Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Amid Nationwide Protests, Turkish PM Tayyip Erdogan Faces His Moment of Truth

Prime Minister
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
Events in Turkey took an unexpected turn last week. It may be a bit premature but some are already calling the wave of civil unrest that erupted in every major city- and continue- as “The Turkish Spring.” 

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) suddenly found themselves the object of public scorn and open revolt. By Friday night and Saturday, demonstrations had begun to spread to every major city and even into small towns and villages. That included the more conservative regions thought to be AKP strongholds.
The most amazing thing of all was how quickly and to what extent things began to unravel.

The Park that Wouldn't Die
For a city with a 3000- year-old history, Istanbul’s Gezi Park -ground zero for this week’s protests -doesn’t have a great deal of historical value. The park, designed as “lungs of the city” was built as part of an earlier urban development plan back in 1939 and was constructed upon the ruins of the Ottoman Artillery Barracks (and before that, an Armenian cemetery.)

For many residents of the area, the park’s value had nothing to do with history. When it was decided that the park had to go in favor of an urban development scheme, they objected on purely environmental grounds, noting that the small park was one of the last remaining green areas in the neighborhood. In addition, they objected to how the decision was made- without any local input- to destroy a park in favor of a shopping mall.

Municipal leaders (all AKP members) and the local police so clumsily handled what had began as a peaceful protest that it unexpectedly led to something that few could have imagined- a national revolt against the ruling party.

After protesters were warned about continuing their camp to defend the park, early Thursday morning police marched in with tear gas and routed the group.
Under police protection, city workers immediately collected the tents and belongings and burned them. When heavy equipment was brought in to begin the park's destruction, the protesters returned to defend the park. This time with additional supporters. In response greater numbers of police, wearing full body armor, were sent in to seal off the area.
In fact, a judge had already issued a halt to the project until the matter could be settled. 

And that was that, so the Istanbul mayor thought, so the police commissioner of the city thought. However, by Friday afternoon, people from all over the city- some even crossing the Bosporus Bridge from the Asian side- marched into the downtown area to join the protesters.

Protesters march 
across bridge
connecting East to West
In response, the armies of police attempted in a heavy-handed way to maintain their control of the Taksim area, with the use of water cannon tanks, volleys of tear gas, mass arrests and physical brutality. Tanks with mounted water cannons targeted individual protesters, some of whom carried the Turkish flag.

Besides being a residential area, the historic Taksim area (where the events took place) is also one of the most popular touristic spots. According to some reports, homes in the neighborhood were filled with clouds of tear gas. Mixed into the crowds were shop-keepers, high school students the curious,  little old ladies buying bread, children and assorted tourists. (Tourism- a big money-maker in Turkey- is expected to take a big hit if this level of civil unrest continues.)

News of the events quickly spread across the country through the Internet. Rallies in support of the Gezi park protesters were forming in other cities. By Saturday afternoon, the international outlets, like BBC and Al-jazeera, had offered the Turkish protests as their lead story.
On the other hand, the mainstream media locally were for the most part noticeably absent and chose to ignore the protests altogether.

Throughout Friday night and into Saturday morning, the thousands of police battled with protesters. But on Saturday afternoon, things took an even more unexpected turn. Pressure from outside Turkey, (even from the the White House) was turning the civil unrest into a public relations disaster for Turkey and for the Erdogan administration.

While the Prime minister was attempting to downplay the incident, it was quickly becoming clear, even to the government authorities, that this was much more than just a local dispute with tree-huggers or a demonstration that had gone too far.
By now, Erdoğan was admitting that police may have been a bit overzealous with the use of tear gas. (Even then, that admission was made with a lot of caveats and qualification.) He vowed a thorough investigation of the incidents in Gezi Park.

He seemed to be completely unaware that the conversation had changed. It was now about more than just the heavy-handed approach by the police.  It had become a question of the government’s general lack of respect for its citizens and its unwillingness even to carry on a dialogue with them.
Then, to everybody’s surprise, without any official announcement, the armies of police filed onto buses and left the Taksim area, leaving the square to the protesters. Though protesters hesitated to declare it a victory, it was an astonishing sight for a public used to heavy-handed suppression from its government. (In the last year tear gas and pepper spray has been used as a first reaction by police, even on peaceful small groups of demonstrators.) 

