Sinister twist to the old tale of Turkish unrest

UNIDENTIFIED gunmen open fire at customers in a coffee house. Three people are killed. Street riots break out, cars are set ablaze. Policemen shoot into chanting, stone-throwing crowds. Fifteen more people die. Demonstrators cry out: "Long live revolution!" The authorities impose a curfew.

If all that sounds suspiciously familiar, it is because Turkey has been here before. Extremist political violence in the 1970s killed thousands and led to a coup in September 1980 in which the armed forces detained up to 100,000 political activists.

The latest unrest broke out in Istanbul last weekend and struck another blow at the stability of the Turkish state, already rocked by a Kurdish insurgency in the south-east and the worst economic crisis since the Second World War.

The spark was the rising tension in poor, run-down quarters of Istanbul inhabited by Alawites, a Shia community who practise a mild, socially progressive form of Islam. The exact size of the Alawite community is unknown, but many are Kurds and in total they probably number between 10 and 15 million of Turkey's 60 million people. Almost all other Turks are Sunni Muslims.

The Alawites - who are not directly related to the Alawite lite that rules Syria - have long complained that the Turkish state, though secular since the 1930s, is biased in favour of Sunnis. Their fears and resentments grew last year after the Welfare Party, an Islamic fundamentalist movement, took control of Istanbul and Ankara in municipal elections.

The new mayor of Istanbul, Recep Erdogan, tried to close down Alawite prayer and charity houses, causing Alawite community leaders to stand vigil for weeks outside the buildings. Then came last Sunday's attack on four Alawite coffee houses in the Gaziosmanpasa district, during which automatic gunfire was sprayed on customers watching a football match on television. Three people died. It is unclear who committed the attack, but logic points to Sunni militants. Alawite residents accused the police of failing to make a serious effort to catch the killers, and within hours hundreds of demonstrators were on the streets, setting up barricades of fire.

The police responded by shooting to kill. By Monday night, 15 more people were dead. "The state's attitude is clear. It is tough, and getting tougher, on various groups - the people of the south-east, Alawites, Kurds," said Zulfu Livaneli, a folk-singer turned social democratic politician.

Yet if the clashes initially pitted Sunnis against Alawites, or the police against Alawite protesters, they quickly evolved into something more sinister. At the funerals of the demonstrators, mourners chanted "Our martyrs are immortal", "Take up arms against fascism", and "Long live revolution, long live socialism".

It was a sign that the unrest was being exploited by activists of the revolutionary left in an attempt to destabilise the government of Prime Minister Tansu Ciller. With the extreme rightist Nationalist Action party attracting considerable support in Turkey's police and security forces, the political violence of the 1970s could easily be repeated.

This time, however, there is an extra element: the fundamentalists. The Welfare Party is currently scoring about 20 per cent in opinion polls, and it is gaining from the government's apparent inability either to end the Kurdish revolt, curb police excesses or reverse the economy's recent precipitous decline.

It would be a mistake to underestimate the resilience of Turkey's secular political tradition, but equally it would be unwise to dismiss the Welfare Party's challenge as negligible. Turkey slipped a little deeper into crisis last week, and it is unclear that Mrs Ciller's government can find a way out.

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