Canberra, 8 July 2013
In the week that Istanbul celebrated the 560th anniversary of its capture by the Ottomans in 1453, Taksim Square in the heart of the city erupted in protest. The protest began as a peaceful demonstration demanding the preservation of a 75-year old park and the trees within it that were scheduled to be cut down to make way for the government’s urban development project. However, it rapidly turned into a massive call for the resignation of the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan because of the high-handed police attempts to suppress the protest with the use of tear gas and water cannons. [Water cannons and  tear gas has been used in other nations too to break up protests, but the Turkish police used them against relatively peaceful protesters, which made it look high-handed.] These tactics, in combination with Erdogan’s intransigence, led to the protest spreading across the country, leaving an indelible mark on the country’s political landscape. Comparisons between Turkey’s Taksim and Egypt’s Tahrir Square are inevitable. However, there are more differences than similarities between the two. Both the squares unified rival soccer fans with an entrenched history of fighting each other and both movements coined similar slogans: ‘Mubarak Irhal (leave)’ in one case and ‘Erdogan Istifa (resign)’ in the other. The similarities end there.
The differences are clearly visible. Unlike the protests that got rid of autocratic leaders [read dictators] in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the demonstrations in Turkey are against a democratically elected leader who has won three consecutive elections with a respectable majority each time. Further, the government that he leads has presided over significant economic growth and transformed the nation into a regional power with palpable global ambitions. Perhaps the most important distinction is that Turkey, unlike its Arab neighbours, is a robust democracy with a strong, vibrant and vociferous civil society.
In reality the protests were never just about the trees, but the culmination of the accumulation of resentment caused by a number of incidents. There are two fundamental reasons for the flare up. First, the ruling AKP (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, meaning Justice and Development Party) government has removed institutional checks and balances on the executive and have evolved into an authoritarian regime. Turkey today has thousands of political prisoners languishing in jail. With this simmering discontent just beneath the surface, when Erdogan reacted with his characteristic arrogance to the protests, calling the protesters ‘looters’, the common man came out into the streets as never before. The Prime Minister’s arrogance has been noticeable throughout his tenure and his biting sarcasm has become a trademark attribute. Second, there is pervasive fear. This has not been reported in the mainstream papers, but the social media has commented on it at length—of people being arrested for making jokes about the government, of ordinary people saying that they are scared to voice an opinion contrary to those of the government, of the press being gagged by the government. By the single act of protesting a decision, the people of Turkey have demonstrated that they have surmounted their anxiety and fear of authority and transformed into a group who believe in themselves.
There are three issues that converge and overlap—the short-sighted initiative to cut the trees in Gezi Park; the use of state apparatus to repress a legitimate, and largely peaceful, protest with the use of excessive force; and a loss of some amount of the legitimacy of a democratically elected government, through the loss of popular support. The public is at liberty to occupy ‘public’ spaces to protest over ill-conceived urban planning initiatives that would diminish the environment. The park in question, if converted to urban sprawl, would significantly degrade the ecological sustenance of the city and also affect the social fabric. The use of force to suppress popular protests against government policy normally acts as a catalyst for further protests and the entrenchment of anti-government feelings. It strengthens the resolve of the protesters. This happened in Turkey too. Consultation rather than repression should have been the chosen path and could have led to constructive social participation on policy development. Any government that responds in the oppressive manner in which the AKP did, that too to minor protests in a park, is bound to lose the confidence of the people. There is a clear distinction between maintaining law and order and repression, as is there between peaceful and legitimate protesters and violent and unruly mobs. It takes a statesman to recognise the difference, and Erdogan failed the test.
The Slow Fuse
There is much more to the protests than the future well-being of a few trees, even if they are majestic and old—they have essentially brought to focus the fundamental question: What direction is Turkey moving in? Beyond saving the park (and the trees) the protests were a reflection of the smouldering discontentment with Erdogan’s rule. Official sources state that demonstrations were held in 67 provinces across Turkey. Therefore, it cannot be brushed aside as the act of few ‘trouble makers’. The resentment towards the government became palpable and gathered momentum only after the 2011 elections when Erdogan’s growing authoritarian rule started to make inroads into personal lifestyle choices. This style was embodied in his utter disregard for appeals and even a court injunction to stop the commencement of construction in the disputed park. This authoritarian streak is in sharp contrast to the behaviour pattern established in his first and second terms between 2003 and 2011. During this period, the AKP was functioning as the lead partner in coalitions and initiated important reforms aimed at further democratisation and improving pluralisation, actions lauded by the general population.
