Turkey's Prime Minister Erdogan and his Justice and Development party (AKP) have a fundamental merit: putting an end to military dominance of the Turkish political scene by instituting an apparently moderate, non-ideological Islam, and coming to power through a free and fair vote in a democratic election according to universal values. But Erdogan seems to have failed to understand that his majority vote allows -- and obliges -- him to govern according to democratic rules.
This would mean avoiding imposing drastic socio-economic and ethno-sectarian preferences on Turkish civil society. In a democracy, majority rule assumes and requires respect for the rights of all -- including those who are not in the governing majority, and above all with respect and attention to the psychology and traditions of the various communities and trends within Turkish society and the regional ties of these communities.
The protests began apparently for an environmental cause: The proposed transformation of a public park into a shopping center. The environmental activists were rapidly joined by a large number of disillusioned citizens, as well as high-level representatives of the secular Republican People's Party (known as CHP). Thus, the protest transformed itself into a real social uprising with wide popular participation. The message of the original environmental protest soon evolved from saving Gezi Park's trees to a clear condemnation of Erdogan and the policies of his party. Anti-government chants included: "Unite against fascism," "Down with the dictator," "Tayyip, resign!"
There are powerful cultural and economic reasons for the uprising having expanded its message. Here are some of them:
1. Economic Growth without Social Justice
According to the IMF, Turkey has seen solid economic growth in recent years, with real GDP averaging 6.8% over the past three years, while between 1995 and 2004 average growth was 4.2%. Inflation has also been reduced drastically, going from an average 57% between 1995 and 2004 to 8.9% last year, while unemployment is expected to remain steady around 9%. According to a Turkish government report, foreign investment jumped from $2 billion dollars in 1995 to $16 billion in 2011.
Growth without a precise political plan to improve the situation of the working classes leads to an increased gap between the wealthy and less wealthy classes, causing acute social disjunction and alienation. It seems that privatization and liberalization are effectuated in favor of narrow circles of power close to the dominant party, and to certain persons closest to Erdogan. Erdogan's Muslim-Brotherhood-style of Capitalism, in which an extreme devotion to Allah invigorates one's determination to succeed in both business and politics, is of course all promulgated in the name of the poor, but manifests in favor of the wealthy classes. "The core of the economic vision of Brotherhood, if we are going to classify it in a classical way, is extreme capitalist,' says Sameh Elbarqy, a former member of the Brotherhood."
This is surely the reason why the Confederation of Unions has entered onto scene, staging a two-day strike in solidarity with the protestors, against police brutality, and calling for a more democratic Turkey.
So what we see in Turkey is clear economic growth, but without respect for workers or the environment. Indeed the protest has begun to curb the transforming a green space into a shopping center.
2. Regional Economic Imbalance
While 14 regions of Turkey are generally wealthy and in line with the developed world, the other 27 regions suffer significant underdevelopment. In Turkey, there is a serious gap between the west and east of the country:
"The gulf between Turkey's rich and poor regions is vast, with its western provinces, Aegean and Mediterranean coastlines enjoying a per capita income more than twice that of the interior and the east."
The great disparity in living standards among regions in Turkey is not necessarily due to government policies:
Yet, what is the government doing to lift up the poorer regions? By its policies of Islamist-style Capitalism, the Erdogan regime has aggravated rather than attenuated the wealth gap.
3. Neo-Ottoman Allure
The AKP and Erdogan appear to be flirting with the temptation of re-establishing the informal sphere of Ottoman dominance. Erdogan intends to build a third bridge over the Bosphorus, with the politically significant name "Selim" in memory of the Ottoman conqueror Sultan Selim I.
This is clear also from his policy throughout central Asia, the Caucasus and the Arab countries -- and now especially in Syria, where he declares Turkey is "ready for war" (with the Assad regime).
Turks generally have a very negative memory of pan-Islamism and pan-Turkism, ideologies that led the Turks into futile wars that burned their resources and dragged the population toward poverty and misery. Turks know that Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, by renouncing and combating those ideologies, avoided the total disintegration of Turkey as a nation and was able to give an almost modern identity and dignity to the Turks. The AKP nowadays, probably in agreement with Washington, is trying to be a model for Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and other Arab-Islamic countries. Most Turks are wary of the extremism emanating from these countries, and look to ally themselves with Europe, and looking to promote Turkey as a modern state where civil and democratic rights are guaranteed, with extremism marginalized and uprooted.
Europe, however, must bear some measure of responsibility for Turkey's slow eastward drift toward areas where extremism thrives. Turkey is the bridge between Europe and Islamic Asia and Africa; by denying Turkey full membership status in the EU, Europe is defining Turkey, boxing it into an Islamist corner, as it were. Just when pro-European, democracy-seeking groups within Turkish society need encouragement, their hopes are being frustrated.
4. Fear of Becoming a New Pakistan
Many Turks see Erdogan's support for the Syrian rebels as transforming their country into a refuge for jihadi-style extremists from the international basin. Nowadays, Pakistan is a cauldron of unrest, and Turks are quite aware of the process that dragged Pakistan into the abyss. About 1980, an informal Army of international extremist jihadi Salafists converged on the tribal areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan to combat the occupation of Afghanistan by the Soviet Red Army. The Turkish people know that when the Red Army left Afghanistan, the jihadists remained. It is well known that while Jihadists were fighting the occupation they were also organizing themselves further and have transformed the entire region into a powder keg, a seething cauldron of jihadist extremism from which they have organized terrorism around the world, including 9/11.
