Erdogan's mishandling of protests has exposed the myth of a stable Turkey

World View: The PM's inability to counter unrest within and enemies without make any talk of a 'new Ottoman empire' absurd

Share

There is something almost comic in the way the missteps of the Turkish government turned a small demonstration aimed at preserving sycamore trees in Taksim Square from the developers' bulldozers into the biggest and most widespread popular protest ever seen in Turkey. The Turkish security forces made the classic mistake of being pictured on television and social media publicly assaulting peaceable protesters with water cannon and pepper spray. Just enough violence was used to enrage and provoke while wholly failing to intimidate.

There was a time when brutality by the security forces was easier to keep off TV screens by censorship or frightening journalists and media-owners. But these mechanisms no longer work when people have a multitude of TV channels inside and outside the country to choose from. Running documentaries on penguins, as CNN Turkey notoriously did, simply creates a vacuum of information which is rapidly filled by protesters. The government's version of what is happening becomes self-marginalised and is ignored.

It is astonishing that skilled politicians such as the Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and those around him should make so many mistakes in such a short time. It is easy to why Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt should have miscalculated popular reaction to repression at the start of the Arab uprisings in 2011, because as rulers of police states their approach to public opinion was to ignore it.

But how did Erdogan fall into the same trap? An obvious explanation is simply the arrogance of those who have held power for too long. They ignore advice and demonise and underrate their critics. There is nothing very Turkish in this. The same was true of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair who, like Erdogan, had each won three election victories and were facing an electorate that blamed them for anything that went wrong.

The parallel should be between Turkey and Western Europe, not between Turkey and Middle East states. One of the many reasons why foreigners find Turkey so difficult to understand is that they imagine that its politics have similarities with other Muslim states in the region, which are not there. It is true that Turkey has had four military coups since 1960, which vie with anything that happened in Iraq or Argentina for the cruelty of the repression. In the 1980 military coup 450 people died under torture, 50 were executed and many others disappeared. At least 178,000 people were arrested and almost all tortured, while 64,000 were jailed.

This makes Turkish politics sound like Iraq under the Ba'ath Party or Argentina under the junta. But Turkey never ceased to have elections that, unlike in Latin American and Middle Eastern police states, mattered in the distribution of power. Even at the height of military rule, Turkey never wholly ceased to be a democratic state in which powerful parties stood for election and the outcome was not fixed from above as in Mubarak's Egypt or Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

Foreign commentary on the Taksim Square protests over the last week speaks of the competition between "secularism" and "Islam" in Turkey. But in almost all cases it is evident that the writers have not taken on board what these words mean in a Turkish context. "Secularism" in Turkey brings with it the same intensity of belief as a religious cult, attracting at one time the officer class, the professionals, the civil service, the security service and many of the well educated.

But at the heart of Kemal Ataturk's legacy is not secularism, which appealed primarily to the elite, but a super-heated nationalism that had an appeal to all Turkish social classes, though not to all ethnic communities. Hence the great difficulty Erdogan may have in bringing to an end to the 30-year guerrilla war with the Kurds of south-east Turkey despite the ceasefire agreement that was reached in March.

The Taksim Square protests and Turkey's draining entanglement in the Syrian civil war have brought to an end for the moment talk of a resurgent Turkey emulating the old Ottoman empire in terms of influence in the Middle East and even in the Balkans and around the Black Sea. This always seemed to me to exaggerate the political, military and economic strength of Erdogan's Turkey. The idea of "the new Ottomans" carried hidden dangers that Ankara was slow to understand.

First, what was the region where Turkey was going to exercise its enhanced influence? It was primarily among countries such as Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran, notoriously the most dangerous places in the world for interfering foreign states. The US, at the height of its power, suffered two of its biggest defeats here: the overthrow of the Shah in 1979 and its calamitous occupation of Iraq in 2003-11. But now Turkey was confidently lurching into the same quagmire in the expectation of swift enhancement of its influence.

There is not much talk of "the new Ottomans" these days. Erdogan's gamble that Bashar al-Assad and his government would swiftly collapse has not paid off. Instead Turkey has a raging war beginning to spill across its 500-mile southern frontier with Syria. Syrian leaders have been enjoying themselves by applying Erdogan's criticisms of the Syrian regime to Turkey and demanding that he resign. Turkey has ended up acting as proxy for the US in Syria, something that is highly unpopular in Turkey.