Even with the police pullback, the situation was by no means over. In fact, in other cities, police continued to use the same methods that the Prime Minister had conceded may have been excessive. 

Questions about Leadership
It is important to note that comparisons to other regimes like Egypt’s Mubarak or Libya’s Gaddafi are unfair. For all his faults, Prime Minister Erdoğan has done much good for Turkey, especially for the Turkish economy. The transformation of the Turkish Republic under the AKP has been impressive to say the least. But more and more, there has also been a growing feeling of dissatisfaction with the ruling AKP party.

Although the Turkish Prime Minister was heaped with praised by the Obama administration during his recent visit, many inside Turkey have questioned whether Erdoğan’s style of management was anything short of a autocratic. For Erdoğan’s critics, there has been a irritating irony in hearing their prime ministers condemning the Syrian regime as being undemocratic.

For example, his general intolerance to scrutiny from the press has been noted by one source:
With 47 journalists imprisoned for their work, the country is the world's leading jailer of journalists -- ahead of Iran and China. Most of those imprisoned were employed by media outlets that support Kurdish autonomy; others are accused of supporting an ultra-nationalist conspiracy to topple the government. Thousands more journalists are battling punitive lawsuits for reporting on a wide range of sensitive issues, exposing corruption or simply criticizing the ruling [AKP] party.
It hasn’t been only journalists caught up in the crackdown on public speech. Recently Fazil Say, an internationally acclaimed Turkish pianist and composer, was given a 10-month suspended sentence for a series of tweets that, according to government officials, insulted Islam. That alleged blasphemy?
The messages cited in the indictment were Mr. Say’s personal remarks referring to a poem by a famous 11th-century Persian poet, Omar Khayyam, that poked fun at an Islamic vision of the afterlife. The poem was sent to Mr. Say from another user before he forwarded it.       
That court decision was suspended for five years. (He must be on good behavior during that time or off to jail he will go.)  As the New York Times reports:
Many intellectuals and writers, including the Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, have faced similar charges in recent years, prompting heavy international criticism of Turkey’s record on freedom of speech and human rights.
Mr. Pamuk was fined $3,700 for saying in a Swiss newspaper that Turks “have killed 30,000 Kurds and one million Armenians,” the last number a reference to the 1915 Armenian genocide by the Ottoman Army, a deeply contentious issue in Turkey.
In the Pamuk case, the charge was not blasphemy against Islam but the more vague one of  "insulting Turkishness."  According Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, "A person who, being a Turk, explicitly insults the Republic or Turkish Grand National Assembly, shall be punishable by imprisonment of between six months to three years." Freedom of speech, Pamuk told the BBC, was the only hope for Turkey to come to grips with its history. “But,” he added,”we have to be able to talk about our past.”

Izmir, Turkey
"Creeping Islamification"
But the limiting of free speech hasn't been confined only to high-profile figures. Many Turks have also felt that their freedom of speech has also been under attack when it came to uncensored access Internet.
The government at one time attempted to block access to various social media sites, including Google (with all its services). Internet users across the nation were understandably incensed.
Then without any official announcement, access returned. It did lead, however, to a case in the Court of Human Rights which decided that it was "difficult to see how a “blanket ban” of this kind on a provider of internet access, made without considering the wider impact, could ever be justified."

But it would not be the last assault on the Net. Later, one  government minister encouraged internet service providers to  install  a “filtering system” in the name of protecting children. Critics of the government argued that such a step could be used by the government to shut down dissent. (Indeed, in what those critics see as validation of their position, Prime Minister Erdogan, in a recent statement about the protests, blamed social media for exaggerating the problem.)

When the public expressed its disapproval for the scheme, ministers for the ruling party backed away and claimed that the censorship would have been voluntary and that it was all a misunderstanding.
That hasn’t stopped secularist groups- which still form a powerful force in the country- from charging that all of the initiatives by Erdoğan and the AKP are part of a larger attempt to install an Islamic Republic of Turkey.
They point to other examples of the so-called "creeping islamification" of Turkey. Many fear that there will be no public debate on key issues. Instead, with a majority in the Parliament, his party will attempt to codify those religious values into the constitution which has been in the process of being overhauled for the last few years.
Last year, Erdogan announced that he would draft a law outlawing abortions which have been illegal  since 1983. He told an audience that  "there is no difference between killing a baby in its mother's stomach and killing a baby after birth".  While Erdogan’s ignorance of female anatomy was embarrassing, many felt that this was just another sign of the AKP attempting to impose its  religious values on all citizens. 