The past two years have seen a reversal of this trend, with the result that the popularity of both the AKP and the Prime Minister has eroded. There is direct criticism of violations against freedom of expression, with the International Federation of Journalists claiming that Turkey is the nation with the largest number of journalists under detention. Erdogan is alleged to have intervened personally to oust certain internationally regarded journalists from their jobs. More importantly perhaps, a combination of his contempt for the checks and balances of a democracy on executive power and his declared determination to transform Turkey’s parliament into a Presidential system have unnerved the general public, which views these manoeuvrings as evidence of authoritarian ambitions. Public opinion polls show that less than 50% of the AKP supporters want the Presidential system. The Prime Minister has brushed such opinion polls aside as of no consequence!
The source of resentment need not always be the result of some grandiose scheme that is being fostered on the people. In Turkey the resentment stems from Erdogan’s reluctance to admit that the common people too have a vision and want to have a say in the manner in which they are governed. The recent government decision to restrict the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages is being seen as a sectarian measure; and further, the ban on Turkish Airline hostesses wearing red lipstick has rapidly degenerated into a divisive issue. There is a growing feeling that the government wants to impose restrictive conservative social Islamic values on people who do not share those values. Some of the AKP parliamentarians have called the demonstrators ‘drunkards’, a clear indication of a biased understanding of the broader reasons for the demonstrations taking place in the first place. The demonstrations are, at the very least, a reflection of the deep-seated differences between a section of the population and the Prime Minister, and the values that he is gradually attempting to superimpose on the nation. The liberal values that the public have come to cherish are seen to be vanishing in front of their eyes, and they do not like that. The bubbling discontent had to come out in the open, and it did.
Ataturk’s Legacy Under Attack
The Gezi Park, the core of the current demonstrations, is symbolic of what is currently happening. It was from the barracks at Gezi that Ottoman troops marched out in 1909 as part of the counter-coup against the ‘Young Turks’ who had instituted pro-constitutional reforms, to restore the Sultan’s power and reinstate the Caliphate and Islamic law. Ataturk had razed the barracks and built the Gezi Park 70 years ago, almost as a symbol of Turkey’s emergence as a secular and modern nation. It is the very same barracks that Erdogan wants to rebuild—honouring those who resisted modernisation and the pro-Western movement, which were the foundations for modern Turkey. It is being said, “what Ataturk built, Erdogan tears down; what Ataturk reviled, Erdogan prizes”.
The Prime Minister’s attempt to bulldoze the park, in a metaphorical sense could be considered the beginning of a larger push to bulldoze Ataturk’s modern legacy in order to build a powerful presidency on an altered constitution aimed at restoring the glory of Ottoman Turkey and the Caliphate that once united the Sunni Islamic world. This is Erdogan’s ambition. The neo-Ottoman objectives are not the daydreams of a section of paranoid people, but the self-proclaimed aims of the Prime Minister and the AK Party. Since gaining power ten years ago, Erdogan has steadily pushed back on secular policies by actions such as restoring the headscarves for women that Ataturk had expressly forbidden. More menacingly, he has moved directly against broad democratic rights: jailing critical journalists, influencing the free media in a number of covert ways, undermining the independence of the judiciary, and using suspicious and trumped up charges against the secular military leadership and political opponents to silence them.
Symbolism has taken over some of the actions. Erdogan sponsored a counter-demonstration of his supporters to show his popularity. This was held in Kazlicesme, outside the ancient walls of Constantinople—the same place from which Sultan Mehmet, the 15th century Sultan, launched the attack that drove the last of the Western influence from Turkey. It is noteworthy that AKP supporters sing the old Ottoman army marching songs. There are other initiatives also that smack of symbolism, aimed directly against Ataturk’s legacy. One, Erdogan has just commenced the building of a massive new bridge across the Bosporus that has been named for Ottoman Sultan Selim I. It was Selim’s conquests in 1517 that brought the title of Caliph to the Ottoman sultans, a title that subsequent rulers bore for the next 400 years until Ataturk abolished it. It is also noteworthy that Selim I is considered a slaughterer by the minority Alevi community. Two, on the Asian side of Istanbul, facing Europe, Erdogan is building what would be the largest mosque in the world. Visible from anywhere in Istanbul, it dwarfs other celebratory mosques built by Ottoman sultans in previous centuries. No such mosque has been built since Ataturk imposed secular rule.