Turks are aware that the majority of Syrian rebels, like Jabhat as al-Nusrah, are linked to al-Qaeda, endangering the security of the whole country by bringing a wave of fanaticism and terrorist violence. According to the May 30, 2013 edition of Today Zaman, "Seven members of Syria's militant al-Nusra group were detained on Wednesday [May 26, 2013] after police found Sarin gas, which was reportedly going to be used in a bomb attack, during a search of the suspects' homes, Turkish media have reported."
It seems also Syrian rebels are behind the terrorist car bomb in Rayhanli in the Syrian border province of Hatay; and it is these rebels who are supported by Erdogan against the Syrian government.
5. Nationalist and Leftist Discontent
In Turkey, these two solid cultural/political constituencies maintain a strong spirit of independence, resisting many outside influences. Leftists tend to resist too close an association with the west -- read America and Israel -- while more mainstream Nationalists oppose foreign influences generally. Moreover, right-wing nationalists (a minority, but deeply rooted within Turkish security structures and the Army) don't look favorably on Erdogan's fragile agreement with the Kurdistan Workers Party, fearing it could lead to Kurdish autonomy. Both Nationalists and Leftists would like to see the Kurdish issue resolved through Turkish membership in the European Union, with general citizenship rights for all, including Kurds. They abhor the extremism that politicizes Islam, and would view Erdogan's harsh repression of the protesters as Islamist, and as weakening Turkey's case for joining the European Union.
6. Secularist Wariness
The rise of the AKP and the Islamist wave of Muslim Brotherhood-style groups in Turkey has alarmed the secularist urban middle classes, women and youth, as well as ethnic-sectarian minorities (Alawites, Kurds, etc.) who have begun to fear for their civil and democratic rights. In recent months and weeks, the Erdogan regime has restricted female dress, and limited the sale and use of alcoholic beverages. Turks are getting the impression that the AKP, with strong support in rural areas, is quietly transforming their cherished secular society into a more religiously oriented one.
They see increasing intolerance by Erdogan, as when he maintains that the Jamkhanehs -- the sacred places of the Alawite minority -- are cultural centers only, Muslims are to pray in mosques only. This recalls the sectarian hate expressed in the book The True Face of Batinites and Qarmatians. The book's first edition, printed by none other than the Religious Affairs Directorate (RAD), defines Alawites as "perverts" who "consider the illicit to be licit." It has been in circulation since 1948.
It is not without cause that the protests see women and youth supported by the almost 30 million Kurdish and Alawite Turkish citizens, and the main opposition party (the Republican People's Party, known as CHP) in the forefront of the uprising. Yet even though the protest seems to be a secular awakening, in reality the protests across Turkey are not particularly 'anti Islamist' in essence; rather, they are a plea for a real democracy and civil rights.
7. Freedom of Expression Is in Jeopardy
Freedom of expression in all its forms is under pressure. Turkey leads all other countries in the number of jailed journalists. There is a real press-freedom crisis, while dissent is being systematically criminalized by the State. Turkish jails practice torture, not exempting children and young people.
The State bureaucracy hinders private initiative and expression of critical opinion with heavy economic penalties. According to the New York Times: "Turkey's Tax Ministry this week imposed a $2.5 billion fine on a media group, Dogan Yayin, a conglomerate of newspapers and television stations that has been the most critical of the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's strong-willed prime minister."
There are serious doubts about the quality of democracy practiced by the AKP and Prime Minister Erdogan, doubts coming not only from within Turkey but from international analysts as well.
8. Struggle for Power within the AKP
The powerful Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen, the voice and soul of the most powerful religious community in Turkey, was Erdogan's main ally and chief architect of the dismantling of the secular principles of the republic founded by Ataturk. Now, suddenly, he has come out in opposition to the prime minister: On April 17, 2013, Gulen's group released a statement expressing serious concerns about new restrictions on freedom of expression. Considering the deeply conservative nature of the group, it is fair to surmise that this uncharacteristic defense of freedom of expression is likely a power play, seeking rather to overthrow Erdogan in his moment of weakness than to secure legitimate civil rights.
Many analysts believe the fragile agreement Erdogan forged with the Kurdistan Workers' Party is necessary for Erdogan to build enough support for a constitutional referendum that would transform Turkey from a parliamentary system to a presidential one, guaranteeing that Erdogan could remain in power after his mandate as PM.
Hamid Gul, president of the Republic and co-founder of the AKP, by received a delegation of the opposition CHP, and, like Gulen, is clearly distancing himself from Erdogan and from the police brutality perpetrated by the regime. The President's motives may be -- most probably are -- as self-serving as Gulen's. Conceivably, Gul could even accept some form of presidential reform, but one that would see Erdogan out of power, leaving a path open for himself.
Erdogan's heavy-handed and one-sided reaction to the crisis through force has significantly strengthened the position of President Gul, his rival within the AKP. Several polls have already put Gul ahead of Erdogan in a hypothetical contest for the presidency.