For now, Erdogan can weather storm, experts say

As Turkey seethes, the seeds of a deeper resistance are being sown, some Israeli analysts believe, and the defiant PM might yet overplay his hand

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to the media in Istanbul, Turkey, Monday, June 3, 2013 (photo credit: AP)
Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to the media in Istanbul, Turkey, Monday, June 3, 2013 (photo credit: AP)

While significant, the widespread protests across Turkey pose no threat at this stage to the rule of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdorgan, several Israeli experts said, noting that what is happening in Istanbul and Ankara is fundamentally different from the Arab Spring that felled rulers across the Middle East.

Still, some analysts here noted that a seed of deeper resistance may be being sown, and one ex-ambassador said he thought Erdogan was in danger of overplaying his hand.

As clashes between demonstrators and police sparked by the destruction of a municipal park in Istanbul continued into their fourth day on Monday, the European Union blasted the Turkish security forces for their “disproportionate” use of force, while the United States called on them to “exercise restraint.”

But it is the increasingly authoritarian character of the Erdogan regime, now serving his third term in office, which seems to be at the heart of the protest movement.

“After two terms where it seemed as though Erdogan was advancing democracy, since 2011 he has decided to act as a kind of God,” said Dror Zeevi, an expert in Turkish politics at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba. “He has been throwing journalists into prison, crushing any opposition or criticism.”

Zeevi said that far from resembling the Arab Spring, which was essentially a struggle against dictatorial regimes and economic mismanagement by governments, the issue in Turkey is Erdogan’s “Putinization” — a reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin — and the gradual but palpable erosion of freedoms in Turkey.

“People are fed up with this,” he said.

Turkish youths shout slogan " Tayyip, resign! " as they clash with security forces in Ankara, Turkey, Saturday, June 1, 2013.  (Photo credit: AP/Burhan Ozbilici)
Turkish youths shout slogan ” Tayyip, resign! ” as they clash with security forces in Ankara, Turkey, Saturday, June 1, 2013. (Photo credit: AP/Burhan Ozbilici)

Anat Lapidot-Firilla, who researches modern Turkey at Jerusalem’s Van Leer Institute, said the mostly young Turkish demonstrators were pushing back against a regime which is viewed as increasingly challenging the basic tenets of the secular Turkish republic.

“Many people who aren’t part of the inner circle of the Justice and Development (AK) Party feel that a lifestyle they are not interested in is being imposed on them,” she said.

The current coalition of protesters is broad, however, including young ecologically minded secularists as well as Islamists who oppose Erdogan’s bellicose political attitude.

“Erdogan’s strategy is to melt the glue uniting these groups,” Lapidot-Firilla added. “He has been challenging the protest movement by claiming that it is fueled from the outside.”

Historically, the powerful Turkish military establishment would intervene in such cases to safeguard the “values of the Republic” from political challenges, as it did most recently in the coup d’etat of September 1980.

But during his 10 years in office, Erdogan has gradually weakened the power and influence of the military, imprisoning the top command of the army on various criminal charges. Zeevi said that the army has been “castrated” by the regime, with top generals replaced by government lackeys.

“Today there are no generals who can make any difference,” Lapidot-Firilla said. “This raises the stakes for the demonstrators.”

The current wave of protest was preceded by escalating tension between government and civil society over the past months. Last December, students clashed with riot police at the Middle East Technical University in the capital Ankara, demonstrating against Erdogan’s visit to the campus. Anti-government demonstrations also took place on May 1 and on the national holiday of “Youth and Sports day” marking the independence of modern Turkey, when demonstrators marched to the mausoleum of the republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Alon Liel, who served as Israel’s top diplomat in Turkey in the early eighties and now teaches about it at Tel Aviv University, said he was surprised by the scope of anti-government demonstrations, especially given no immediate political cause.

“This followed Erdogan’s brutal provocation of the secular public,” Liel told The Times of Israel, adding that the environmental issue was far from secondary in the struggle.

“The park in question is not just a green space, it’s the park of the seculars. An exposed nerve was touched… the secular public didn’t need a substantial match to set it ablaze.”

But despite the high number of protesters, reaching tens of thousands in Istanbul’s Taksim Square and in Ankara, most of the experts said that the protests currently posed no significant threat to Erdogan’s rule.

“Istanbul is a city of 20 million residents,” Lapidot-Firilla said. “The number of demonstrators is impressive, but most people aren’t part of them. Erdogan has nothing to fear from his own constituency.”

Still, Zeevi said that even if the protests die down (or are crushed) over the coming days, “a seed of deep resistance to the Justice and Development party will have been sowed.”

On Monday Erdogan remained defiant, dismissing the protests as orchestrated by extremists ahead of a four-day trip to North Africa.

But ambassador Liel said that Erdogan, who enjoys “excellent political instincts” and who has managed to avert direct clashes with opposition on issues that he viewed as not crucial to Turkey, may have overplayed his hand this time.

“If he confronts [the opposition] head on, there’s no telling how this will end.”

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