Muslims – who were united by little more than their opposition to what they regarded as Erdogan’s attempts at forced social homogenisation.
On 14 June, some of the protesters met with Erdogan in Ankara and secured a commitment from him to postpone the Taksim redevelopment project pending a court decision on the future of Gezi Park, as well as a promise not to instigate another police assault against peaceful protesters. On 15 June, as the protesters peacefully debated whether to reduce their presence in Gezi Park to a symbolic level, the police attacked with baton charges and teargas. Although they succeeded in clearing Gezi Park, the assault again triggered mass protests not just in Istanbul but across the country.
Since the beginning of the unrest, Erdogan had repeatedly claimed that protests were being organised by what he described as ‘dark forces’ seeking to prevent Turkey’s rise to the status of an economic and political superpower. On 16 June, the pro-AKP daily Yeni Safak published details of what it claimed was a plot – entitled ‘Codename Istanbul’ – by the Jewish lobby in the United States to destabilise Turkey by instigating civil unrest. The newspaper claimed that the plot was backed not only by Western governments but also by the international media, which had spread disinformation about the protests. The Yeni Safak article was swiftly endorsed by a succession of AKP ministers, who promised that they would later provide concrete evidence to support its claims. Later on 16 June, in a speech to a hastily convened rally of AKP supporters on the outskirts of Istanbul, Erdogan declared that the same dark forces that had instigated the protests had also been responsible for the Reyhanli bombings on 11 May.
Into a new era
Although it was triggered by the police crackdown in Gezi Park, the civil unrest has now developed into a broader protest against Erdogan’s autocratic authoritarianism and didactic conservatism. Over time, the nature of the protests has also begun to change, with mass demonstrations being supplemented by acts of public defiance and civil disobedience. However, the protests remain leaderless. In as much as they are coordinated at all, it is through Twitter hashtags and Facebook pages rather than a single group or organisation. Nor is there yet any evidence that they have resulted in an increase in electoral support for the opposition parties. Indeed, one of the main reasons for protesters taking to the streets appears to have been a lack of faith in any political party to safeguard their liberties and lifestyles.
Erdogan has dismissed suggestions that he should call an early general election, preferring instead to launch the AKP campaign for the next local elections, which are due on 30 March 2014. But there is no indication that the protesters’ determination or newfound sense of empowerment is likely to fade away. Consequently, rather than leading to a change in government, the protests appear likely to result in a prolonged period of uncertainty and domestic volatility. Under such circumstances, it is difficult to envisage how the AKP government will be able to address urgent but highly sensitive issues such as the need for a new constitution and the hesitant attempts to put an end to the 29-year-old insurgency of the Kurdish Workers’ Party.
There is also a danger that already high social tensions could escalate still further. Erdogan has vowed to hold mass AKP rallies every weekend in different cities across the country until the March 2014 local elections. At the rally in Istanbul on the afternoon of 16 June, Erdogan accused the protesters of being terrorists, murderers and foreign agents. Within hours, gangs of AKP vigilantes armed with knives and clubs took to the streets to hunt down protesters. They were eventually dispersed by the police. However, if Erdogan continues with such inflammatory rhetoric, it is likely to be only a matter of time before the protesters also start to arm themselves.
Since the protests began, Erdogan has started his speeches to the rallies of AKP supporters by sending his greetings to Sunni Muslims in a long list of cities in the former Ottoman territories of the Balkans, the Middle East and North Africa. He has also made it clear that he believes that the Western conspiracy of ‘dark forces’ is directed not just against him, the AKP or Turkey but against Islam. The longer he continues to use such rhetoric, the more entrenched both his own and his supporters’ hostility towards the West is likely to become.
Although Erdogan is unlikely to sever Turkey’s ties with its traditional allies in Europe and the US, relations are likely to come under considerable strain. The first casualty would probably be Turkey’s already troubled relationship with the EU, particularly at a time when the negotiating process for Turkish accession appears close to collapse. Nor does the AKP’s identification of the Jewish lobby in the US as the main driving force behind the recent unrest bode well for hopes of a rapprochement between Turkey and Israel. Erdogan’s aggressive suspicions are also likely to complicate US policy in the region, not least at a time when Turkey appears set to play a key role in any US-led attempt to provide arms to the rebels fighting to overthrow Assad.