Erdogan faces range of dissidents

Erdogan faces range of dissidents

His effort to promote friendship has been wrecked by his involvement in the Syrian revolt.

Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was wrong when he said that his country is not in the throes of a "Turkish Spring" comparable to the "Arab Spring" that has swept West Asia over the past two and a half years.

He was wrong because a constellation of forces has been in Turkey's squares and streets protesting not only against the policies of his government but also demanding that he step down. Taksim Square, an iconic politico-historical site in Istanbul, has become, like Tahrir Square in Cairo, the focal point of the protests.

Like Mubarak, Erdogan faces a wide spectrum of dissidents: environmentalists, nationalists, leftists, and secularists as well as disillusioned Kurds and angry Alevis, a large minority sect combining folk religion with Shiism. The first four opposition groups reject his policy of urban development at the expense of the environment, emphasis on Muslim rather than Turkish identity, privatisation of state-owned enterprises, and creeping Islamisation.  Kurds have waited in vain for reforms giving them cultural and political rights while Alevis - who have connections with heterdox Shia Alawites in Syria - oppose Erdogan's active support of rebels and jihadis trying to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an Alawite.

Electoral fraud

Since Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) has won nearly 50 per cent of the vote in three free and fair elections, he does not compare himself with Egypt's former President Hosni Mubarak whose rule was based on electoral fraud. However, Erdogan, put in power by the people, made the same mistake committed by Mubarak’s successor, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Muhammad Morsi.  Both thought winning elections conferred upon them the right to rule without considering those who did not vote for them. The spark that ignited the flame of revolt in Turkey was Erdogan's plan to build in a park adjacent to Taksim Square in central Istanbul a replica of Ottoman military barracks combined with a shopping mall.  As bulldozers began to fell trees in the park,environmentalists pitched tents to block the project. Police moved in, drove out protesters and torched tents, prompting tens of thousands of Turks to flood into the streets of 90 cities and towns, including the capital Ankara where demonstrators menaced Erdogan's office compound.

Erdogan, considered the most popular Turkish politician of the past 50 years, blamed "external forces," dismissed protesters as "extremists" and rejected any comparison with Arab Spring uprisings. Erdogan's government has made great strides during its decade in power.  The army, the partner in governance of secular coalitions from 1923-2002, has been sent back to barracks. The economy has grown at five per cent, tripling in size from 2002-2011. The government built cheap housing for poor Turks and empowered the provincial bourgeoisie. The AKP has also stirred resentment. A poor central neighbourhood in Istanbul was expropriated and its inhabitants expelled to make way for apartments for the wealthy.  Malls and mosques were constructed without regard for the public's wishes.  Erdogan has also tried to impose on the country conservative Muslim values and lifestyle.  His government has lifted the ban on women wearing headscarves in state offices and universities and, recently, limited the sale of alcoholic drinks in line with the Muslim ban on consumption.  He has been accused of "Islamisation by stealth."

His effort to promote friendship with neighbouring countries has been wrecked by his involvement in the Syrian revolt, a policy opposed by a majority of Turks who fear the regional destabilising effects of Syria's descent into civil war. Liberals and secularists who welcomed Erdogan's banishment of the military from Turkey's political life, now accuse him of adopting the very same repressive policies used by the generals and secular politicians to keep them in power for decades. Previous protests have been put down by the police, journalists jailed for revealing embarrassing truths, and critics intimidated. Opponents express concern that once  he rewrites the constitution, transforms Turkey's parliamentary system into a presidential system and installs an executive president with enhanced powers, Erdogan could win election, become a new "sultan" and rule autocratically.     

While Erdogan has not fallen from power, he has fallen from grace. He has dispelled the Western fantasy that his "moderate" fundamentalist AKP can serve as a model for similar parties in other Muslim countries. Once in power, parties rooted in religion (any religion) cannot ignore the siren song of preachers and the faithful who feel compelled to impose their rituals and mores on the whole of society.

It has taken 90 years for Turkey's former rulers to convert half of the country's citizens to secular politics, Erdogan cannot expect to reverse this process without encountering resistance.