(In a real head-scratcher, Erdoğan added more controversy to the issue by comparing abortions to recent friendly-fire blunder in which 34 innocent civilians were killed by the Turkish military in an air strike near the Iraqi border. That statement set a lot of people’s teeth on edge and was a slap in the face of the Turkish military as well. More on that in a moment.)

However, perhaps the most surprising (inspiring) thing was the public reaction to the remarks. Turkish feminists, (in fact women of all political persuasions) shoulder to shoulder with human right organizations took to the streets to protest. The proposal was hastily dropped from the discussion and hasn’t been mentioned since. A BBC report gives us the details:
Habibe Yilmaz, lawyer and director of the Centre for Legal Support for Women, said "making a decision regarding one's own body... is a fundamental human right".
"Depriving women of this right would be tantamount to restricting her right to health and the right to live a fulfilling life."
The Istanbul Feminist Collective reacted angrily. It staged a sit-in outside the prime minister's office in Istanbul. Women held banners declaring "Murder is male violence, abortion is a choice!" and "Our womb, our life, our decision!"
But there were other similar incidents.
In 2010 one minister, S. Aliye Kavaf, in charge of a Minister of State of Turkey, responsible for Women and Family Affairs, told reporters
“I believe homosexuality is a biological disorder, a disease. I believe [homosexuality] is something that needs to be treated. Therefore I do not have a positive opinion of gay marriage.”
Gay rights and human rights organizations questioned Kavaf’s qualifications to hold such an important position, given her ignorance of the medical establishment’s view on homosexuality. Marches were held and eventually, Erdoğan eventually replaced the minister. 
In an amazing reversal, in September 201,1 that replacement, Fatma Sahin actually met with LGBT leaders to discuss a proposal to accept LGBT citizens officially in the New Constitution.

In both of these examples, the impression the Turkish public took away was that, unless minorities pushed back, loud and clear their opinions ( indeed their human rights) would not be respected. And then only begrudgingly.

But it hasn't been merely human rights issues that has exposed the Prime Minister's weaknesses. There were also questions on the environment. One source gives us an example of a problem and the prevailing attitude:
As head of the Environment and Forestry Ministry, Veysel Eroğlu drew the ire of environmentalists for his staunch defense of dam projects that would drown ancient cities and displace thousands of people. "My job is to build dams," Eroğlu said last fall, adding that pop star Tarkan, an opponent of the Ilısu dam planned for Southeast Anatolia, "should watch his own business."

Protests in Istanbul
Another one of the many contentious environmental issues was the Prime Minister’s billion dollar plan to build a nuclear power station on the Black Sea, -a region riddled with active fault lines. Worryingly, it is to be constructed by the Japanese firm that built Fukushima plant. He brushed aside objections, insisting that the firm should be more experienced in safe construction methods.
End of discussion.

In both cases, the attitudes reveal a contempt for genuine public concerns. For the Prime Minister and his associates, the voice of the people was merely a lot of pointless noise and an obstacle to their agenda.

In any case, Erdogan’s ruling party, through its insensitivity and inability to compromise, has systematically managed to antagonize various unconnected minorities until the numbers reached critical mass.

The Turkish Military Factor
When it comes to re-establishing control in this situation, Prime Minister Erdoğan will face another problem, one that perhaps overshadows all of the others. And it is entirely of his own making. Should the protests become louder or more violent, the typical option of declaring using the Turkish military to declare martial law is, at best, risky.

Protests in Antalya Turkey 
Before Erdoğan' s rise to power in 2002, the Turkish military had enjoyed unchallenged authority. During the 1990s, government depended on the military’s approval to rule. In fact, on three separate occasions, generals imposed martial law, removed the government from power. (In one notable case, the prime minister was arrested and hanged.) 

