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Turkey’s protests: the limits of hubris

Turkey is in turmoil. Hundreds of thousands are protesting on the country’s main squares against a whole set of grievances. They are facing extreme police brutality. But the AKP dream of unfettered economic growth and mounting regional power within a neo-Ottoman sphere of influence is over. 


Rize, Turkey. Image: www.showdiscontent.com

What started as a localized protest against the destruction of a public park in central Istanbul to make way for a shopping mall (Istanbul already has more than 90) has turned into a fully-fledged protest against an increasingly authoritarian Prime Minister Erdoğan and the stiflingly conservative social policies of a government rooted in political Islam.

As so often in moments of social unrest and political turmoil, in Tunisia, in Egypt, in Greece many commentators are stunned. Why do hundreds of thousands take to the streets in a country with ostensibly spectacular growth rates? In a country that many US think-tanks were happily promoting as a model for the aspiring democracies in the post-Arab Spring world?

Well, analysts who had a pulse on Turkey’s real politics saw it coming. We were among those who have expressed rising concern over the past years. In February 2013, we concluded a report on Turkey’s "Western Condition" and its changing foreign policy with the following thoughts, starting with a quote from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan:

“Mubarak, we are human beings. We are not immortal. We will die one day, and we will be questioned for the things that we left behind. The important thing is to leave behind sweet memories. We are for our people. When we die the imam will not pray for the prime minister or for the president, but he will pray for a human being. It is up to you to deserve good prayers or curses. You should listen to the demands of the people and be conscious of the people and their rightful demands.” 

"On 1 February 2011, as he urged Hosni Mubarak to heed the message of the tens of thousands of Egyptians demonstrating in Tahrir Square against his three-decade rule, Turkey’s prime minister must have been equally conscious of his own mortality and of the legacy that he would leave behind at the end of his time. He may have also felt, watching one Arab strongman fall after another, that he was destined for an even greater legacy than the one he thought he had already secured in Turkey, the country which his government has profoundly and permanently changed in less than a decade. As the sun started to settle on the troubled era of secular dictatorships in the Middle East, he would be the one to inspire and lead Muslims from Myanmar to Morocco into a brighter dawn, steered by divine guidance and supported by the people. This mission must have seemed even more inevitable in the June of that year, when his party secured its third consecutive general election victory in Turkey, which he dedicated to Sarajevo, Beirut, Damascus and Jerusalem as well as Istanbul, Izmir, Ankara and Diyarbakir.

Time is a scarce commodity, especially for those who strive to change the world and see the fruits of their labour. For Turkey’s ambitious prime minister, every bureaucratic hurdle, every act of resistance by a political opponent, every criticism by an old comrade and every day that a secular Arab dictator stubbornly refuses to relinquish his throne is another frustrating delay on the path to realizing his vision before his time comes to an end. He therefore feels less reluctant to put the mighty state apparatus at his disposal into use to clear the path before him, to silence the critics, to crush his enemies and to speed on with building the powerful new Turkey and creating the ideal society that will sustain his legacy. He knows, however, that his task would become easier with a new constitution and a powerful presidency, which for him would be for the taking.

History is full of ambitious men who in their pursuit of grand visions unleash both exceptionally creative and highly destructive forces at the same time. In many ways, one finds it hard to resist comparing the powerful Turkish premier who will go down in history as the man who undid Turkey’s Kemalist republic with the charismatic military officer who established that republic in the first place. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s legacy will continue to be debated in the years to come. But one thing we can confidently assert is that the Kemalist project of using the state to forge a homogenous society in the westernised, secular and fiercely nationalistic image of its charismatic leader has failed. Unable to fully mould pious Muslims and Kurds into their version of secular Turks, the Kemalist state set out to suppress them, which ultimately led to its self-destruction. Having inherited many of the tactics of his patriarchal predecessor, it is likely that Erdoğan’s ambition to create an obedient, religious and hierarchically organised society will also stumble, upon similar obstacles.

History also writes of ambitious leaders who in their hubris overestimate the power they possess and underestimate the challenges they face, only to see their grand visions come apart at their feet. Depicting Turkey as an island of stability between a ‘crumbling’ Europe and a ‘smouldering’ Middle East conceals the grim state of its democratic deficits and socio-political fragilities and effectively contributes to the excessive self-confidence of its decision makers. Indeed, the island imagery should serve as a sign of caution rather than confidence: it was US President Jimmy Carter who in 1978 described, not Turkey, but Pahlavi Iran as “an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world” only months before revolutionary turmoil toppled its hubristic monarch, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, who called himself Aryamehr, or ‘the Light of the Aryans’, and believed he was divinely ordained to modernise Iran from above.

We neither forecast as tumultuous a prospect for Turkey, nor a similarly ominous fate for its leader, who unlike the Iranian strongman continues to enjoy a substantial level of democratic legitimacy. That said, the suggestion that a country like Turkey, which has unresolved societal faultlines of its own and is deeply invested in the economic and political infrastructure of its various neighbourhoods, can remain immune to changes of such profound scale comes across as dangerously arrogant or, at best, extremely naïve."

Faster than expected, the time for change has come to Turkey. A substantial part of its citizens from the many cities the Turkish Prime Minister cited in his 2011 victory speech believe that life is about more than motorways, shopping malls and conservative families. The AKP dream of unfettered economic growth and mounting regional power within a neo-Ottoman sphere of influence is over. The stage is set for a return to the real world.

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Kızılay, Ankara. Image: www.showdiscontent.com

About the authors

Kalypso Nicolaïdis is professor in international relations, and Director of the Center for International Studies at Oxford University as well as Chair of South European Studies at Oxford. Her last publications include: Echoes of Empire: Memory, Identity and Colonial Legacies, edited with Berny Sebe and Gabi Maas, IB Tauris, 2015; European Stories: Intellectual Debates on Europe in National Contexts, edited with Justine Lacroix, OUP, 2010 and Mediterranean Frontiers: Borders, Memory and Conflict in a Transnational Era, edited with Dimitar Bechev, I.B. Tauris, 2009.

Karabekir Akkoyunlu is an assistant professor of Modern Turkey at the Centre for Southeast European Studies, University of Graz. His latest work is a co-edited special issue (with Kerem Öktem) on Turkey’s exit from democracy, published by the Journal of Southeast European and Black Sea Studies, November 2016.

 

Kerem Oktem is professor of southeast Europe and modern Turkey at the Centre for Southeast European Studies (CSEES), the University of Graz, Austria. He was previously an Open Society Fellow of the European Studies Centre at Oxford University, a senior associate of St.Antony's College and Mercator IPC Fellow at Sabanci University Istanbul. He is co-author (with Timothy Garton Ash & Edward Mortimer) of Freedom in Diversity: Ten Lessons for Public Policy from Britain, Canada, France, Germany and the United States (Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom, University of Oxford, 2013), and an associate of the Signals from the Majority project. He is also the author of Angry Nation: Turkey since 1989 (Zed Books, 2011) and co-editor (with Ayse Kadioglu and Mehmet Karli) of Another Empire? A Decade of Turkey's Foreign Policy Under The Justice and Development Party (Bilgi University Press, 2012). His website is here

Kerem Oktem's earlier books include (co-edited with Kalypso Nicolaidis & Othon Anastasakis), In the long shadow of Europe: Greeks and Turks in the Era of Postnationalism (Brill, 2009); and (co-edited with Celia J Kerslake & Philip Robins) Turkey's Engagement with Modernity (Palgrave, 2010). He is the principal researcher of the British Academy-funded project on Contemporary Islam in the Balkans


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