News / Middle East

Turkish Protests Unlikely to Threaten Erdogan

Protesters man a barricade near Gezi park, in Istanbul June 15, 2013, while others in Gezi Park debate the prime minister's proposal to end their park occupation.Protesters man a barricade near Gezi park, in Istanbul June 15, 2013, while others in Gezi Park debate the prime minister's proposal to end their park occupation.
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Protesters man a barricade near Gezi park, in Istanbul June 15, 2013, while others in Gezi Park debate the prime minister's proposal to end their park occupation.
Protesters man a barricade near Gezi park, in Istanbul June 15, 2013, while others in Gezi Park debate the prime minister's proposal to end their park occupation.
David Arnold
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is having his troubles with anti-government protesters these days, but regional experts predict he will survive the challenge and see out his term in office.

The trouble had been brewing for months, with critics accusing Erdogan and his Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) of failing to listen to, much less accommodate, opposing political views.

But the situation reached a boiling point last month when Erdogan ordered bulldozers to demolish Istanbul’s Gezi Park to make way for a pet development project honoring the Ottoman Empire that ruled Turkey and much of the Middle East until World War I.

Gezi Park is one of Istanbul’s last open green spaces and the three-time prime minister’s order triggered bitter protests by Istanbul’s liberals and secular elites, which in turn triggered anti-government demonstrations in much of the country. Again, a main complaint was that Erdogan was not listening to opposing views and trying to impose conservative Islamic values on a sizeable percentage of the citizenry that considers itself secular.

Many commentators, mainly outside Turkey, began comparing Erdogan’s plight to Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader who was Egypt’s president for a year until being ousted by the military last week. As with Erdogan, Morsi had been accused of failing to accommodate a more secular opposition.

Erdogan's government described Morsi's ouster as an unacceptable military coup and on Tuesday, Cairo summoned the the Turkish ambassador to protest the remark.

Turkey is different

But regional experts say any comparison to Egypt is faulty because under Erdogan, Turkey has been prosperous, its currency has maintained its value, and most of all, the nation has a stable political system.

In contrast to rising joblessness, rampant government corruption and unchecked police repression found in Egypt  and much of the Middle East and North Africa, Erdogan can point with pride to successful economic and development policies that have made Turkey a contender for admission to the European Union, a long-sought goal in Ankara.

Soner Cagaptay, director of the Washington Institute’s Turkey research unit, said the protests inspired by the Gezi Park dispute show mainly that Turkey is maturing into a middle class society.

“I think that would not have been the case if this had been Turkey 10 years ago when it was a much poorer country,” Cagaptay said. “And I think in this regard the AKP, the Justice and Development party, is a victim of its own success.

“It has implemented sound economic policies, which have made Turkey a growing economy and a member of the prestigious G-20 club of economies, but also a majority middle class country for the first time in history,” he said.

Bessma Momani, a Brookings Institution scholar and University of Waterloo political scientist, says there is another, political fundamental factor that sets Turkey apart.

“The Erdogan government is still very much a democratic and legitimate one,” said Momani. “Analogies to Arab dictators are unjustified.”

Gezi Park protests

The Gezi Park dispute started in late May when environmentalists began protesting Erdogan’s plans to replace it with a shopping mall and an Ottoman-style replica of a 1940s military barracks.

There were also proposals to tear down the nearby Ataturk Cultural Center honoring the charismatic leader who set Turkey on the path of secularism in the 1920s, and to build a large mosque on adjacent Istiklal Avenue, now a fashionable entertainment and dining area.

“The mosque would sit right in the middle,” Momani said of the Istiklal Avenue plan. “This is the heartland of the European side of the city, not the Asian side where most of the mosques are and where the less affluent people live.”

On the third night of the anti-government demonstrations in Gezi Park and other Turkish cities, Erdogan ordered in the police, who arrested more than 900 in Istanbul, Ankara and elsewhere. Medical personnel said the raids resulted in two deaths and more than a thousand injuries.

The response was immediate and massive, with even larger protests throughout the country. Critics decried what they said were growing signs of authoritarian rule.

“The issue was not just the park,” said Cagaptay. “It is that the government didn’t listen to the citizens.

Erdogan’s leadership

Erdogan has been described as an outspoken and charismatic speaker who brings tears to the eyes of party loyalists. “He runs the AKP like a one-man show,” Cagaptay said.

“When he gets to the podium,” said Momani, “he yells and there are people who like that, and AKP loyalists love it. For the young, progressive, liberal urban population, it’s just a turn-off.

“He is increasingly very arrogant,” adds Momani. “He is spouting off a lot of things like, ‘You should have four children,’ and ‘You should not have alcohol.’”

Last week, a Turkish court overruled Erdogan’s Gezi Park demolition plans, delaying for at least the time being the prime minister’s urban redevelopment proposals. That decision gave Erdogan a temporary reprieve from the controversy to focus on his political future.

The prime minister can now consolidate the conservative AKP with the political right, Cagaptay said, and that leaves “only a net 40 percent of the vote” for opposition in a political campaign in 2014.

The question is which office he will choose to seek in 2014 elections – another term as prime minister or possibly the Turkish presidency. Both ideas would require some constitutional revisions, either to permit him a fourth term as prime minister or to strengthen the largely ceremonial office of the presidency and allow Erdogan to trade posts with the current president, Abdullah Gul.

Whatever his choice, Erdogan could get a lift from tens of thousands of new supporters.

According to the Brookings Institution’s Momani, these additional supporters are the conservative members of a new urban middle class who have moved from the countryside to the cities, most of them crediting Erdogan’s economic policies for their new-found status.

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