The interference in politics by the military made the democratic process little more than a facade. All that changed in the last ten years when Erdoğan’s government initiated a historic prosecution of former generals responsible for past seizures of power. 
Additionally, his government opened cases against high-ranking military official accused of plotting against his own administration. While many questioned the validity of that conspiracy, few would argue that the removal of military as a political player has been one of the AKP parties greatest successes. 

But it has come at a cost. and the drawback to this achievement is evident. With literally hundreds of former generals in prison awaiting trials, accused of illegally overthrowing democratically-elected governments in the past, Erdoğan can hardly rely on support from the military now.

While many of Erdoğan’s domestic policies have come under fire, then there have been no lack of criticism for his foreign policy too. After a series of largely unsuccessful peace agreements with Turkey’s neighbors, the hard reality of events on the ground has left much of that work in tatters and at the moment, the prime ministers has few dependable allies in the region. All of this undermines Turkey’s crucial role as a middle-man negotiator between the West and East.

Careless Remarks
Unfortunately for the Prime Minister, Erdoğan seems unable to control his remarks. His tendency to say exactly the wrong thing has repeatedly led him astray. However, last month the prime minister in an effort to implement new laws on the sale of alcohol, crossed a line no Turkish leader should ever dare to.
When questioned about the need for limiting the sale of alcohol, Erdoğan declared that the past alcohol laws had been written by drunks. Many interpreted that as an indirect insult to the founder of the secular Turkish republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, since Kemal died as from cirrhosis of the liver due to heavy alcohol consumption during most of his adult life. 

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk
And perhaps that was the real catalyst for such public anger. It’s hard for outsiders to imagine the reverence that Kemal has here in Turkey. He isn’t called “The Father of Turks” for nothing. 

In every office, in every government building, school and in the majority of private homes, his critical image stares hypnotically back at you. And that respect for the founder of the Republic cuts across all age groups and most political ideologies in Turkey. 
There is one notable exception to that rule. Atatürk's position on mixing religion and politics are well-known to every Turk. Here's one such quote:

“A nation without religion cannot survive. Yet it is also very important to note that religion is a link between Allah and the individual believer....Those who use religion for their own benefit are detestable. We are against such a situation and will not allow it. Those who use religion in such a manner have fooled our people; it is against just such people that we have fought and will continue to fight.” 
And another quote that pits the founder of the nation against  Erdoğan and the AKP:
He is a weak ruler who needs religion to uphold his government; it is as if he would catch his people in a trap. My people are going to learn the principles of democracy, the dictates of truth and the teachings of science. Superstition must go. Let them worship as they will; every man can follow his own conscience, provided it does not interfere with sane reason or bid him against the liberty of his fellow-men.
When protests began to spread, people hung off their balconies holding Kemal’s picture. (Look carefully at the photos and you will see Kemal's image.) For any prime minister to insult Mustafa Kemal is, without a doubt, the height of arrogance and asking for trouble- especially from an Islamist Party. 
A big hairy ball of trouble.
(Incidentally, at today's brief press conference,  Erdoğan and his ministers appeared before an oversized image of Mustafa Kemal.) 

When you talk to Turks, they usually don’t point one particular complaint against Erdoğan  The problem is much more generalized.
And it generally boils down to one man’s innate inability to understand one of the most fundamental principles of any liberal democracy. That government is the servant of the people and must in constant dialogue with his or her citizens.
Erdoğan in a variety of ways has shown little patience for such things, they claim.

Another charge against him is that, in addition to an inability to listen and respect opposing opinions, the prime minister has, for years, surrounded himself with people who are unwilling or unable to give solid and much-needed advice, apart from unquestioning agreement. This is a very common political problem in many Middle-Eastern countries; a preference for the expediency of autocracy as opposed to the laborious process of compromise and coalition.

