Turkey protests: The forces that are reshaping the Middle East will reshape Turkey too

The Prime Minister has barely acknowledged their existence, while Turkey’s friends abroad have said more about what the protests were not, rather than what they were

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As often observed over the past week, the street protests in Turkey seemed to come out of nowhere. One day there was a relatively small number of demonstrators objecting to the loss of one of Istanbul’s few remaining green spaces; the next day the crowd had swelled many times over; there were running battles with police wielding the whole panoply of anti-riot gear, hundreds of people were in detention, and unrest had erupted all over Turkey. In several television appearances, the Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, appeared rattled, blamed social media and “trouble-makers”, then – in shades of “Crisis, what crisis” – left for a  pre-arranged trip to North Africa.

In the meantime, Turkey’s many friends abroad have said more about what the protests, which began in the cosmopolitan quarter of Taksim, were not, rather than what they were. What they were not, we were told first, was anything like the Arab Spring. Turkey was a quite different sort of country. It was a democracy; it enjoyed excellent economic growth. It was working its way – albeit slowly – through the reforms needed to join the European Union. It was quite wrong to sense even an echo of frustrated Tunisian fruit salesmen or Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

What these protests also did not represent, we heard, was any new battle being joined for Turkey’s soul as between its Islamic and secular natures. Yes, a few protesters posed with bottles of beer, in graphic objection to a new law tightening restrictions on alcohol sales. Yes, young women were out on the streets, too, mostly in Western dress and with their heads uncovered. Yes, a focus for the protests in Ankara was the Ataturk mausoleum, whose territory Erdogan has proposed shrinking in order to build a new mosque. But these protests were not about what some see as creeping Islamisation. Even to hint at such a gloss could sow discord.  

And finally, what these protests were also not about was anything to do with the civil war in Syria. Yes, there had been occasions when stray bombs had caused casualties in Turkey. And yes, refugees were causing social tension that threatened to grow, but Turkey was coping well with the influx. What is more, a recent truce agreed with Kurdish leaders had brought at least a temporary end to the insurgency in the south-east. So no trouble there, then.

In other words, the protests that began on Istanbul’s Taksim Square are to be seen as just the sort of spasm of civil strife that flares up in most countries from time to time, and should not be blown out of proportion. That the unrest spread so fast simply reflects the mobilising power of social media. And the only result is that some of Istanbul’s surviving trees may have their lease extended. There are no further inferences to be drawn.

Such a conclusion is designed to reassure those who are invested in Turkey’s status quo – and there are many of them. They include not only the country’s present leadership, including Erdogan, whose popularity hitherto makes it likely he will stand for the presidency next year, but the United States, which relies on Turkey to help protect the eastern flank of Nato; the European Union, whose official policy – despite many voters’ misgivings – is that Turkey will one day meet the criteria for membership; Russia, which sees Turkey as a reliable energy partner, and foreign business generally which is betting on Turkey’s continued political stability and rapid growth.   

That representatives of all these disparate groups have an interest in peddling a “keep calm and carry on” interpretation of the past week does not, however, make it correct, either now or in the longer term. And their insistence that no single cause explains the past week’s unrest fails to exclude a more disturbing possibility: that Turkey is starting to feel the cumulative effect of all of them. And not one – not the destabilising ripples of the unresolved Arab Spring, not the incursions of Islam into Turkey’s political sphere, and not the fallout from the war in Syria – is going away. On the contrary, the prospects are for the tensions and conflicts in the region to become worse before they get better. If they do.

It was always unrealistic to believe that Turkey could remain aloof from the forces buffeting its neighbours to the south, north and east. Turkey may be a democracy – albeit an immature one – but its young and fast-growing population, the inadequacies of its education system and the backwardness of its rural areas have sown seeds of instability similar to those now germinating elsewhere.

As Prime Minister, Erdogan may have presided over a rise in the influence of Islam, including much mosque-building, but the passage of laws depends also on the complexion of parliament, which depends in turn on the balance of political forces across the country. If Turkey is quietly forsaking the secular origins of its modern state – the once sacrosanct legacy of Kemal Ataturk – this is not because of political diktat, but because that reflects the popular mood.

And if the conflict in Syria has caused ructions in Turkey, as it has, it is hard to see how any government in Ankara could simply stand by. It is true that inaction might be harder for Erdogan, who has been credited with – or accused of, depending on your viewpoint – pursuing a “neo-Ottoman” foreign policy, than for a more overtly Western-orientated politician. But when demonstrators condemn him for embroiling Turkey in Syria’s war, it must be asked whether he had much choice.       

There is a brighter side to these protests. Anti-Erdogan demonstrations have been staged for months at the Ataturk mausoleum in Ankara, culminating in a big youth protest on 19 May, which can be seen as helping pave the way for the protests that fanned out from Istanbul 10 days later. Turkey’s secularism, it seems, will not be lost without a fight. But the forces now unleashed across the region, and blowing the political sands who knows where, may be bigger and stronger even than populous and fast-developing Turkey, and it cannot be taken for granted that today’s young Turks will be able to outrun them.

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