Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday launched an assault on the demonstrators in Taksim Square. It was a puzzling and desperate act, which threatened to undo many of his impressive accomplishments.
The cover story was that a small set of violent groups took advantage of the protest to attack police with molotov cocktails. But this misbehavior by some far leftwing activists or soccer hoodlums did not require clearing the whole square.
As the Bush administration tried to do in the US, Erdogan and the mayor of Istanbul tried to designate nearby Gezi Park as a “protest area,” but to exclude protesters from Taksim. (And, indeed, a huge protest continues at the Park). The latter had set up layers of barricades and on Tuesday the police systematically dismantled or destroyed them (in some cases using earth movers) while constantly subjecting the protesters to tear gas volleys and water cannon blasts.
Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly said that the demonstrations are a political plot by his rivals, He means the secularist Republican People’s Party, which in one form or another ran Turkey for much of the twentieth century. It is now a shadow of its former self, having only about 25% of the seats in parliament. It claims to be a socialist party but is more a party of the secular Kemalist elite than of the working class. Maybe you could compare it to Tony Blair’s New Labor in the UK.
In contrast, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party aspires to be the Muslim equivalent of the Christian Democrats in Germany– center-right and upholding traditional religious values. (The ruling Christian Democrats in Germany say their platform is “Christian Democracy” and they are inclining toward Neoliberal economic policies and support embryonic screening bans lest they encourage abortion).
Modern Turkey was founded by a general, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (d.1938), who fought off European imperialists and the Greeks in the 1920s to form a new nation out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. Viewing the latter as a failure, Ataturk adopted a militant secularism, a devotion to modernity, and state-led development as his ideology. Secularism became de rigeur in the military and in the political class, and religious people felt as though they had become second-class citizens.
Another Kemalist institution of which Erdogan is afraid is the military, which he at length subjected to himself to some extent. The military made coups in 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997. (As you can see, they are late). The last was a ‘soft coup’ in which the officer corps made the Muslim fundamentalist Necmettin Erbakan (d.2011) resign as prime minister. Erdogan, like Erbakan, comes from the Religious Right, and he long feared a military coup against himself. In fact, his government alleges that retired and active-duty officers did plot a coup in 2003-2004, for which they are trying hundreds of persons. Over time, Erdogan’s party, Justice and Development (AKP), which came to power in 2002, has stripped the military of its right to try civilians, has put civil courts in charge of trying officers guilty of certain kinds of crimes, and has over-ruled the generals’ objection to Abdullah Gul becoming president (he and his wife are practicing Muslims and the military refused to be present when she appeared in public with a headscarf).
In summer of 2011 after he won a third term as prime minister, Erdogan put the chiefs of staff in so humiliating a position that they felt forced to resign, and he replaced them with inoffensive figures.
So it is possible that Erdogan believes that the officers corps and the Republican People’s Party are conspiring behind the scenes to make a kind of soft coup against him by stirring up these youngsters to protest in 67 cities and especially in Taksim Square and in the capital of Ankara.
In this regard, Erdogan seems to resemble President Muhammad Morsi of Egypt, who also dealt harshly with protesters last November and December of last year, appearing to believe them part of a plot against him by the military and the judiciary.
In fact, networked urban youth protests via flashmobs and square occupations promoted on Twitter and Facebook are very unlikely to be the work of hidebound political parties or of aged officers smoking cigars in wood-lined clubs.
If Erdogan believes that the Taksim gathering is part of an attempted Kemalist coup aimed at overturning by street protests the results of three free and fair parliamentary elections, then his determination to crush the movement becomes understandable, though not excusable.
That he plans to run for president in 2014 is another impetus for him to refuse to look weak to his supporters in his last months as prime minister. He wants to go into the presidential elections from a position of strength, not hobbled by continued protests by what he sees as a disgruntled minority. Internal divisions in the Justice and Development Party (AKP) may be part of his calculation. The current president, Abdullah Gul, may run against him, and Gul has been critical of police brutality toward the protesters. A key constituency of the AKP is the religious Gulen movement of Fathullah Gulen, who also criticized heavy-handed police tactics. There are rumors of a growing split between Erdogan and the Gulencis. If the latter left his coalition, he would be vulnerable. So Erdogan may feel a need to shore up the support of his own AKP by acting decisively and looking presidential.
The technique of square occupation, used successfully by the Egyptian protesters at Tahrir Square in January-February of 2011, requires the establishment of a permanent presence in a large, central public space. That presence in turn requires the erection of barricades and the enlisting of Ultras or soccer fanatics as bodyguards. The constant presence of large numbers of demonstrators at the city center attracts press, encourages similar square occupations in other cities, discourages tourism and foreign investment, and puts pressure on the rest of the elite (including the officer corps) to dump the leader causing all the trouble.
Erdogan moved to remove the occupiers by having the police assault them with heavy duty tear gas and water cannons, and using earth movers to remove the barricades, which were systematically dismantled. Erdogan observed Tahrir Square closely, and he and his advisers appear to believe that Hosni Mubarak made an error in letting that public space remain occupied. Likewise, Erdogan has vilified Twitter and has had 13 tweeters arrested on charges of spreading false rumors. Both on the front of meatspace and in cyberspace, he is attempting to raise the cost of protest.
Clearing the square to break the momentum of the protesters is not always successful, however, in the medium to long term. I was at Tahrir Square in early August 2011 when the then military government, SCAF, cleared it, attacking the Ultras first and then the protesters and completely destroying all their tents, platforms, banners and placards. I think I barely got away from the scene in time to avoid being arrested, myself. Many subsequent occupations of Tahrir were staged, however, and about a year later the officer corps that had sent in the troops in 2011 was itself exiled to its barracks by an elected president, with the support of the crowds.
It has to be admitted that Erdogan may succeed in taking the steam out of his opposition, just as the ayatollahs in Iran succeeded in the course of 2009. In Iran, the inability of the young protesters to acquire allies in the bazaar (the traditional retail sector) and among most workers blunted their progress. Iran’s rulers, however, had advantages that Erdogan does not. Its military is loyal to the Supreme Leader and it has hundreds of thousands of Basij volunteers to serve as a combination of STASI and brownshirts. The Supreme Leader can have parliamentary and presidential candidates disqualified.
Turkey as a parliamentary democracy cannot deploy most of the techniques used by Iran in 2009. If Erdogan’s youth opposition has more staying power than he seems to assume, it could survive into 2014 and affect the election. Erdogan has been very popular. But if his tangling with the youth continues to harm the stock market, hits tourism, affects foreign investment, and pushes Turkey further away from the European Union, he could suffer a fall in popularity.
Erdogan is taking a big gamble, that Turkey’s crisis can successfully be dealt with through iron fist tactics. He may win in the short or medium turn. But it seems to me that it is possible he is awakening a dragon, the disgruntled urban youth, who have time and again in recent years showed themselves not a force to be trifled with, and who may go on to have a significant impact on Turkish politics in the coming decade.