On the other hand, European leaders should think twice about criticizing Erdoğan.  They should perhaps take a moment of reflection to see how they themselves played a role in his rise. The consistent rejection (and delays in the application process) of Turkey as a EU member (back when that was something nations actually desired) has certainly been a factor. 
Instead of choosing to adopt the European model of governance, Erdoğan and the AKP has instead turned its eyes East, toward a much more autocratic (but very common) model in the Middle East. With the events of the last week, that model looks less and less applicable in Turkey, which in turns calls into question the entire idea that Turkey- at least under the present administration- can ever serve as a middle of the road model for any of the Arab-spring countries. 
*   *   *   *
By late Saturday night and Sunday morning, the situation in Istanbul had calmed a great deal. However in other cities across the countries, especially in the capital, Ankara and in Izmir, the night had been particularly violent, with shops looted and police vehicles set on fire. 
On Sunday evening, AKP party headquarters in Izmir- the third largest city of Turkey- were actually set on fire. Similar things were occurring in Adana, in the far east, and in the capital, Ankara. (At one point, an excavator used in construction was commandeered by rioters who threatened to dismantle government buildings.)

While news reporting on private television channels- seen to be in the pocket of the ruling party- has made much of the violence and destruction, given the numbers involved, it is shocking how few fatalities have been reported. Overwhelming the protesters have been numerous and peaceful but loud. In spite of the huge numbers, some pro-government channels have referred to all of the protesters as "provocateurs" with any discrimination. 

Nevertheless, despite the spins, it is clear that something had changed in Turkey. 

Whether the Prime Minister admits it or not, it appears the he might well have lost the “consent of the governed.” At the very least, what had up until last week been a fact of life in Turkey- that the AKP will rule the country with Erdoğan as its leader for as long as he likes- is now not so certain at all. 

To his credit, he has told the country that if they disapprove of his policies, then they should prove it at the ballot box. With regional elections in the next six months, it is certain they will do just that. That will probably spell the end to the AKP's hold on power even before the national elections next year.
Some analysts here go so far to say that the writing is on the wall for Erdoğan and that he is on the way out. The tide has turned, they say, though in fact, the verdict is still out. As we have just seen, Turkey is a nation full of surprises.

If it is true that Erdoğan will be forced to step down, then the direction forward looks very foggy. Informed sources suggest that as long as Erdoğan remains in power he is safe from prosecution for alleged high crimes. However, the moment he relinquishes his power, the games will officially commence.

Threats and Blame and a Test for Obama
On Monday, it was assumed that things would calm down and perhaps the whole thing would dissolve into apathy. That did not happen. In some cities, the protests turned into riots with a some property damage.
One eye-witness said one area of Izmir looked like a "war-zone." Meanwhile, police continued to use the same methods the Prime Minister had already condemned.

In his latest interview, the Prime Minister accused outside forces of creating the crisis, although when he pressed he refused to elaborate. Syria? Russia? Iran? Israel? The US? The UK? China? Who knows. Given the images of wide demographic variety of protesters on the streets and crowds protesting in villages, nobody is taking his claims very seriously. He also warned the main opposition party against any support of the protests. 

More ominously, he told reporters that he has 50% of the population on his side and that he was attempting to pacify his AKP supporters and “keep them from taking to the streets.” The implications of such irresponsible remarks are unmistakable. He appears to be saying that he could, if he wished, create nothing less than a civil war. Whether that is exactly what he meant is debatable, but his remarks do nothing to calm the already volatile situation.

Whatever happens, Erdoğan apparently won’t be in country for this week. Despite the supposed threat from "extremists, thugs and external enemies," he has decided to go ahead with a planned trip to North Africa where he will address the countries where the Arab spring began.
How exactly he will preach to the leaders there about respecting the will of the people is a mystery. He will probably explain why Turkey is the proper model for nations after the Arab Spring. Or he may discuss the value of ruling by the consent of the people.
Whatever Erdogan decides to say, that should be interesting indeed.

All of this puts the Obama in a distinctly uncomfortable position, especially regarding the Syrian civil war and the resulting humanitarian disaster. The US president must now decide whether, in the name of political expediency, to continue backing a man whom his own people are now referring to as a "dictator" for the sake of removing Syrian President Assad- a man whose credentials as a tyrant are well-proven. 
It is a situation in which America must proceed very carefully. It has every potential for being a political disaster for US foreign policy. 
Obama must demonstrate that he is a man of his word and that his speech in Cairo on June 4, 2009 was more than abstract ideas.

America does not presume to know what is best for everyone...But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.

(G)overnments that protect these rights are ultimately more stable, successful and secure. Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them. And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments – provided they govern with respect for all their people.
In other words, these events are the moment of truth, not merely for the Turkish Prime Minister.