Widespread protests in Turkey are threatening the decade-long rule of Islamist Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, raising questions over his ambitions to transform his country.
The protests, which began in Istanbul’s famous Taksim Square over government plans to turn nearby Gezi Park into a shopping mall modeled after Ottoman-era army barracks, have turned into a widespread rebuke of Erdogan’s Islamist rule, spreading to several other major Turkish cities such as Ankara and Izmir as well as several cities abroad with Turkish ex-pats.
As the number of protesters swelled on Friday and then again Saturday night, police began a widespread crackdown, firing tear gas and water cannons at protesters. Later on, Turkish police retreated, leading to widespread jubilation among the demonstrators.
On Sunday and into Monday, tens of thousands of protesters again flooded into Taksim Square chanting, “Victory, victory, victory,” “Erdogan, you’re a dictator, resign!” and “Erdogan thinks he is a sultan,” Israel Hayom reported.
As protests have grown and spread throughout Istanbul, numerous reports by protesters on Twitter and other social media outlets claim police brutality. Turkish Interior Minister Muammer Guler said 1,750 people have been arrested since May 28 in connection with the protests.
Professor Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University and an expert on Turkish-Israeli relations, told JNS.org, “There is a large secular population, particularly in western Turkey around Istanbul, that is very frustrated by the Islamization of Turkey [under Erdogan].”
“This has accumulated over the past decade into what we are seeing now,” Inbar said. “However, the problem is the secular parties have no leadership. This was not instigated by the secular party; this is popular rage.”
Since the formation of the modern Turkish Republic from the remains of the once-mighty Ottoman Empire under secular leader Mustafa Kemal “Ataturk,” the country has had an uneasy relationship with its former empire and Islamic heritage. The military, which has traditionally been the vanguard of secular values, has intervened numerous times to maintain the country’s secular footing. But this has taken a toll on the country’s democratic institutions and economy.
One of Erdogan’s biggest claims to success has been the stability he has brought after decades of military coups. Under his leadership, the economy has dramatically improved and the country’s international profile has grown. Consequently, many experts touted Erdogan’s rule as an example of blending Islam and democracy together as an example for the rest of the Middle East.
But that model has come at a cost. Erdogan has grown increasingly authoritarian, arresting dozens of journalists and other activists, purging the military of its secular stalwarts and jailing hundreds of generals and other officers on charges of plotting to oust his Islamist government, according to the Economist magazine. At the same time, Erdogan has been gearing up to amend the Turkish constitution to increase the powers of the presidency, and then seeks to run for president in 2014.
“We see a lot of autocratic tendencies of Erdogan. We see attacks on the press and other democratic institutions. While it is still a democracy, but a very problematic democracy, this is what many secularists are protesting and afraid of,” Inbar told JNS.org.
“He is trying to change the system. He is trying to change the constitution to fit his vision,” he said.
On Sunday, Erdogan went on television to defend his policies, dismissing criticism that he has become a “dictator.”
“I don’t have dictatorship in my blood … I am a servant; I don’t have any interest in making provocation,” Erdogan said, according to The Wall Street Journal.
But Erdogan also angered many of the protesters with his remarks, calling them a “bunch of looters” and branding them as a “minority” who are trying to force their will on the majority, The Associated Press reported. Erdogan also blamed Twitter, which has been used extensively in the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and Syria, calling it a “menace to society.”
Despite the explosion of protests, Inbar told JNS.org that Erdogan is likely to be able to weather this storm for now.
“He is quite cocky and believes he is quite secure in his position,” Inbar said. “I think he feels these demonstrations won’t really spread. But it really depends on what happens. If someone prominent organizes the demonstrations, they could really turn into an issue for him. But so far it has been very spontaneous.”