With Morsi’s ouster in Egypt and countrywide protests, Turkey’s ruling regime is trying to reinvent itself
Sanjay Kapoor Ankara/Istanbul (Turkey)
It’s July 3, 2013. The deadline given by the Egyptian army to President Mohamed Morsi has expired. Satellite TV news channels are anticipating an announcement as they show feverish excitement at Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The moment the news is splashed that Morsi has been sacked, millions of Egyptians, sickened by the one year rule of Muslim Brotherhood, erupted with undiluted joy. They had earlier responded to the Tamarod (revolt) call to converge on June 30 to demand Morsi’s ouster.
As crackers lit up the July sky in Cairo and in other cities of an extremely turbulent Egypt, there was confusion in Turkey where all the channels were telecasting the events live through multiple cameras. It was a similar scenario in other cities of the Arab world. They were all trying to make sense of what this ‘change’ really meant for the Islamic world. Was it really a clash of secular ideology against radical Islam, or was it something else?
What was confounding the situation further was the attitude of the United States and the West. Who was Washington backing — Morsi or the military?
Turkey, which had invested heavily in the success of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, was obviously agitated by the circumstances in which the Egyptian president had to go. The Turkish government had given them aid, advise and even garbage cans as a step towards improving the quality of governance. They had hoped that the Egyptians would pay heed to their advise “and ride on the train together”. Morsi, theoretically, was trying to replicate the highly celebrated ‘Turkish model’. What the Turks never said in public was that he was not listening to them and botching up on crucial issues of governance.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, under siege by mass protests in his own country, called the change a “military coup”. He had reasons to be uneasy with the blowout of crowd power on the streets that threatened to overturn electoral mandates. On May 26, the crowds had begun to gather at Istanbul’s Gezi Park against the municipality’s decision to build Ottoman style barracks and a mall. The protestors wanted to save the park, but their demand struck a chord with a larger mass of people who joined them at the sprawling Taksim Square — a symbol of both division and unity.
The square also gives play to the expanse of Ottoman’s vast empire and the legendary founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Police misread the protests and struck at agitators hard with batons, water cannons, tear gas, arrests. Police brutality began to feed anger all around as more people, nursing multiple grievances, joined the mass protests. After the infectious Arab Spring, no ruler or government can afford to take for granted agitating crowds in large public spaces like Tahrir or Taksim Square.
Within a fortnight, the Taksim Square was being compared with Tahrir Square, when there was little reason to. Turkey, till recently, had a high rate of growth, is a functioning democracy and displays commitment to free media. It is wealthy with a very competitive industry. It has top class infrastructure which is comparable with any country in Europe and it has a tourism industry that really rocks with 31 million visitors coming to gaze at amazing offerings that this country serves to a tourist. To put it in a context — India gets only 6 million tourists every year.
Taksim may not be Tahrir, but the demands of the agitators were in some ways similar. In Egypt, so in Turkey, there is a section that did not want religion to impact their “way of life”. In Turkey, some people were upset with decisions not to sell liquor after 10 pm. There were others who feared that Islamist ideology would overwhelm the Turkish commitment to secularism and make the largely ‘European’ country look like part
A professor of political science corroborated the impact of social media, ‘When there was a call on twitter for people to step out and converge at Taksim, all the classes would go empty. So quick was the response
There were fears that due to all these reasons, people responded to social media like twitter and facebook, and stepped out in large numbers. A professor of political science corroborated the impact of social media, “When there was a call on twitter for people to step out and converge at Taksim, all the classes would go empty. So quick was the response.”
Initially, Erdogan took it badly. Riding on the re-election and the glow of international adulation by building such a powerhouse in Turkey in a democratic environment, his Islamist party in a multi-party polity was served as a template for other countries stepping out of the yoke of authoritarian rule. Egypt was the first country that followed the Turkish model – hence, Ankara’s inordinate interest in the happenings in Tahrir. Syriaian President Basher-al-Assad, who was also mentored for a while by Erdogan, was besides with joy after Morsi’s ouster, calling it the “death of political Islam”. Assad’s comments may have been pre-mature, but the Turkish ruling establishment took the happenings in their own country extremely seriously.
What troubled Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its supporters was the protestors’ charge that Turkey’s secular character was being threatened. They were cognizant of the country’s troubled past — the army has stepped in many times to overthrow elected governments. Although Erdogan has been able to neuter the ambitions of the army’s top brass, his supporters believe that the threat lurks all the time. “The threat of a coup is real in Turkey. And we know what it is to be under army rule,” says a senior journalist belonging to the pro-government Zaman group.
