Istanbul protests send message to Turkey’s Erdogan

By Bill Keller  /  NY Times News Service, ISTANBUL, Turkey

Wed, Jul 03, 2013 - Page 9

In the upscale Istanbul suburb of Bebek, at 9pm sharp, the diners began drumming on the tables or tapping their wineglasses with forks. The traffic passing along the Bosporus Strait chimes in with honking horns and flashing headlights.

It was a genteel symphony of solidarity with the protesters, whwere confronting fire hoses and tear gas in the heart of the city, and elsewhere around Turkey.

Those street battles that caught our attention this summer have mostly been policed into submission and the world’s cameras have moved on, but the afterlife is interesting.

What is happening in Turkey is not Les Miserables, or the Arab Spring. It is not an uprising born in desperation. It is the latest in a series of revolts arising from the middle class — the urban, educated haves, who are in some ways the principal beneficiaries of the regimes they now reject.

We saw early versions of it in China in 1989 and in Venezuela in 2002. We saw it in Iran in 2009, when the cosmopolitan crowds thronged in protest against theocratic hardliners, and we saw it in Russia in 2011, when legions of 30-somethings spilled out of their office cubicles, chanting their scorn for the high-handed rule of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

While Turkey was still percolating, the discontent bubbled up in Brazil, where yet another ruling party seems to be the victim of its own success.

The vanguard in each case is mostly young, students or relative newcomers to the white-collar workforce, who have outgrown the fearful conformity of their parents’ generation. With their economic wants more or less satisfied, they now crave a voice and respect. In this social media century, they are mobilized largely by Facebook and Twitter, networks of tweets circumventing an intimidated mainstream press.

The igniting grievances vary.

In Istanbul, it was a plan to build a mosque and other developments on a patch of the city’s diminishing green space. In Brazil, it was bus fares.

By the time the protests hit critical mass, they are about something bigger and more inchoate: dignity, the perquisites of citizenship, the obligations of power.

Because these protesters are by definition people with something to lose — and because the autocrats know it — the uprisings are eventually beaten into submission, at least in the short term. The authorities kid themselves that they have solved the problem. It reminds me of that old pirate joke: The floggings will continue until morale improves.

However, morale does not improve. There is a new alienation, a new yearning, and eventually this energy will find an outlet. In some way, different in each country, the social contract will be adjusted.

The protesters in these middle-class revolts tend to be political orphans, leaderless, partyless, not particularly ideological. To reach a new equilibrium, either the rising class must get organized, or the ruling class must get the message, or, ideally, both.

In China, Iran and Russia, where the regimes are more established in their ruthlessness, the discontented may have a longer wait, but watch Turkey. How Turkey, as a partner in NATO and a bridge to the tumultuous Islamic world, finds its new balance has both practical and symbolic significance for the rest of the world.

The US has long embraced Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the model of a modern Muslim reformer. During his decade in power, Erdogan has tamed the Turkish Army of its coup habit, raised the standard of living dramatically, offered an olive branch to the separatist-minded Kurds and demonstrated — alone in the region — that Islam is compatible with both free elections and broad prosperity.

When civil war sundered Syria, Erdogan — braving the disapproval of an electorate — condemned the brutalities of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and hosted camps for hundreds of thousands of refugees. Both former US president George W. Bush and US President Barack Obama have doted on Erdogan, while the Islamist prime minister proudly sent three of his four children to US universities.

By fostering economic growth, by keeping the army in its barracks and by not messing too much with secular lifestyles, Erdogan has won some grudging support from the elite that originally viewed him and his pious Islamic following as a lurch back to the Ottoman Empire.

Those days of urban skirmishing, which began at the end of May with a pointless and heavy-handed police crackdown on a sit-in at the disputed park in Istanbul, have opened many eyes to Erdogan’s intemperate and intolerant side — his tone-deafness, his tendency to regard any criticism as a grave insult and his conspiracy theories.

The surprise is that Erdogan’s darker instincts came as a surprise to anyone.

Human rights organizations have long lamented that Turkey, while it has a lively press, also has more journalists in jail than any other country on Earth. If you troll through the US diplomatic cables divulged in the WikiLeaks flood, you find abundant talk of how Erdogan has sometimes used police and courts as instruments of political control.

However, he is a friend in an unfriendly region.

The US’ attitude was, to paraphrase a line former US president Franklin D. Roosevelt supposedly said of another troubling ally: He may be a thug, but he is our thug.

By regional standards, Erdogan is not even that much of a thug.

With the important exception of police brutality, Erdogan’s latest affronts have been matters of speech and style, rather than action. He has talked of outlawing abortion (as have some prominent US politicians), but he has not tried to do it. He has described Twitter as “the worst menace to society” and suggested clamping down on social media, but he seems unlikely to have much success there, even if he tries. He has conjured a dark conspiracy of secular subversives, bankers and Western media, but that is vintage Erdogan and vintage Turkey — a country of intrigues that exemplifies the old line: “Even paranoids have enemies.”

So that the rising class has chosen this moment to run out of patience seems to be Erdogan’s bad luck, but it may also be Turkey’s good fortune.

One possible outcome is that those unhappy with Erdogan will find an avenue into politics and give Erdogan the challenge he deserves. The Turkish system — like the US system, only more so — favors incumbency and makes it hard to form viable new parties, even if Erdogan’s foes could agree on what they are for.

The most visible potential moderate rival to Erdogan, Turkish President Abdullah Gul, who occupies a relatively powerless post, has shown little willingness to take on the prime minister. However, as Sinan Ulgen, the head of an Istanbul think tank, says: Erdogan is more vulnerable than the autocrats of Iran or Russia, who have oil revenues to float them through a crisis.

Turkey’s prosperity — and in large measure Erdogan’s popularity — depends on foreign investment and flocks of tourists. The crackdown on protesters dented Erdogan’s approval ratings and, more threatening to his tenure, it spooked investors, emptied hotels and sent the Turkish stock market into a tailspin.

“Yes, the protesters have something to lose, but so does Erdogan,” Ulgen said.

In about a year, his third term as prime minister will be up and the rules do not allow for a fourth. He has been exploring options to prolong his time in power, but they require popular support and Erdogan’s hovers precariously at about 50 percent.

So whether he has the ability to temper his intemperance, he has the incentive. A parliamentarian, who is a moderate supporter of Erdogan and was with him during the protests, said: “He got the message.”

We will see.

For the long-term stability of Turkey, it would be good to have a robust political opposition advocating a pluralism that protects both the devout and the secular. In the meantime, it may be up to Erdogan to save Turkey from himself.