The square, the bridge, the mosque, and the marching songs are individually and collectively a repudiation of all that Ataturk stood for; they herald the primacy of an Islamic Caliphate over what is a secular Republic. There is however a subtle difference between Ataturk’s rule and that of Erdogan. At the end of the first ten years of his rule Ataturk had managed to keep the conservative vision of Islam that challenged Turkey’s progress well under check and the path he was taking the nation on was clearly one of future prosperity. Erdogan, also in the tenth year of his rule faces the greatest challenges of his political career, and perhaps more importantly, has unnecessarily brought Turkey to a cross-road. The future path that is being shown to the nation seems to be heading towards religious conservatism and a return to the old order. 
Erdogan’s Challenges
Erdogan had staked his claim to bringing stability and progress to the nation, a claim that now lies shattered at Taksim square. His iron grip on the nation has loosened, in a manner that it may well be impossible for him to regain the same effective control ever again. However, the battle to redraw his image is yet to start. Currently Erdogan faces a restive population. The once robust economy is slowing noticeably, something that the Prime Minster blames on interest rate lobbies. His low tolerance for criticism, even within his own party, as well as his attacks on the rule of law and freedom of expression have painted him as an autocrat, not an elected representative. Further, his foreign policy has lacked consistency—with Iran continuing to be defiant to his overtures and intervention efforts in Syria being both ineffective and unpopular. At the start of the protests itself, Erdogan’s arrogant stance made him a divider rather than a unifier—and this will be source of the country’s decline, if it is not reined in.
Strong population growth by itself has never been an inherent strength of a nation. The energy of a vibrant young population has to be channelled through employment opportunities and visible growth potential brought about by strong economic growth. In the face of lack of such opportunities population growth becomes a recipe for social unrest that invariably leads to political turmoil. In democracies, voter disenchantment is quick to take hold when the government becomes incapable of delivering on the ‘good things’ in life. By exploiting the inclination of a certain percentage of the population towards conservative Islam, Erdogan has created a battleline between ‘two countries’ in Turkey—one inching towards modernity and the other steadily moving towards traditional religion. Through the protests, the younger generation of Turkey, the key to its future, has made their choice known, not just in Istanbul or Ankara, but in over 200 other cities and towns across the nation. A clearer vote of no-confidence in the government and conservative Islam cannot be imagined.
Unfortunately Erdogan is not the patriarch that is now required in Turkey to embrace both the sides and bring them back into the fold. His continuance as the principal ruler will exacerbate issues—both overt and hidden. Sadly, he is a politician and not a statesman, and therefore cannot be relied upon to keep the nation’s interest paramount and voluntarily take a back seat. Further division of the society on the lines of secularism and conservative Islam seems to be definite.  
There is no doubt that the protests have weakened Erdogan’s position as the dominant person in Turkish politics. However, the next election in Turkey, held every four years, is due in 2015 and it remains to be seen whether the current protest will still be an influential factor that affects the outcome, if the government lasts its full term. The fact remains that the ruthless police action against the protestors has damaged Turkey’s image and undermined its quest for membership of the European Union.
The ball is now firmly in Erdogan’s court. Withdrawing the police and negotiating the building proposal is not going to sway the people’s antipathy towards his earlier actions and arrogant words. He has to rebuild the broken bridges with the people—both those who elected him and those that did not. The secret to success in Turkey, even since Ataturk established the foundations for the modern nation has been a secular democracy, not an overtly Islamic autocracy. Turkey, so far the unquestioned leader and the soul of modern and moderate Islam, is now under siege from within. It is facing a fundamental choice. Unfortunately, there is no credible opposition party to take advantage of Erdogan’s fall from grace and therefore, it will be left to the AKPs grey beards to set the agenda for the nation to move forward, rather than be held back by the conservative elements within the party. Whether or not they have the vision and the clout to do the right thing by the nation is a moot question. 
A protest that began with a simple demand to save few trees degenerated into a protest that brought the youth out into the streets and politicised a sizeable number of people who would otherwise have stayed on the sidelines. A number of journalists have likened the youth protest to the proverbial genie in the bottle that has escaped. If the genie has indeed escaped, then Erdogan will not be able to get it to go back inside the bottle. Turkey has crossed an invisible line and will not be the same ever again. These protests have been truly a turning point in Turkey’s democratic history. At the time of writing, the street protests have almost completely ended and an uneasy peace reigns. In its place, neighbourhood assemblies are growing—democracy at the grass roots. It is such movements that have formed the nucleus of some of the most important revolutions of the 20th century. This protest and the cry for democracy are what the Turkish youth will carry forward as a memory to sustain them; and such memories cannot be erased by a totalitarian regime. The youth hold the future of Turkey in their inexperienced hands! 

About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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