A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, June 3, 2013

Thoughts on the Turkish Protests and Erdoğan

For those of us who follow Turkey occasionally but not always daily, the Gezi Park demonstrations in Istanbul were barely on the radar until Friday, when the ferocity of the government's crackdown led to protests throughout the country. We've now seen some of the worst violence in some years, and a polarization more reminiscent of Turkey 25 or 30 years ago than in more recent decades.

It's tempting to see the protests as one more manifestation of "Arab spring," this time in a non-Arab context. Social media is being used to organize and report the troubles. and the official media has tended to downplay events; my link this morning dealt with that aspect of events, and also indulged in the temptation to link "Taksim" with "Tahrir."

But there are many differences as well as some obvious parallels. In Tunisia and Egypt (and Libya and Syria), unelected autocratic governments ruled; a wide range of social and economic classes opposed them. The AKP government in Turkey was elected, and enjoys a comfortable majority, as Erdoğan keeps insisting. Erdoğan supported the Arab uprisings, and sees no similarities to what is going on in Turkey. Turkey is much more polarized, more evenly divided, than the Arab cases were, except perhaps Syria.

But just because the AKP was elected does not mean it has not been behaving autocratically. Rather like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (and quite unlike al-Nahda so far in Tunisia), it seems to feel that its electoral margin made it unquestionable. High-handed (and heavy-handed) behavior is being met with resistance. Steven A. Cook and Michael Koplow's piece, "How Democratic is Turkey?" is a reminder that the AKP's formula for "Islamic democracy," much feted in the West (as in Erdoğan's recent, rather triumphant visit to Washington), is still being tested. Lately it has been pushing for rapid change: constitutional revisions, greater restrictions on alcohol, rapid development in a neoliberal economic system. It has more and more directly challenged the secular tradition of Kemalism, and with that, the urban middle classes and elites.

It has blundered on occasion. The third bridge across the Bosphorus, (another of the major development projects, along with a third airport some say isn't needed), dedicated on the 650th anniversary of the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, was named the Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge, after the Ottoman ruler known in the West as Selim I "the Grim" (Ottoman Sultan 1512-1520). Much of his reign was spent fighting the rising power of Safavid Iran, and in fighting the Shi‘ite movements known to the Ottomans as the Qizilbash ("red heads" after their distinctive headgear; Kızılbaş in modern Turkish); he ordered widespread killings of the Qizilbash after the Battle of Chaldiran in 1514. As a result, Turkey's Alevi Shi‘ite minority, who identify historically with some of the Qizilbash, have protested the naming of the bridge, and Alevis, along with Kurds and other minorities, have joined in the protests.

Yavuz Sultan Selim
Of course to Sunni Islamists the Alevis are seen as heretics or worse, and thus (like some of the other "neo-Ottoman" gestures, the move sharpens sectarian divisions. The head of the consortium building the bridge, apparently trying to avoid the fuss, has said they intend to continue to just refer to it as the "third bridge."
Taksim and Gezi Park (at center) (Google Maps)
The point is not that people are quarreling over something that happened in 1514, or about a park in Taksim for that matter, but that they are struggling over far more profound issues of Turkey's historical identity.
Location in Istanbul
Another issue that is still offstage but that anyone familiar with modern Turkish history cannot ignore is where the Army is in all this. Once seen as the guarantor of Turkish secularism, the Army often has moved against Islamist governments. Conventional wisdom is that Erdoğan has tamed the Army, dismissing key generals and arresting others for an alleged coup plot. But over the weekend there were reports of individual; units refusing to allow police to enter Army zones, individual soldiers confronting policemen or supporting the protestors, or even providing gas masks to the demonstrators to defend against police teargas. This is still anecdotal but may bear watching.

Certainly many of Erdoğan's former admirers in the West may be rethinking their opinion, as the AKP seems to take a more and more authoritarian approach to its critics.


Anonymous said...

SAVE THE DATE: June 30, 2012.

That is when demonstrators in Turkey, Egypt and Tunisia are all supposed to protest illiberal ballot box “democracy.” The parallel with the Tunisia and Egypt is not so much the “Arab Spring” uprisings, but the aftermath….non-Islamists dealing with a government that feels it does not have to represent anyone but their own constituency…”ahl wa ‘ashira”. Turkey’s problems crystallized after the AKP gained enough seats so they did not require allies in passing legislation, leaving them to do much as they please. And then there is Erdogan’s personality….
The parallels are interesting: the AKP shows as much respect for organized labor or the unemployed as the FJP. It is crony capitalism blessed by God. No surprise that Khairat El Shater spends a good bit of time there with his business counterparts. The lack of any sensitivity to the feelings of minority citizens, in this case, the Alevis, is familiar as well. Sadly, there is no party in Turkey that is any better than the AKP in most respects. It is worth remembering that both the secular and the religious wings of the body politic are equally intolerant. This leaves the country’s liberals, especially the human rights community with no significant representation in the system.

Michael Collins Dunn said...

Well said, anonymous.

David Mack said...

Loved the background about Selim the Grim, the Safavids and he Alevis. Have passed it along to several folks interested in that period, including my wife.

I have a former U.S. Foreign Service friend who lived in Istanbul for many years when Erdogan was mayor and who even visited Erdogan when he was jailed by the military. My friend says part of the problem is Erdogan still thinks of himself as the Mayor of Istanbul and can't help micro-managing the city.