Mindful of the implications, senior members of the ruling party stepped in to douse the fires — unlike what happened in Egypt. President Abdullah Gul displayed sympathy with the agitators, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc apologised and agreed with them that the police had over-reacted. Although Erdogan continued to talk tough against the agitators calling them “capulco” (looters), the party leadership began to address many of the issues that had got people out on the streets. At one point, there were protests in 61 cities of Turkey. In Ankara’s public park there were even Turks based in Germany who had returned to their ‘homeland’ to express solidarity with their countrymen.
There was a belief that the minority Alevis, who were upset with the majoritarian interpretation of Islam, wanted to have their own mosques and thereby had joined the protests. And then, there were the Kurds, to whom Erdogan had reached out, who too wanted to be accommodated in the evolving regional order. The Turkish government has been ritualistically calling the Kurds as “terrorists” and had locked up their iconic rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan for long years.
There were others too who had lent their voice to the protestors due to serious reservations against the country’s policy towards its neighbours. A recent car bomb blast in Reyhanli, a town near the Syrian border, that killed more than 50 people, had firmed up popular resolve that the Turkish government should not meddle in the affairs of Syria. There was also the issue of women’s rights and hijab, and the government intruding into the private lives and spaces of people.
Quite a long laundry list it turned out to be, indeed. The Turkish government drew a lot of flak after the Taksim Square protests. They recognised that much of their policy initiatives had floundered, including “peace with neighbours” which was an attempt to reach out to the countries of the Arab Ottoman to acquire a continental size to meet their new ambitions. Before this policy ran into an air pocket, Turkey had signed scores of agreements with its neighbours, including with those it has been traditionally at daggers drawn, like Greece and Armenia.
In anticipation of its growing role in the region, it also beefed up its foreign service and set up embassies in many African, Latin American and Asian countries. Due to its assertive foreign policy, the Turkish airline is one of those few carriers that has grown in its operations and has been in black.
Quietly, in recent times, the Turks have begun to tweak their foreign policy. They have now agreed to support the Geneva Conference to find a solution to the nettlesome Syrian crisis without demanding a no-fly zone or the going away of Assad. They are also working with the Syrian Kurds who are fighting hard with the Nusra Brigade — an affiliate of the Al Qaeda.
Recently, Syrian Kurd leader Saleh Muslim, co-president of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), was hosted by the Turkish foreign ministry, instead of the intelligence agencies, which has been the practice in the past. The Israeli website, Debkafile, has even suggested that the Turks have closed their side of the border with Syria to stop infiltration by Nusra’s forces and other extremist organisations.
On the domestic front, it is learnt that the Alevis have been given the permission to build their own mosques. However, no one has really seen the order. On the issue of the Gezi Park demolition, a court order had quietly stayed the municipality decision. The protestors are still onto the streets, but they lack the earlier ardor. Similarly, there is an attempt to reach out to atheists, too, comforting them that they will not be targeted.
They were all trying to make sense of what this ‘change’ really meant for the Islamic world. Was it really a clash of secular ideology against radical Islam, or was it something else?
Many attribute the agitation to the economic slowdown that has gripped Turkey. In the last quarter it is supposed to have shown only 0.9 per cent rate of growth. This was quite a fall from the high growth of 5-6 per cent even after the collapse of the Lehman Brothers in 2008. Per capita income tripled in 10 years.
During the time when the economy was doing well, not many people really paid any attention to the botched up attempts at integration with the European Union (EU); but those issues have resurfaced after Croatia became part of the EU. Both the countries had started negotiations with Brussels simultaneously, but fierce resistance by France’s former president Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel put obstacles to their entry.
The Turks know that it is their religion that is coming in the way of their becoming part of the EU. They also know that its hefty population of 78 million would change the composition of the European Parliament, lowering the clout of bog boys, Germany and France. European politicians have been raising the spectre of hordes of poor Turks crossing over to Europe, but recent studies have shown the waning of enthusiasm amongst them to go there. Maybe, it has something to do with Europe’s failing economy and the pessimistic reports that have been coming of high rate of unemployment from Greece, Spain and other countries.
Integration with Europe could lift the recession racked continent to higher growth. Turkey, which is part of Europe’s custom’s union, is likely to be impacted adversely when the US signs a free trade agreement with the EU. Turkey believes that its economy will be devastated since the US will benefit from it’s presence in the custom’s union, but the Turks will get little in return. In their attempt to save the economy, they are furiously having bi-lateral agreements that is creating an unpleasant “spaghetti wall”.
After enjoying stability and global admiration for what it has achieved, Turkey is now being called the “lonely man of the region”. It is, however, too early to say whether there is any other creative or visionary solution to the one offered by Ankara and Erdogan’s AKP in a ‘secular’ society that is basically fiercely religious.