By Melik Kaylan
17 June 2013
One can understand why self-appointed despots might move early and hard, even semi-democratic despots of the Russian or Iranian variety, against a small, peaceable protest in a public place. They fear for their legitimacy. They distrust the populace. They’ve seen the spontaneous multiplier effect of social media. But why would a duly elected leader such as Turkey’s Tayyip Erdogan resort to provocative brutality so gratuitously? That is, to the extent of calling his own legitimacy into doubt by hurtling the country toward full-blown strife in a very short time. The kind of instantly extreme anti-democratic measures he has deployed can only lead to retro-prosecution of his henchmen or he can kiss goodbye all sense of future public trust in the justice system. You would think that politicians globally have learned to respect the eventual backlash of citizens abused en masse in the present.
There can be no debating the extent of the abuse, the arrest of scores of lawyers who defend the rights of protesters, doctors who treat their wounds, clerics who grant haven to the wounded in their mosques, the nation perhaps irretrievably divided, the opposition smeared publicly as terrorists, police firing tear gas into private homes, and yes into hospitals and consulates and hotels – why would a legitimately elected leader repay his populace with devastation. After all, Turkey is not Syria. Yet Erdogan has put himself in the bitter position of having Assad repeat back to him the words “listen to your own people”.
The question is not intended rhetorically – why would Erdogan do it? He has delivered 7% economic growth and political stability for several years. His party got just over 50% of the vote in the last election. He has fashioned Turkey into a kind of regional model, so much so that Turks no longer envy conditions in the EU, nor do they aspire so ardently to join the club. Turkey paid off its total debt to the IMF this year and has become a lender nation. You might think that the dispenser of such triumphs might feel confident enough to let a handful of ecological occupiers go about their business symbolically in a hitherto marginal park until they ran out of steam – thereby earning the government plaudits for maturity and forbearance.
Erdogan chose the Tien An Men approach – physical suppression resulting, after two weeks of confrontations, in three deaths and over 4000 injured, and hair-raising scenes of police violence for the world to see. As to why the Prime Minister chose this path, the answer is he chose it incrementally over some years and having gotten away with it, believed he had the country safely in his grip. He had ample reason to think so. Look at the conduct of Turkey’s national media, so cowed and bribed under his Putinesque policies that it simply ignored the upheavals for several days and then pumped out abject disinformation against the protesters. (Item: On June 15 the national newspaper Yeni Safak ran a front pager laying out, as if factually, a detailed report of how the Taksim square revolts were meticulously pre-planned by famous neo-cons at the American Enterprise Institute months ahead – all without a single source or quote.) Suddenly the media’s pathetic dependence on state power became humiliatingly apparent – in a time where Turkey pretty much leads the table of imprisoned journalists worldwide.
In other words, the Erdogan administration has long since lost faith in the public’s judgment and has for some time moved to reduce the potential fickleness of popular opinion by having recourse to antidemocratic shortcuts – rezoning municipal laws to restrict drinking, launching educational reforms to benefit Islamist tenets, censoring internet freedoms under the guise of anti-pornography measures and the like. Put another way, having used and misused state power over time to push for one-sided Erdoganist outcomes, he has along the way decided that government is too important to be left to the populace – a fatally widespread delusion of despots and populists down the ages.
As for the public, one can equally ask, what was different this time? Why jeopardize an unbroken stretch of stability and wealth-creation, almost unprecedented in the country’s post-Ottoman history, over a few trees? And after having given Erdogan so much leeway for exactly those reasons for ten years, why erupt now? There are as many theories out there as there are opiners with axes to grind. I have read more than my fair share in various languages. Here’s my theory: Erdogan’s rush to build a kind of disciplined Islamic Singapore appealed to Turks haunted by memories of underdevelopment and military coups. A moment arrived though when a younger generation who took stability for granted came of age – that generation that has led the protests. They and their families realized that Erdogan’s blueprint for his preferred society essentially added up to wealth without fun. There’s another term for Islamic Singapore, namely Dubai or the Gulf States, in which construction, hotels, real estate and related endeavours pave over the land and its history and indeed the entire culture. Everyone grows rich but you have to go abroad to enjoy it. The Gulfers go to Turkey. Where were Turks supposed to go? They decided to stay put, or many of them did, on a little patch of green in the city centre and resist Erdogan’s tarmacadaming of their lives.