Erdogan may feel good about his easy access to the White House, but he has made some serious enemies in Tehran and Damascus. There is no reason to suppose that they have anything to do with the current protests, but Turkey will have difficulty reaching an accommodation with its own Kurds and the Kurds in Iraq in the face of Iranian opposition.

Turkey is peculiarly ill equipped to get entangled in sectarian and ethnic conflicts now exploding in Syria and Iraq. It has been unable to resolve its own Kurdish issue at home and is unlikely to be able to deal with inter-ethnic and sectarian conflicts abroad. It may not have started out intending to be part of a Sunni Muslim offensive against the Shia or allied to the Sunni monarchs of the Gulf, but it has ended up that way. Its wooing of the Iraqi Kurds and their oil and gas will be forcefully opposed by the Shia in Baghdad and Tehran.

Erdogan's mistakes in dealing with the Taksim Square protests and the failures of Turkish foreign policy are not irretrievable ones. But the weaknesses of the Turkish state and the depth of the political divisions within Turkey are becoming more apparent. The demonstrations are also highlighting failings that had previously been masked by Turkey's economic success at a time when much of Europe is mired in recession. Such impressions are important because the flow of foreign capital into Turkey depends on a sense that the country is stable compared to its neighbours.

Nightly riots in western Turkey, bombs exploding in the south of the country and the possibility of renewed Kurdish unrest in the east is sapping the belief inside and outside Turkey that the country is still one of the world's success stories.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Argyll Scott International: FP&A Manager Supply Chain

Benefits: Argyll Scott International: Argyll Scott is recruiting for a Permane...

Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property NQ+

£30000 - £50000 per annum + EXCELLENT: Austen Lloyd: COMMERCIAL PROPERTY SOLI...

Argyll Scott International: Retail Commercial Finance Analyst

Benefits: Argyll Scott International: Due to further expansion, a leading inte...

Langley James : Senior Technician; Promotion & Training Opp; Borough; upto £32k

£27000 - £32000 per annum + training: Langley James : Senior Technician; Promo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands in Shanghai  

Is Russia and China’s ‘Nato of the East’ more than a Potemkin alliance?

Nigel Morris
A petition calling for Natalie Bennett, the leader of the Green Party, to be included has been signed by nearly 200,000 people  

Let me list the reasons that the Green Party should definitely not be allowed into the TV election debates...

Mark Steel
Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

'How do you carry on? You have to...'

The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

Sir John Major hits out at theatres

Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

Kicking Barbie's butt

How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines
Will Smith's children have made waves with a gloriously over-the-top interview, but will their music match their musings?

What are Jaden and Willow on about?

Will Smith's children have made waves with a gloriously over-the-top interview, but will their music match their musings?
Fridge gate: How George Osborne keeping his fridge padlocked shows a frosty side to shared spaces

Cold war

How George Osborne keeping his fridge padlocked shows a frosty side to shared spaces
Stocking fillers: 10 best loo books

Stocking fillers: 10 best loo books

From dogs in cars to online etiquette, while away a few minutes in peace with one of these humorous, original and occasionally educational tomes
Malky Mackay appointed Wigan manager: Three texts keep Scot’s rehabilitation on a knife-edge

Three texts keep Mackay’s rehabilitation on a knife-edge

New Wigan manager said all the right things - but until the FA’s verdict is delivered he is still on probation, says Ian Herbert
Louis van Gaal: the liberal, the enemy and... err, the poet

Louis van Gaal: the liberal, the enemy and... err, the poet

‘O, Louis’ is the plaintive title of a biography about the Dutchman. Ian Herbert looks at what it tells us about the Manchester United manager
Isis in Iraq: Baghdad hails the retaking of the Baiji oil refinery as the start of the long fightback against the Islamist militants

Isis takes a big step back

Baghdad hails the retaking of the Baiji oil refinery as the start of the long fightback against the Islamist militants
Bill Cosby: America’s beloved TV ‘dad’ or serial rapist?

Bill Cosby: America’s beloved TV ‘dad’ or serial rapist?

Ukip silk bow ties, Green Party T-shirts, and 'Iron Baby' romper suits: How to shop politically

How to shop politically

Ukip silk bow ties, Green Party T-shirts, and 'Iron Baby' romper suits
The science of sex: What happens when science meets erotica

Sex on the brain

Fetishes, dominatrixes, kinks and erotica. They are subjects that should get the crowds flocking to a new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection