Allan Massie: Erdogan must talk about his ambitions

Turkish demonstrators hold their national flag during a protest in front of the prime minister's office in Ankara. Picture: Getty
Turkish demonstrators hold their national flag during a protest in front of the prime minister's office in Ankara. Picture: Getty
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The democratically elected prime minister eyes a bigger prize, but is testing the patience of his people, writes Allan Massie

Turkey has been the most successful state in the modern Muslim world. This statement requires some qualification. It is a Muslim country but not a Muslim state.

It was created from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War by Kemal Ataturk, a hard-drinking soldier. Like the founders of the Ba’ath party in Iraq and Syria, Kemal regarded Islam as a backward religion, and separated mosque and state. Turkey was to be secular, closer to Europe than the Arab World. It was an authoritarian state, Kemal’s secular values upheld by the military.

Over the decades its progress towards democracy was interrupted by a succession of military coups, as the generals protected Kemal’s legacy. Turkey became a member of Nato and a strong ally of the West. It even had diplomatic relations with Israel. It was a centralist state, ruthlessly resisting the demands of the Kurdish minority for autonomy.

Ten years ago the Justice and Development Party (AKP) won a majority in the general election, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan became prime minister. He is still there, having won two subsequent elections. No-one can doubt that he is a democratically elected leader, and enjoys deep and widespread support. Nevertheless the protests, which have over the last week taken the country, and the world, by surprise, have been directed against him and what is seen as his increasingly authoritarian rule. He plans to change the constitution to give the president more power and intends to be president himself.

The AKP is Islamist, but – until recently anyway – soft Islamist. Erdogan has brought the military to heel; half of Turkey’s generals and admirals are now in jail. He has repealed some of Kemal’s secularist laws – such as the ban on women wearing head-scarves in public places. He has imposed a stricter censorship; there are, it is estimated, more journalists in prison in Turkey than in either Iran or China. In the last few months he has imposed restrictions on the sale of alcohol and tried to prohibit kissing in public. Though he has won praise by seeking at last to reach an accommodation with the Kurds and the militant Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), his opposition to president Assad of Syria and support for the Syrian rebels has alarmed many. He has also alienated the Alevis – a minority Shia sect – by naming a new bridge over the Bosphorus after an Ottoman sultan, Selim the Grim, who massacred the Alevis in the 16th century. (Comparable to the Skye Bridge being named after the “Butcher” Duke of Cumberland).

The protests began with a peaceful attempt to preserve a green space in Istanbul’s Gezi Square, but the causes of dissatisfaction run deeper. Erdogan, it has been said, seems to have interpreted his “mandate to rule as a blank cheque to transform the identities and lifestyle of the people”. Opposition has been intensified by his recourse to violence in trying to suppress the demonstration. The violence has been both physical and verbal – protestors have been beaten up, attacked with tear-gas and batons, and some have been shot.

Erdogan first dismissed them as a few extremists and “a handful of looters” – just as Mubarak did in Egypt. He has threatened that if they bring out 100,000 people, he will gather a million.

No doubt he has reason to be aggrieved. His ten years in power have seen rapid economic growth, much job creation and investment on infrastructure. By most standards – and especially Middle Eastern ones – Turkey is doing well. But ten years is a long time. Many are tired of him. More particularly, a spokesman for the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has warned that “civil society is under pressure”. This is surely the fear that has provoked resistance to Erdogan. It is possible to see Turkey divided between secularists and Islamists, those who look to Europe and those who look to the Muslim world, the urban middle classes and the rural poor who vote for the AKP. Yet reports suggest this is an oversimplification, even though these categories may indeed be identified.

The regime is not crumbling. Erdogan is not a dictator, but a democratically elected leader who retains much support and might win another election. But it may be tottering. The fear that he intends to establish an authoritarian Islamist state, where democracy is largely a façade as it is in Putin’s Russia, is genuine. It is clear that a lot of people have had enough of him.

The protests will quite likely die away. They certainly don’t amount – yet anyway – to a revolt, let alone a revolution. Unlike those who gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, most of the Turkish protestors probably have jobs to return to. Nevertheless the fact that the demonstrations have spread far from Istanbul where they started, to the capital Ankara and other cities and even small towns, indicates that the situation is feverish. If Erdogan continues to speak with lordly contempt, he will surely aggravate the situation. He has enemies, not only in the streets, but in the army which he has deprived of the role guarding the secular constitution, which was its legacy from Ataturk.

If opposition to Erdogan continues and hardens, then the attitude of the military chiefs will be important. In Syria, Assad has – so far – survived, and may even be winning, because the armed forces have for the most part remained loyal to his regime. It is by no means certain that Erdogan can count on such loyalty.

The generals imprisoned on charges, which may have been fabricated, that they were plotting a coup, will still have friends in the command structure. For the first time since he came to power Erdogan’s position looks shaky. He would be well advised to draw back, abandon his plan to change the constitution and have himself elected to a more powerful presidency, and instead to seek to conciliate or appease the growing number of his critics.

Pushing ahead with his ever more Islamist agenda would be dangerously provocative. Secularly-minded Turks have evidently had enough of it.