Learning the Wrong Lessons from Tahrir Square: Erdogan Assaults Taksim in bid to break up Protests

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.

16 Responses

  1. Juan – I wrote this – link to cnn.com

    I’m just curious what you think. Obviously the issues surrounding Islam, party politics, civil liberties, etc. are more crucial, but I felt they were being well covered.

  2. Guardian story said the protestors with Molotov cocktails were agents paid by police to provoke an attack.

  3. Dr Cole, I get the decision tree as it must appear to a sitting President who is faced with a Tahrir Square type occupation; excessive force strengthens the opposition argument but leaving the space in the possession of the opposition does the same. But I do not understand the divisions inside Turkey. One assumes that the constituency that elected Mr Erdogan generally supports the clearing of the square, for example, as Americans generally sided with Mr Nixon and the ‘hard-hats’ many years ago. Could you use a future post to help us understand the divisions that make this a larger conflict than Erdogan-vs-Secular-Elites? You are my go-to source for this kind of deeper analysis. Thanx!

  4. tend to agree w/ the Guardian story, as do mt friends in Turkey, many of whom have been posting images of the cocktail throwers and the surprisingly weak response to them. Also the fact that they made their appearance WITH the police clearance action. They had not been out doing this for any length of time to bring this on.

    It would appear that Erdogan has brought Gul to heel. He signed the alcohol law, he rejected the idea of a meeting of the parties about the protests and the violence. (In truth, figuring out what the Hoca from Pennsylvania is thinking is advanced Kremlinology, especially as his public pronouncements tend toward mush.)

    Erdogan, as anyone who’s followed his career knows, is acting as he always acts. He is a Kasimpasa punk, a brawler and a man of considerable venom.

    He has also chosen to make this about him at a time when he is pushing not only for the presidency but a new constitution that would concentrate all state power in the president. If the protests derail that, they may be scored a success.

    While I understand Juan’s comparisons to Morsi because of the street protests, to understand Erdogan, I would suggest a 180-degree turn to look at Putin’s career.

  5. Hey Perfesser, I’m finding this analysis a little bit muddled, I’m hoping you can clarify. Erdogan is in fact democratically elected. I really don’t see an analogy with Iran, where the protesters were demanding real democracy. You seem to be implying that his enforcement of civilian control of the military was somehow an illegitimate consolidation of power, whereas most small d democrats would view that as a very positive accomplishment.

    If some of these demonstrators really do have as their objective overturning the elected government, and if it is even plausible that the movement could succeed, then it would seem his repressive tactics are justifiable. If the demonstrations are hurting tourism and the economy more broadly, then a lot of ordinary folks would presumably want them to stop or at least be greatly toned down. It’s true that as a secularist (in fact an atheist) I would be happier if the Turkish people had elected somebody else, but they didn’t.

    What I would say about this is that it would be preferable to be tolerant of dissent and to limit policing of demonstrations to what is necessary to protect public safety and the basic rights of abutters, including merchants and travelers on the public way. That’s why we have permitting systems for demonstrations in the U.S. But it’s unclear what the protesters are demanding other than disliking the rhetoric and some (rather minor) policies of the government, which has majority support. So where is this supposed to be going? If they don’t like the current moderate Islamist rule, they can vote against it, but it seems most Turks do like it. So we’re kind of stuck with it, no?

    • You are confused because you are not very good at reading texts.

      I did not say that the protesters have as their goal a coup; I said that Erdogan mistakenly believes in this paranoid theory.

      I am the one who said Erdogan’s rule differs starkly from that in Iran.

      I did not say or imply that his subordination of the military was unfortunate.

      Right to assemble and freedom of the press are not observed by the Erdogan government, which detracts from its democratic credentials; elections aren’t everything.

    • Subordinating the military is in itself neither a good nor a bad thing. What is positive about subordination of the military to an authoritarian leader, regardless of how he was elected. (The Czech Communists were freely elected and that didn’t work out so well.)

      • Because the Turkish military is, like all NATO militaries except France, an extension of the Pentagon and its military rule was inherently an abrogation of sovereignity. If the Army had still been in charge in 2003, Bush would have had free rein to use Turkish soil to wage war on Iraq. I would argue that no country whose army has been absorbed into the US’s command structure via NATO has a genuinely independent foreign policy. Which is why after the Turkish aid ships were shot up by the Israelis, non-US NATO officials were privately furious but unable to do anything that would offend Washington, while conversely Bush could compel his NATO minions to send forces to die in our mess in Afghanistan. NATO makes Europeans die for America, not the other way around. The Turkish Army had no problem with that, and thus under its rule the Turkish people were not free to leave.

  6. Juan,

    I’ve noticed that in many of your replies you seem yourself to be somewhat intolerant of dissent. “Perfesser,” “muddled.” Not good words with which to start an otherwise quite serious comment. But to reply with “You are confused because you are not very good at reading texts.”? Ad hominem argument, sir.

    • I’m not intolerant of dissent, as demonstrated by my having posted the comment, which is full of derision and which repeatedly misstates my argument.

      You are confusing my having upbraided the commenter for poor reading skills with intolerance. It is just tough love. Maybe he’ll learn something and read more carefully next time.

  7. Thanks Dr. Cole for giving us some insight into the Turkish activity. The major news outlets seem to have neglected it badly

  8. One lesson of Tahrir Square is that removing an authoritarian leader does not neccessarily result in a liberated society. If protesters succeed in removing Erdogan, there’s no reason to assume they’ll be happy with the next government. It may be that the military and fundamentalists will eventually benefit from the unrest.

  9. If you assume that Erdogan and the current military leadership don’t see eye to eye and hence the prime minister is interested in changing the balance of power in his favor then you can reach the following conclusions:

    a) Erdogan is in favor of resolving the kurdish conflict because once resolved it will reduct the current army’s leadership influence on the Turkish politics.

    b) Erdogan is more than eager to start a conflict with Syria. I would expect the current army top brass in Turkey would have hard time going to war against the secular regime of Assad and on the side of the radical Qatar-Saudi fanatics. But the prime minister might have recognized the value of conflict in that once the war starts the secular military leadership has a choice to make: either step aside or fight on the side of the fanatics.
    Either way Erdogan will succeed in transforming the Turkish military similar to the transformation of the Iranian military went through in the Iran Iraq war. He is hoping to change the Turkish military’s secular doctrine to a religious one.

  10. I read somewhere that the initial impetus for the protest was to stop the destruction of a park to make way for a shopping mall. Since then, it seems that the protest had broadened but I have seem little in the press about what the protestors are saying, as most of the analysis focuses on the prime minister and his thinking. What are the current slogans on signs, etc.?

  11. My problem with your analysis Dr. Cole is different.

    I always ask myself why American liberal find it so hard to openly support pro-freedom movements in the Middle East. Or do you want us to smoke tobacco, pet our camels and go pray?

    The urban youth in Turkey want Erdogan’s hands off women’s bodies, they want to romance freely. They want to have fun, be free.

    They also want decent paying jobs. They want everything and they should. Some that I spoke to are 17 and 18.

    -Erdogan’s cops killed 4 people
    -They covered their helmets so that their murders cannot be brought to court
    -Erdogan constantly threatened peaceful protestors. He said “I can barely keep my 50% at home.”

    If the US government killed its own citizens and the President threatened Civil War while at the same time curtailing civil liberties would you be so cool and calm in your analysis?

    Or would you give a little more voice to these concerns?

    I know you are passionate about American domestic affairs. Be a little more supportive of our fight against Islamo-fascism. (No I’m not a neo-con but the term fits the mindset of AKP)

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