Erdogan's Sultanic Verses: Is Taksim Another Tiananmen?

Jun 12, 2013 | Updated Aug 11, 2013

Turkey's combative and polarizing Prime Minister Recep Erdogan has only himself to blame for the violence gripping Istanbul's Taksim Square tonight. Offering an olive branch to the secular "Young Turk" demonstrators by agreeing to meet their leaders, he then turned loose the full fury of his security forces to rampage through their ranks. That is no formula to quell the violence, only one to further escalate tensions. For Turkey's hard-fought reputation as a moderate, regionally influential power, the unfolding drama risks undermining Turkey's stability and carefully constructed balance between modernism and Islam.

Now into his third term as Turkey's duly elected prime minister, the autocratic Erdogan increasingly fashions himself as a 21st century Ottoman Sultan, and acts as if he may very well one day so crown himself. Benevolent dictatorship, however, is not what Erdogan has in mind for Turkey.

Quite the contrary.

Long before there was talk of paving over a popular park in Taksim, Erdogan had been wielding a sledgehammer to Turkey's democratic freedoms. Scores of journalists have been arrested and jailed on trumped up charges in kangaroo court proceedings and an intimidated media is increasingly censoring itself. Opponents of his regime have been mistreated and summarily jailed. Turkey's independent judiciary has been bludgeoned into rubber stamping edicts from Ankara and judicial appointments are now within the province of Erdogan's stalwarts. Human rights violations abound. All of these infringements on civil liberties are well-documented.

Is Erdogan a Putin wannabe? Perhaps. Putin's version of a "managed democracy" (aka autocracy masquerading as democracy) is an appealing model to Erdogan, who has all too frequently made fawning references to Putin's policies.

But unlike Putin, Erdogan's hubris is getting the best of him. His government has ominously accused the protestors of being "terrorists" -- provoking even more anger and resentment against him and sadly reminding his opponents that Erdogan views democracy as a means to an end, not an end in itself. The dangerous designation serves as code to Turkey's security forces to deploy violent force against the demonstrators. So while Taksim is not (yet) Tiananmen, it sure is beginning to resemble it unless cooler heads prevail.

Yet, the disturbances have less to do with urban renewal than laying bear the fault line between the nearly half of Turkey's more sophisticated, more secular and more urban electorate that rejected Erdogan's Justice and Development Party, and the more conservative sectarian rural Turkish population that provides Erdogan and his party their solid base of support. But then the fissures blur and it would be simplistic to suggest that this battle is yet another reenactment of secular vs. sectarian Islam.

Inside this so-called silent, more secular Turkish electoral minority lays millions of pious Sunni Alevis -- a Turkish Sunni minority that practices a more liberal form of Islam which faces a wave of government-orchestrated discriminatory conduct towards them. The coalition of protestors also includes young, environmentally active Turks who resent Erdogan's social conservatism reflected in clumsy efforts to restrict alcohol consumption and restrict advertising of western cultural icons, restoration of compulsory religious training in schools, absurd efforts to defame use of social media as "anti-Islam," and zealous policies designed to compel women to adopt more conservative customs and dress. The grievances are compounded by a growing realization within Turkey's democratic opposition that unless Erdogan's wings are clipped now, the steady erosion of human rights, freedom of the press, and basic civil liberties will be hastened by a regime no longer constrained by any checks and balances. In other words, the demonstrations represent a last ditch effort to rein in Erdogan even if it means undermining Turkey's stability and economic well-being.

Can one equate the disturbances as Turkey's version of an Arab Spring-type uprising? Many of the ingredients are there: an increasingly erratic and out of touch autocratic leader confronting a popular revolt. If Erdogan continues on his present course he is doomed to replicate the sins of his less fortunate Arab brethren who did not heed the call of his people, even if they represent a minority of voters. Further unrest will serve to destabilize Turkey's economy and undermine the important role Turkey is playing in its tumultuous neighborhood.

Turkey's unrest places the Obama Administration in a quandary. Obama and Erdogan have developed an abiding and unusual personal friendship given each leader's tendencies and ideology. They speak often and Obama is known to have consulted with Erdogan frequently on Iran and Syria.

Moreover, Turkey is NATO's crucial southern anchor. And after a great deal of prodding Erdogan agreed to an Obama-orchestrated rapprochement with Israel.

The best the White House can do is to privately encourage Erdogan to soften his provocative rhetoric and ratchet down the police violence against the unarmed demonstrators. Anything more (i.e., public criticism of Erdogan, restricting arms transfers to Turkey, and/or expressing support for the protestors) will only undermine American leverage with the erratic Erdogan and alienate him from the U.S.. That is not a very appealing prescription for an effective U.S. policy. But one cannot ignore that unlike their Arab neighbors Turks knew what they were getting when they reelected Erdogan to a third term. He has never made a secret of his prickly personality, his Islamic agenda, nor his intolerance to dissent.

Only Erdogan can rescue himself from his worst tendencies. So far, he is playing true to form, which may set the stage for a potential shift against his party in the upcoming local and presidential 2014 elections.