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Turkey: a country divided

Le 08-06-2013

Tensions that had been simmering away for years have now boiled over in Turkey. What began as a protest against plans to build a shopping mall in Istanbul's Gezi Park have unleashed a string of bottled-up grievances against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

What’s behind the protests?

“He’s very religious minded... his policies aren’t secular. He separates religious people from those don’t believe in it... He treats non-Muslim Turks badly,” says one young female student from Edirne, who hasn’t taken part in protests but doesn’t want to be named.

“We’re all Turkish citizens: our religion, our roots, our colour, none of it matters. We all must be equal.”

Another student complains: “He’s restricting freedom, and he’s using religion to deceive the people.”

For the 50 percent of the electorate that didn’t vote for Erdogan at the last election, many accuse his party of chipping away at the secular foundations of the Turkish state.

A week before protests broke out, the Turkish parliament rushed through legislation that aims to curb alcohol consumption by restricting its sale between 10pm and 6am. The law also ban bars from opening within one hundred metres of schools and mosques.

That same weekend, roughly two hundred people in the capital Ankara staged a symbolic kissing protest after a couple were admonished by officials for kissing in the subway. Islamist extremists armed with knives attacked the protesters, stabbing one person.

Even beyond the confines of cosmopolitan Istanbul and Ankara, protesters have been spilling onto the streets of cities in Turkey’s far-flung provinces.

In the southern border province of Hatay, anger at the AK Party’s policy of siding with Syrian opposition fighters in the conflict raging next door has added yet another volatile ingredient to an already explosive mix.

“The government lets rebels cross at night into Syria, and after spilling blood they let them back into Turkey as if nothing had happened, the rebels go back to the refugee camps and the government shuts its eyes,” says a man from the port town of Iskenderun, who asked to remain anonymous.

In towns like Antakya, some people consider ‘rebels’ and ‘terrorists’ as two sides of the same coin.

On the banks of the Orontes River that flows from Syria, young members of the Turkish Workers Party have been whipping up opposition to the government policies since last year, handing out posters and flyers at regular demonstrations in the stifling heat.

One poster shows two hands locked together with a caption that reads ‘We don’t want to fight. Turkey and Syria are brothers.’ The Turkish flag overlays one hand, whilst the flag of the Syrian government is superimposed on the other.

Although his opponents don’t all share the exact same concerns, most accuse the prime minister of trying to ‘Islamize’ Turkey’s secular institutions.

To understand why that matters, you only have to look to the man whose ubiquitous presence keeps him alive more than 70 years after his death.

Ataturk’s legacy of secularism

The symbolism can’t have been lost on protesters or politicians when violent clashes shook the area around the Dolmabahçe palace in Istanbul last week.

It was here that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk – his name literally means father of the Turks - died a year before the outbreak of World War Two on the shores of the Bosphorus.

Looking at pictures of the protests taking place across Turkey, it’s impossible to miss his face on flags and banners waving in peoples’ hands and hanging from the tops of buildings.

Today, it can be baffling to outsiders to see the almost religious reverence that is felt for the man who laid down the strict secular principles on which the republic was founded.
Ataturk is almost universally regarded as the father of modern Turkey. It was founded in 1923, after his forces saved the old Ottoman Empire from being carved up by the victorious allied powers.

Once the fighting was over, Ataturk pressed ahead with his grand vision to radically overhaul the state by bringing in reforms that would turn society on its head.

He took religion out of public life to try and drag Turkey up to European standards. He swept away the old Arabic-based alphabet to make way for the Latin-based form in use today. And crucially, he built his new state on the pillars of secularism and nationalism.
His policy of taking a surgeon’s knife to religious institutions cut deep divisions in society, but also left the young republic rooted in secular values. That split has endured to this day, and fuels part of the animosity felt towards the ruling AK Party.

Turkey’s founding father is still everywhere: in the portraits fixed to the walls of homes and businesses, in the streets that carry his name (every town has at least one), and in the military that tasked itself with upholding his legacy.

A familiar theme of politics has always been the deep-seated power struggle between civilian politicians and die-hard secularists in the Turkish military, the self-appointed guardians of Ataturk’s founding principles.

It’s partly for that reason that Turkey is no stranger to unrest. From 1960 to 1997, the army stepped in four times to topple democratically-elected governments.

Although the generals have always handed power back to civilians, only once – in the so-called ‘post-modern coup’ of 1997 – did it all go off without blood being spilled. The bloodiest was in 1980 when over 50 people were executed and hundreds died later in jail.

What happens next?

In the past, military interventions have been welcomed by many citizens who saw the army as neutral arbiters capable of stepping into the political bedlam to reassert order and stability.

But the protests have not reached levels that triggered interventions in the past.
And besides, the chances of that happening again have been greatly reduced by the man now in the crosshairs of protesters.

Since Erdogan was catapulted into office 11 years ago, his government has thrown down the gauntlet with a series of laws aimed at putting a lid on the military’s power to intervene in civilian affairs.

On top of that, hundreds of army officers accused of plotting to topple the government are on trial or behind bars, while the man appointed to lead the army two years ago is reported to be loyal to the prime minister.

Allegations of backroom coup-plotting have shaken public confidence in the army, which for decades remained Turkey’s most trusted institution and called the shots in civilian affairs whenever it liked.

Divisions at the top

The prime minister may have partly succeeded in breaking the army’s grip on power, but the AK Party’s lack of a coherent response to the protests could point to widening splits at the heart of government.

If it’s true, then that could very well threaten Erdogan’s personal powerbase.
While President Abdullah Gul and the Deputy Prime Minister made conciliatory overtones, the prime minister didn’t seem too concerned by the noisy racket brewing outside his party’s offices.

“For every 100,000 protestors, I will bring out one million from my party” was his response.

That was in stark contrast to the President, who defended the right to hold peaceful demonstrations not long after riot police started chasing protesters with tear gas and batons.

The deputy prime minister has also gone out of his way to meet with the leaders of the protest movement, inviting them to the prime minister’s office in Ankara to hear their demands.

This effort at damage control was kickstarted in spite of Erdogan, who blamed opposition leaders and ‘outside elements’ before dismissing the protesters as a rabble and pressing ahead with a pre-planned trip to North Africa.

Wherever these anti-government outbursts lead, he can still count on the support of millions of Turks who carried him to victory in three consecutive elections.

But these protests may go to show that it’s not just their support that matters.