Tuesday 18 June 2013

Erdoğan after Gezi Park: From Role Model to Bogeyman

What began as a small-scale protest against a contentious inner-city development plan in Istanbul, proposed by a government that seemed to be comfortably riding to its next election victory, within two weeks developed into a nationwide mass movement against Turkey's Prime Minister Erdoğan. Confronted with an arrogant and defiant government leader, who dismissed the protesters as good-for-nothing riffraff, a broad-spectrum alliance of middle-class urbanites, students, environmentalists, anti-globalization activists, Kemalists and leftists banded together to demand the AKP leader's resignation.

Not even in the surrounding Arab countries has the reputation of a leader unraveled so quickly. Erdoğan's political fortune collapsed as he sent in the full force of the police, now assisted by the goons of the gendarmerie, usually patrolling Turkey's unruly East, and perhaps soon -- if threats of the deputy prime minister may be believed -- the army too.

 It is ironic, to say the least, that the man who was held up as the model to follow for new leaders emerging in the Middle East and North Africa after the revolts of 2011 and 2012, has turned into a bogeyman himself, accused of authoritarianism and Sultan-like ambitions.

Never too good in absorbing criticism, Erdoğan now shows himself aggrieved and out-of-touch, incapable of understanding the significance of the fact that close to fifty percent of the electorate had never been on his side anyway. The only response he seems to know is confrontation. Small wonder that parallels are drawn between recent events in Turkey and what transpired in the Arab Spring.

'Padishah' Tayyip

It is evidently not so easy to plot a political course that can be regarded as a true 'third way' between 'hard' Kemalist secularism and an Islamic state. The Turkish government, like its counterparts in the surrounding countries, is struggling to understand and appreciate an increasingly well-educated and better informed population of 'critical Muslims'.

Nilüfer Göle
One commentator whose analyses of the current developments are receiving considerable attention in  publications outside Turkey, is the Paris-based sociologist Nilüfer Göle and author of The Forbidden Modern: Civilization and Veiling.

Her article about the nature of the Gezi Park movement and the Taksim Square demonstrations  in the 6 June issue of Le Monde is now widely circulated in English translation. Göle describes the opposition to Erdoğan as an 'urban movement --started by young people supported by the middle classes and featuring a strong female presence' -- which has lost none of their resolve in the face of police brutality to challenge the erosion of the right to the freedom of expression and the government's 'moralising intrusions into citizens' ways of life'.

Here are some excerpts which have appeared on the Germany-based Qantara website under the title A Libertarian and Unifying Movement, and was subsequently circulated by Open Democracy as The Gezi Occupation: for a democracy of public spaces.
His contemptuous vocabulary is no longer a simple source of mockery in conversations, but has incited collective indignation.
 He also provoked a scandal by naming a new bridge over the Bosporus "Yavuz Sultan Selim", a name that evokes the massacres of the Alevis. "Respect" has become a new slogan tagged on walls all over the cities and expressing the need for a return to civility in Turkish public life.
For the past few years, the mode of governance has seen the personalisation of power, not unlike that of the sultanate. Enjoying majority rule with no real political opposition, Erdogan has not hesitated to make major decisions himself, without deigning to consult either those primarily concerned, the citizens, or his own political entourage.
By monopolising discourse, he has undermined the power of others, such as the Mayor of Istanbul, who sought to ease tensions during the demonstrations in Gezi Park. This personalisation of power is felt in his omnipresence in the public sphere and is now turning against him and crystallising in anger directed specifically at his person.
  Drawing parallels with the Arab Spring and the European anti-globalization movement, Göle notes:
  [..] if the Arab Spring demanded the majority's voice in democracy, the Turkish movement is rising up against democratic majoritarianism. While European activists have been weakened by the economic crisis, Turkish residents have been filled to overflowing with a certain form of capitalism.
 At the heart of this movement is the restoration of public space in democracies. These spaces are public in that they are open to all, and bring together men and women, Muslims and the non-religious, Alevis and Kurds, young and old, middle and lower classes. This has allowed a new critical imaginary to circulate, one which focuses on protecting public space in its physical sense, with its capacity for bringing people together in a convivial way. In the face of state oppression through commerce and morality, citizens have put culture before consumption and respect for diversity before contempt for others.
 While the soul of this predominantly secular movement is libertarian, it does not embrace old State laicism and animosity against Islam. For now, unifying different classes of Turkish society  it defends 'the autonomy of the public space against the homogenizing forces of ideologies, religions, markets and the State power'.