The protests that have roiled Istanbul, Ankara, and several other cities in Turkey over the weekend have caught most observers by surprise. But the conditions that led to them—and shaped the government’s reaction—have been building for some time. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) has emerged out of decades of a particular Islamist experience in Turkey, which has shaped its understanding of democracy and the role of government. The party’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, seems to have internalized this experience to an even greater degree. All this makes the demonstrations in Turkey a particularly difficult thing for the United States to respond to.
Turkey is important to several key American interests in the region: Ankara’s dialogue with the PKK; Turkey’s still-growing economy; the delicate reconciliation with Israel; the Syrian civil war; social, political and security problems in Iraq; and the continuing issue of the Iranian nuclear program.
As a result, Washington will need to account for the domestic developments in Turkey and find a way to encourage a reduction in government repression while accounting for the unique development of democracy in Turkey. Although Taksim is not Tahrir, there are lessons to be learned from the latter—most importantly, that the United States cannot ignore protests against the government and hope they’ll just go away.
The Islamist experience in Turkey is one of repression, more so than in any other of the regional Muslims states. After Mustafa Kemal Atatürk led the nationalists to victory over the Allies in the aftermath of World War I, he engaged in a multipronged effort to remove all traces of Islam from the public sphere.
More than that, Atatürk and the Kemalists, as his followers and supporters became known, enforced a collective memory on the population that “remembered” the pre- and non-Islamist nature of Turkish society. They also “forgot” the role of Islam in creating the Ottoman Empire, which contributed to its becoming the most feared military power—and the most advanced in governance and administration—in Europe.
Islamist parties were allowed to function, but under close supervision of the Kemalist establishment (composed of most political parties, the military, the security and intelligence agencies, the judiciary, the civil service, and leaders of most public institutions like universities). Whenever they were perceived to have overstepped their “legitimate” activities, they were shut down. There were four military coups, the last being the ouster of the first Islamist prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan, in 1997.
The freedom from repression and constraint that came with the Turkish armed forces’ decision to let the AKP (first elected in 2002) govern without interference, followed by Erdogan’s decimation of the military’s senior ranks, has left the AKP able to express itself without fear of being overthrown. Yet a sense of siege has continued to mark its politics; at moments of criticism the tendency is to hunker down in a defensive position and accuse others of various perfidious activities rather than accept responsibility.
Erdogan genuinely believes in democratic practices, but he has a distorted sense of who he represents and his understanding is based on what he considers majority rule: if you get elected, you’ve got the support of a “majority” of the people and therefore your decisions are democratically appropriate.
Turkey’s electoral process is clearly democratic, but the government has engaged in some illiberal practices, and Erdogan’s increasing personalization of the party and the government has
The prime minister has, for example, blamed the opposition and “looters” for the protests, accusing them of undermining democracy. His hostility to all forms of media is more worrisome—in response to the Taksim protests he called social media and especially Twitter a “troublemaker” in society. The lack of a serious political contender for power only underlines all this.
Ignoring the protests and the violent police crackdown is no more of an option for Washington than it had been at the start of the Arab Awakening. If regional stability has long been the premier goal of the United States in the Middle East, the Arab Awakening highlighted the problem with this approach. A focus on interstate relations at the expense of the social, economic and political developments within countries was costly. Washington was unprepared for the extent and intensity of the protests of the Arab Awakening, and was unable to take a clear position on them as it sought to protect its position in the region and contribute to management of regional conflicts.
While it’s possible that the intensity of the demonstrations will fade away, it’s less likely that Turkish society will forget about the multiple motivations that expanded the protests from a small group of environmentalists to a broad range of those dissatisfied with the government’s autocratic policymaking. That means discontent and frustration are only likely to grow, particularly if the government continues with its other large-scale construction projects, including a new airport and another Bosporus bridge.
Building on President Obama’s successful trip to Israel, U.S. influence in the region is at its highest level in several years. The Turkish government understands that it still needs U.S. support for a number of important regional interests, most importantly containing the Syrian civil war. Thus it may be influenced by sustained but friendly political pressure from Washington.
To this end, the Obama administration should engage in public and private exhortations of police restraint and—without telling the government what to do about its big projects—urge greater public consultations while highlighting the beauty and history of Istanbul’s geography.
Applying sticks will be difficult. Turkey is balanced between genuine democratic procedures and autocratic tendencies when the government feels threatened. It can’t threaten punishment for the police crackdown if it didn’t when Canadian police cracked down on anti-G20 protestors in 2010. It should not threaten sanctions, which would be inappropriate given that clashes between protests and police are not uncommon to the United States either. Turkey shouldn’t be treated like Syria but like a normal Western ally.
Washington needs to set the tone of understanding and restraint, and it must urge compromise. This will put it on the side of democracy (and thus appeal to both the Turkish population and the government), and build the foundation for any further action that becomes necessary.
Turkey isn’t Egypt or Libya or Tunisia. But one of the most obvious lessons from the Arab Awakening is that accounting for domestic changes needs to be a new component of U.S. policy toward the region. This is Washington’s first test of that lesson.
Brent E. Sasley is assistant professor of political science at the University of Texas at Arlington, where he teaches Middle East and Israeli politics. He blogs at Mideast Matrix and Open Zion. Follow him on Twitter at @besasley.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Randam. CC BY-SA 3.0.