06/05/2013, 00.00
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In Turkey's complicated situation, Erdogan could lose everything

by NAT da Polis
Recent demonstrations stem from a greater sense of freedom in the middle class created by the economic and political success of Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan. However, Turkish society could unravel as a result of his arrogance, if nothing is done to correct it. Standing guard for the West, Turkey is not a traditional Muslim nation, but a highly diversified society.

Istanbul (AsiaNews) - Nine days into the Gezi Park protests, Turkish intellectuals, diplomats and analysts have been closely monitoring the situation. In order to understand the situation, a review of the facts is in order.

On 28 May, three trees were cut and a wall was torn down, as a first stop in the construction of a mall on Gezi Park in centrally located Taksim Square. A group of environmental activists reacted right away by taking over the park to stop a project that would see trees cut to rebuild old barracks, demolished in 1945, that would house a shopping mall.

The police, which is closely linked to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), cracked down immediately but the violence was disproportionate with the situation.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan spoke after the violent police intervention as he laid the foundation stone for the construction of a 3rd bridge on the Bosporus, dedicated to the Yavuz Sultan Selim, also known as the butcher of Alevi Muslims, who represent 12 per cent of the Turkish population.

In his address, Erdogan told Gezi Park occupants that he would not let a few troublemakers stop the rebuilding of the old barracks, a project also backed by the Republican People's Party (CHP), Turkey's main secular opposition party.

However, when police tried to clear Gezi Park by force, it did not factor in the reaction of the population, which came out in great numbers to support the activists and criticised Prime Minister Erdogan for his derogatory and insulting attitude towards others.

The explosion of a protest by so many people against the Turkish prime minister, along with recent restrictions he imposed on alcohol, has led to various analyses.

This is the first time in ten years of uninterrupted government that Tayyip Erdogan, the AKP's towering leader, was challenged. The AKP is not any "party". It is the first party since multiparty democracy was introduced to Turkey after the World War Two to win convincingly three parliamentary elections in a row, and this under Erdogan.

For analysts, the reason of the three resounding victories in parliamentary elections lies in a desire among many Turks to put the military in their place. As heirs to Kemal Pasha, they ran "secular" Turkey with absolute power for years through tight control of Turkish society. What is more, the post-Kemalist ruling elite used nationalism to homogenise an anthropologically diversified society along Western lines.

According to historian Hamit Bozarslan, what emerged was a country with a civil society that had no social conscience. Thus, in the large urban centres, an intelligentsia more open to Europe developed, very critical and contemptuous of rural newcomers, who found support in Islamic parties.

The driving force of the economy lay in a few families like the Kochs and the Sabancis, who benefited from seized Armenian and Greek assets, and of course, Oyak, the bank of the armed forces.

Once in power, AKP leader Erdogan methodically went after the military, thanks to his popular support. Covering his back against a possible coup in 2004 by renewing Turkey's demand to join the European Union.

The confrontation between Erdogan and his AKP and the old establishment loosened the latter's old iron grip on Turkish society, giving everyone, especially the younger generation, an opportunity to enjoy hitherto forbidden Western-style civil liberties. For this reason, there is some truth in the notion that the 'Turkish Spring' began in 2002 with the AKP's election victory.

In this regard, a report by US Ambassador Francis Ricciardone is quite revealing. In it, the US diplomat noted that during his first term, President Obama made his first foreign trip to Ankara, where he praised the role of Erdogan's Turkey, and that it was with the Turkish leader that the US president had the most conversations of any foreign political leader.

During its tenure in power, the AKP created a new upper-middle class business community, which is the driving force behind the country's much-vaunted economic success, which has been achieved without however, cutting subsidies to the old business community.

However, success went to Erdogan's head. Although a streetwise politician, he lacks culture, which is why he became very arrogant. Moreover, he is the son of a Turkey used to imposing its views rather than having them discussed.

For Turkish scholar Tamer Ayse, Erdogan is not used to listening; hence, his inability to understand social media and social changes that he had initially allowed to occur.

Such arrogance, self-centredness and haughtiness, embodied in the various positions he has taken in the international arena, generated widespread dislike in the Atlantic community and the Middle East. It is no accident that the Gezi Park affair came only a fortnight after Erdogan's Washington visit.

In Turkish intellectual circles, people are wondering whether these are human or systemic mistakes; whether Erdogan has built up new elites in order to shape Turkish society in his own image, from a neo-Ottoman perspective.

Quite a few Turkish intellectuals have reminded political leaders of the words of the late Foreign Minister Ismail Cem, who said that the West has always viewed us as its gendarme in the region. For this reason, a sense of proportion is needed; otherwise, the country could face incalculable existential risks, namely disintegration. This is also the case because Turkey, anthropologically, is not a traditional Islamic nation, but a diversified society. In short, as the old saying goes, if you try "Grab all," you might "lose all".

Indeed, President Gul and several other senior leaders have called on Erdogan to back off, and moderate his views.

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