Hundreds of Turkish police officers backed by armored cars moved in on Istanbul’s Taksim Square early Tuesday morning and reclaimed the site after pulling out on June 1. By midday bulldozers had removed barricades of paving stones and corrugated iron. The crackdown surprised protesters, hundreds of whom had been sleeping in a makeshift camp in the adjoining Gezi Park. Some threw stones and incendiary devices in response, but the authorities are now in control of the focal point of Turkey’s most widespread anti-government protests in decades. Prior to the police action the protests appeared to be diminishing, with fewer demonstrators gathering in Taksim on Monday night than at any time since the unrest started on May 31.
That the unrest is abating has been evident from the muted reaction of the markets. In recent days the lira registered a modest decline, reaching the October 2011 level against its dollar/euro basket, but this may be seen as good news for Turkey’s export-oriented economy. The cost of insuring Turkish debt against default rose slightly but not alarmingly: it the same now as in August of last year, well below crisis levels.
A further sign of government confidence is the continuing clampdown on the Turkish army top brass. On June 6 a criminal court in Ankara approved an indictment filed by the prosecutor’s office under which 102 retired officers (76 of whom are in prison) will be tried for allegedly staging the military coup in 1997. Right now there are 450 active and retired officers accused of either toppling former governments, or making plans to unseat the current government. As The Daily Zaman’s columnist Lale Kemal noted the other day, this raises the issue of the state of the morale of the Turkish Armed Forces at a sensitive time.
In the early days of unrest, street protests in Turkey were compared in the Western media to the misnamed “Arab Spring.” The comparison was inaccurate: no regime change was on the cards, no foreign money and logistics were in evidence, and outside a few hotspots in Istanbul, Ankara, and a few other cities Turkey’s life went on as usual. The government remained firmly in control of the state apparatus, the police proved obedient, and the army—already purged of hundreds of senior officers and no longer a significant political factor—stayed silent.
Prime Minister Rejep Tayyip Erdogan’s decade-old, increasingly personal rule is being challenged, but that challenge comes from unexpected quarters: from his fellow religious conservatives who resent his authoritarian style and arrogance.
There are many influential Turks of Islamist persuasion—both within and outside the ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party)—who are increasingly disenchanted with Erdogan. They have not been adverse to the drift away from secularism at home and to the assertive pursuit of neo-Ottomanism abroad, but they believe that the power of “the Sultan” (as Erdogan is known among his friends and foes alike) needs to be curtailed. While they do not identify with the values and aspirations of the secular and liberal urban middle class which has provided the backbone of protests, some religious conservatives see recent unrest as an opportunity to persuade the “Sultan” that he needs to listen to the neglected pashas and viziers.
For the first time since he became prime minister 11 years ago, some AKP-friendly media outlets have started to criticize Erdogan, following his near-paranoid reaction to the demonstrations. His calling protesters looters, drunks, marauders, extremists, and foreign agents, his ominous hints that his “patience is running out,” and his calls for counter-rallies by his supporters have not played well with Turkey’s more cautious conservatives, especially in the business community, who see his combative style as counterproductive. They are uncomfortable with Erdogan’s portrayal of the protest as a struggle between the “white Turks” (non-religious, upper-class, urban elites) versus the ‘black Turks’ (socially conservative, lower-middle and working class Sunnis from Anatolia). Even in his hitherto reliable power base in the Anatolian heartland, President Abdullah Gul—Erdogan’s long-time ally—is now mentioned as someone who could pursue the long-term AKP project of de-Kemalizing Turkey with greater caution and tact.
The real test will come later this year, when Erdogan will try to change the constitution and inaugurate an authoritarian presidential system. On June 6 Foreign Affairs published an interesting article by Halil Karaveli which aptly summarized the “Sultan’s” problem: “Erdogan’s own party members sense the changing tide. Indeed, even before the protests, there was widespread uneasiness within the AKP ranks. Most AKP parliamentarians had little enthusiasm for Erdogan’s plan to change the constitution and introduce an executive presidency. His scheme would have concentrated all power into the hands of a supreme leader, a position that Erdogan covets, basically neutering all other government officials.”
There is unease with Erdogan in Washington, too. Nobody in the U.S. Administration wants a regime change in Ankara, but some old Turkish hands advocate more strongly worded criticism of Erdogan’s methods as a means of reining him in. His switch from neutrality to support for the rebellion in Syria a year ago was welcomed in Washington, but his continuing public advocacy of intervention is becoming wearisome in view of Bashar’s recent battlefield successes. His open support for Hamas in the Palestinian Authority, and his close links with the putative Kurdish statelet in northern Iraq, are also deemed problematic in Washington—not to mention his strident criticism of Israel, which has decisively turned Israel’s friends on the Hill against him.
