All of this started with the Turkish government's decision to build an Ottoman style shopping center in Istanbul's historic Taksim Square, after the ruling Islamist party also decided to adopt a series of measures, including restricting alcohol sales, as part of a massive effort to impose Islamization on Turkey, while pursuing neo-liberal policies that enrich foreign and domestic businesses linked to and protected by the Erdogan government.In more than 90 anti-government demonstrations in 48 cities, most importantly in Istanbul and Ankara, thousands of people have taken to the streets and clashed with police. More than 900 have been arrested, and depending on the source, from a few dozen to as many as 1000 injured around the country.
Although the US and EU governments have been strong supporters of Erdogan and his Islamist-neoliberal model that the West wants implemented across the Middle East, there were condemnations of the forceful manner that the police handled the protests. Many Turks have said to reporters that the Erdogan government is behaving like a dictatorship and these mass protests have exposed the real face of the Islamist regime. One reason for the surprising reaction of the West toward the anti-government protests is that Russia has just delivered new weapons to Syria's Assad regime, after the EU and US announced relaxing their restrictions on helping the Islamist (Sunni) rebels in Syria. In short, the geopolitical picture of Turkey as the base of anti-Assad operations becomes problematic because of the secularist-Kemalist domestic opposition that could potentially find allies within the armed forces if it continues.
The anti-government opposition is hardly a conspiracy and it is not made up of a single group. On the contrary, this is as heterogeneous as it could possibly be. Besides Kemalists, there are Armenians, Kurdish, Alawites (Muslims from the Shi'ite sect), environmentalists, cyber-activists, trade unionists, professionals, government workers, intellectuals and artists, students and anti-war activists. Why have these people come together to oppose Erdogan's regime that still enjoys considerable popular support in the rural areas and among devout Sunni Muslims?
It is true that in the last decade, Turkey under the Islamist-neoliberal Erdogan has been transformed to the degree that some pro-neoliberal newspapers in the West have argued that Turkey is the next China. Of course, that is hyperbole, but Turkey has enjoyed rapid economic growth at a time that the Middle East has been in sociopolitical and economic turmoil and the EU economy has been shrinking in the last five years. This phenomenal economic growth has made Erdogan popular with a segment of the population, especially with the comprador bourgeois class benefiting, but also with the rural Muslims. While the mass protests may be a combination for defining Turkish identity, and the future course on the basis of an open merit-based sociopolitical and economic structure, it is also true that in some respects the crony capitalism under Erdogan represents a struggle between Western-oriented modernizers vs. an Islamist elite benefiting under the current regime.
There is of course the republican opposition rooted in the legacy of Mustafa Kemal "Ataturk" (1881-1938), who modernized-Westernized Turkey under the aegis of the armed forces, separating it from the yoke of Islamism amid the Great Depression. The current popular protests are a reflection of the conflict between the Kemalists who see the future of Turkey as a Western nation, not an Ottoman-Islamist-style one that Erdogan is trying to create, relying heavily on foreign investment and militarization that would fill the power gap created after the destruction of neighboring Iraq by the US and now Syria amid civil war. Kemalists organized in the main opposition (Republican People's Party) as well as leftists in Turkey have expressed strong opposition to Erdogan dragging Turkey into the Syrian civil war, behind which is the US-NATO on the side of the Islamist-Sunni rebels. Although Erdogan has blamed the Republican People's Party for the mass protests, this is a much broader movement with the potential of becoming Turkey's "Arab Spring", especially given that the Kurdish minority is an integral part of the protest movement.
Monopoly of political power passing down from one party state to another, from one dictator to another was partly at the heart of Arab Spring. Turkey has a multiparty system where Islamists represented by Erdogan and republicans represented by Keamlists coexisted. That is until May-June 2013 when Erdogan tried to monopolize state power in an overt manner threatening the Kemalists urban, educated middle class that looks to the West as its future. A few weeks ago, it was unthinkable that Turkey was a model for Arab Spring, but popular demonstrations involving thousands have proved otherwise. While analysts were arguing Turkey was a model for Arabs carrying out rebellions, such theories now have been proved wrong. Islamism under the neo-liberal model is itself under attack in Turkey, just as it has been under attack in Egypt and Tunisia that underwent Arab Spring revolts. Given that people have now seen how the Arab revolts already carried out and the one in Syria have been a monumental manipulation of Islamists to monopolize political power and impose social and judicial policies, while implementing neoliberalism that the West demands, Turks have learned by watching the rest of the Middle East in the last three years.
Despite the mass protests, one must not underestimate Erdogan who remains the most popular politician in Turkey and has established a power (police, military and bureaucracy) base to compliment an Islamist popular base. Nevertheless, the popular protests made up of different popular groups, from leftists to environmentalists, from Kemalists to pro-Kurdish elements area source of concern for the regional balance of power that Turkey was trying to establish. No doubt, a political settlement of the Syrian civil war that can only include Russia would ease the situation in Turkey that sees itself as a counterweight to Iran.
The Erdogan regime is interested in having Turkey play an essential diplomatic role between West (NATO, especially US) and Middle East. It is no secret that Turkey wants to recapture some of its Ottoman glory through diplomacy; it wants a greater geopolitical role that would give it leverage to have a voice in determining the regional balance of power. This makes sense because there is no longer a Communist bloc, the US failed in Iraq and Afghanistan, both EU and US appear helpless in bringing about a solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, and it seems that such a course would solidify Erdogan’s domestic political base threatened by secularists inside the military as well as outside.
While urban and mainly western Turkey is almost ready for EU integration, rural, mainly Eastern Turkey is clearly not, at least from my studies and from what I saw when I visited. Besides the Armenian and Kurdish issue that have Europeans worried, the military’s overbearing role in society as a guarantor of the Kemalist state, as well as Islam may be additional problems leading to EU integration. The country’s judicial system and rampant corruption are also overriding issues. Having visited beautiful Turkey a few times, it struck me that it will need a few hundred billion euros to raise its economy to a level that integration will make sense and we will not have a flood of labor exodus. The larger Turkish businesses, European banks and export firms, and a segment of the Turkish middle class are interested in EU membership.
Now that the popular protests of 2013 are a reality, the larger question is how far should the reach of the NATO powers extend inside the Middle East, and to what extent should the West be permitted to destabilize the Middle East in order to exert hegemonic influence, assuming that would be possible under radical Islamic regimes in the future. Is Syria worth an all-out war between the US and EU on one side, and Russia, China and Iran on the other? No one believes that it is, and that is why Washington and Moscow will be looking for a political solution, one that would inadvertently help Erdogan. Meanwhile, the dream of recreating the old Ottoman Empire by pushing for socio-cultural and political Islamism under a neoliberal model must be reexamined. Otherwise, the mass protests by secular diverse elements will continue and Erdogan and his experiment will come to an end either by a military coup, a constitutional method or revolt.