Why Erdogan doesn’t get it

By Ben Judah
June 13, 2013

Protesters run as riot police fire teargas during a protest at Taksim Square in Istanbul June 11, 2013. REUTERS/Osman Orsal

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan doesn’t get it. Turkey’s strongman is still fighting the Deep State

He doesn’t understand that the crowd filling Gezi Park in the scruffy center of Istanbul is the most precious creation of Turkey’s boom – an ambitious, creative, new generation. Erdogan doesn’t see the beauty in this kaleidoscope of mini-groups – Turkish and Kurdish, Marxist and Kemalist, Armenian and Islamist – all demanding that he listen to the public, rather than bulldoze Istanbul in his image.

Instead he sees in the Gezi Park protests the work of plotters and foreign bankers, the opposition Republican People’s Party – even a mysterious international “interest lobby.”

Erdogan is trapped in Turkish history. His battle against the clandestine networks of Kemalist generals – the moniker of the adherents to the secular legacy of the Turkish republic’s founder Mustafa Kemal – and their plainclothes allies, has been so long and so bitter it has left him unable to see anything else.

Erdogan is angry. He won three democratic elections with an increased majority and believes – not incorrectly – he has made life better for the Turkish poor and made Turkey look more like them, less secular and more conservative.

Erdogan doesn’t get it because he is still fighting his last battle – the secretive civil war within the Turkish elite. He sees shadowy forces trying to unseat him among the twentysomethings of Gezi Park because, until recently, there really were forces out to get him. They were trying to topple his party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Erdogan’s enemies were evocatively called the “Deep State” – or the state within the state that kept Turkish democracy under military tutelage for generations. It was a shifting network of generals, bureaucrats and criminals who once acted as the guardians of secularism – but actually propped up the Western-oriented elites of Turkey’s coastal cities and the bureaucracy. Less a shadow government and more an evolving political mafia, these forces kept on preventing outsiders from coming to power democratically.  To prevent outsiders like Erdogan from seizing the state machinery, Turkey suffered four military coups – in 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997.  This effectively denied the poor a voice in politics – until Erdogan won election.

The entrenched establishment did not give up easily. The AKP’s consolidation evolved into a “winner takes all” war in the elite. The Kemalist establishment – the tight-knit military, judiciary and oligarchic elites – tried everything possible to stop Erdogan. He was briefly jailed for his Islamist beliefs in 1999. They attempted to ban the AKP as recently as 2008.  Military coup plots seemed continual. Generals threatened to intervene. Then there were sensational murders (allegedly orchestrated by factions inside the security forces) to sow chaos with the aim of ousting Erdogan. There was relentless, scurrilous propaganda funded by these shadowy groups to defame him – accusing him, amongst other things, of being a secret Jew.

This tactical war against Erdogan rattled and embittered him – and he fought back to attain his goal of total victory. As recently as 2011 – while the world was transfixed by the Arab Spring – AKP leaders moved to smash the military elite, unraveling a coup plot. There were mass arrests – the numbers are huge. The plotters’ trials have now sprawled to take in 530 defendants and 8,000 pages of indictments – much, but not all, fabricated.

The result is more than 15 percent of Turkish admirals and generals are now in the dock.

Yet, just as Erdogan seemed to have finally defeated the “Deep State,” these protestors have appeared across Turkey attacking his leadership and calling for his removal. He must have felt blind-sided by the spontaneous demonstrations because the last time there were similar mass protests in Turkey, back in 2007, they were organized by the military in alliance with the opposition Republican People’s Party. Those protests brought hundreds of thousands out onto the streets in an effort to block Erdogan from winning the election. Gigantic crowds in Ankara and Izmir numbered more than 350,000 Turkish flag-waving secularists.

Erdogan smells conspiracy because, until 2011, Turkish politics has been nothing but conspiracy.

These current protests also clearly stunned him since the plans to redevelop Istanbul’s Taksim Square, erect a gigantic airports and gargantuan third bridge over the Bosphorus, were part of the AKP election mandate in its recent big win. There was never a secret, Erdogan’s men claim, that voting for the AKP in the 2009 mayoral election and the 2011 general elections meant rebuilding Istanbul.

This is one key reason why Erdogan sees the protestors as undemocratic, elitist losers, spreading chaos to undermine him.

Erdogan no doubt thinks he has behaved toward the protestors like a perfect democrat. He does not see the police actions as brutal or coarse – rather he compares them to the old security tactics of Turkey’s military past.

Never before has the Turkish state abandoned the Taksim area like this – allowing an un-policed carnival to run its course for more than a week. Never before have the Turkish police apologized. Rather, Erdogan thinks back to the Taksim protests of 1977, when almost 500,000 converged on the square. The police killed more than 30 people – running them down and wildly firing live rounds into the crowds.

Erdogan doesn’t get it because he doesn’t listen. Like Russian President Vladimir Putin, his repressive paranoia has increasingly muzzled the media.

Newspaper columnists whom Erdogan resents have been sacked, while Turkish TV has been pressured, through government contracts and other cash matters, into broadcasting more or less what he wants to hear. This became obvious during the protests – documentaries on penguins were broadcast instead of live-feeds from Taksim Square. A score of national papers ran identical headlines.

Nor does Erdogan have anyone left to listen to. Advisers who might offer criticism or adversarial views have been pushed aside – and a court of sycophants enthroned. Even leading AKP members now worry about incurring Erdogan’s wrath. As a result, he is cut off from reliable information.  One leaked U.S. cable revealed: “Erdogan reads minimally, mainly the Islamist-leaning press […] instead he relies on his charisma, instincts and the filtering of advisors who pull conspiracy theories off the Web or who are lost in neo-Ottoman fantasies.”

Erdogan, lashing out at Gezi Park, keeps insisting that Turkey is “exactly where we were in 2007” – when the army posted a memorandum online hinting it might stage a coup.

Erdogan can’t grasp that the “Deep State” has gone. For this new generation in Gezi Park, Erdogan’s battles against the old elites are irrelevant, and his efforts to reframe these protests as part of that struggle is misguided or even deluded.

For them, Erdogan is no longer the victim – he is the state.


PHOTO (Insert A): Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan addresses members of parliament from his ruling AK Party (AKP) in Ankara June 11, 2013. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

PHOTO (Insert B): Protester holds a petrol bomb behind his back during clashes in Istanbul’s Taksim Square June 11, 2013.  REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis


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