The protesters cannot threaten the overall architecture of Turkish politics because the majority of Turks are in agreement with the dual policy of de-secularization of the state and capitalist-based growth. That growth has been impressive, almost on par with China after Deng, but it has not dampened political and cultural tensions. There is an inherent discrepancy at work between the Islamic stamp on the country’s cultural and political scene which Erdogan has imposed, and the deepening gap between Turkey’s haves and the have-nots which the decade of prosperity has produced. The AKP-connected new oligarchs, in many ways similar to their uncouth Russian and East European counterparts, are Erdogan’s creation. Thanks to their party political affiliations they have profited from massive government-financed construction projects—like the proposed redevelopment at Taksim that triggered off the protests two weeks ago. To a devout yet poor, unemployed or underemployed Turk, increasing social stratification is incompatible with Erdogan’s advocacy of Islamic moral and social values which are deeply egalitarian. The losers in the process of Turkey’s transition in the villages generally do not oppose further de-secularization, but their loyalty to Erdogan personally should no longer be taken for granted.
Erdogan is in trouble because the harmless Istanbul protests showed him to be an intransigent autocrat and his rivals within the establishment sense his weakness. Having scored his third consecutive election victory in 2011, Erdogan focused on empowering his core constituency through a crony capitalism. He also pushed through a series of measures for state enforcement of conservative religious mores, like banning Turkish Airways flight attendants from wearing red lipstick and restricting the sale and consumption of alcohol, which even his supporters see as unnecessarily divisive and potentially destabilizing. Abroad, they feel that he has overplayed his hand on Syria. Most Turks, AKP supporters and Kemalists alike, are opposed to Erdogan’s support for the Syrian rebels and advocacy of foreign intervention, which is perceived as an “American,” rather than “Turkish” policy. By overplaying his hand on Syria, Erdogan has forfeited his hoped-for role as the leader of the Islamic Greater Middle East. His foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s policy of “zero problems with all neighbors” has failed, not only in Syria, but also vis-à-vis Iraq and Iran, both of which support Bashar.
A powerful Sunni imam, Fethullah Gülen, may decide Erdogan’s political future. Little-known in the West—although he has lived in self-imposed exile in rural Pennsylvania for years—Gulen controls a global empire of media outlets (including Turkey’s top circulation daily), charities, businesses and schools now known simply as Hizmet (“The Service”). Shortly after the military coup in 1997, the army leaders started a purge of the movement. Gülen went abroad, was tried in absentia for seeking to overthrow Turkey’s secular order, but he was cleared in 2006, after Erdogan came to power. His is by far the most powerful religiously-based movement in Turkey, described as the country’s third power, alongside Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian AKP and Turkey’s decreasingly influential military. “While the group is often described as ‘shadowy’ or ‘mysterious,’ this is inaccurate,” according to journalist Claire Belinski, based in Istanbul. “Quite a bit is known about it. Its behavior is both observable and predictable.”
Having supported Erdogan’s rise to power in 2002, Gülen was able to expand his network within the political establishment. The two men had a strategic partnership at first, with Gülen providing the AKP with votes while Erdogan protected the “cemaat,” as the former’s network is known. Already by 2004 one-fifth of the AKP’s members of parliament were members of the Gülen movement, including the justice and culture ministers. In 2006, former police chief Adil Serdar Sacan estimated that the “Fethullahcis” held more than 80 percent of senior positions in the Turkish police force. As we noted in these pages last August, for all his philanthropic pretenses Gülen controls a fundamentalist sect calling for a New Islamic Age based on the “Turkish-Islamic Synthesis.” By now it is all-pervasive, with many rich businessmen, judges and senior civil servants donating an average of 10 percent of their income to the cemaat.
Gülen now feels strong enough to engineer Erdogan’s comeuppance that will not disrupt the regime while increasing the power of his followers. The rift between Erdogan (a fellow imam) and Gülen is now in the open. Speaking in the U.S. last week, the latter effectively blamed Erdogan for the protests: “Are the ones at fault those who were unconcerned, who underestimated [the protest] by labeling it as ‘this and that’? ... If innocent people are killed, if some are choked with gas bombs and if some are blind enough not to see this, the fire could rage.” Shortly before the protests erupted Gülen warned against the arrogance of power, saying “even if a person is a believer, they can morally be a pharaoh… He may always look at people from on high, telling them ‘stay in your place’.”
Gülen seems to think that the power structure will not be unduly strained if Erdogan is weakened or even replaced. The army has been neutered and there is no strong leader in the ranks of secularists and liberals. The protesters have unwittingly aided Fethullahcis, ominously Stalinist in their steady march through Turkey’s institutions, against Erdogan’s Trotsky-like zeal for rapid re-Islamization.