Recep Tayyip Erdogan is playing with fire as he belittles the popular protest spreading among a cross-section of secular Turkey and totally opposed to his highly personalized/autocratic mix of hardcore neoliberalism and conservative religion. The prime minister now deriding demonstrators as "looters" is the same man who said Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak "must listen to his people" and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must go.
- Protestors clash with riot police near the Taksim Gezi park in Istanbul, on 1 June 2013, during a demonstration against the demolition of the park.
Is this the Turkish Spring? No, at least not yet. Is Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan the new Mubarak? No, at least not yet.
History keeps warning us it takes just a spark to light a political bonfire. The recent spark in Istanbul was provided by a small group of very young environmentalists organizing a peaceful sit-in, Occupy-style, in Taksim Square to protest the planned destruction of one of the city center’s few remaining public green spaces, Gezi park.
Gezi park’s destruction follows a globally tested neoliberalism racket; it will be replaced by a simulacrum - in this case a replica of the Ottoman Artillery Barracks - housing, what else, yet another shopping mall. It’s crucial to note that the mayor of Istanbul, also from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), owns a retail chain that will make a killing out of the mall. And the man holding the contract for this "redevelopment" is no less than Erdogan’s son-in-law.
Predictably harsh police repression led to the protesters being joined by top cadres from Turkey’s main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP). And sooner rather than later, the Taksim Square green theme morphed into a Tahrir square-style "Down with the dictator".
By Saturday, Taksim Square was crammed with tens of thousands of people; a multitude had walked across the Bosphorus Bridge from the Asian side of Istanbul, banging pots and pans Argentina 2002 cacerolazo-style, openly trampling the law against pedestrians crossing the bridge. Police duly upgraded the repression to water cannons, pepper spray and tear gas.
The behavior of a mostly cowed Turkish broadcast media was predictably appalling - perhaps not surprising when 76 journalists are in jail accused of supporting "terror" and other unspecified "crimes". This may also be interpreted as a reflection of US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization hold over a precious ally - as in "OK, smash a few skulls, but don’t kill anybody".
Print media at least exhibited some redeeming features. Hurriyet - a newspaper that used to exercise its critical faculties - recovered some of its dignity by printing headlines such as "Erdogan no longer almighty". Zaman - which is part of the network of the moderate Islamist Gulen movement - showed how worried it is with Erdogan and the AKP’s overwhelming power, with editorials condemning his "excessive" behavior and supporting the protesters.
Meanwhile, in the US and the European Union, Ankara has not really been condemned - just the usual, vapid, "concern". Turkey after all is the ultimate CNN poster country; it’s totally "on message" in its brand of autocracy-enabling neoliberalism (as are the Gulf Cooperation Council petro-monarchies). To be violently condemned - and threatened with strikes - is the "privilege" of Iran and Syria.
Take it to the bridge
How fitting that this all started with the "redevelopment" of Gezi park. However, this is just a small node in a vast scheme - a slew of AKP mega-projects all across Istanbul that totally exclude the input of civil society.
Turkey may have become the world’s 17th largest economy in the world, but it’s growing at only 3% in 2013 (even if that is much better than Europe). The AKP has certainly noted that the Turkish economic miracle rests on clay feet, based on products of low added value very dependent on markets - in agriculture, small industry or tourism.
Enter a planned third bridge over the Bosphorus - part of a new US$2.6 billion, 260 kilometer highway linking Thrace to Anatolia circumventing the Istanbul metropolis and one of the key nodes of the European Union-supported Europe-Caucasus-Asia transport corridor (TRACECA).
In the 2011 elections, Erdogan opened his campaign spinning a "crazy project"; a 50 km canal from the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea to be completed by 2023 - the centenary of the Turkish Republic - to the tune of up to $20 billion. The objective is not only to decongest the Bosphorus but, alongside the building of a third bridge and a third harbor, to transfer the axis of Istanbul to the not-yet-developed north of the city. That would include two new towns and a third airport as well.
The AKP has described this ambitious policy as "urban transformation". The pretext is the risk of a major earthquake - such as the one in 1999. For what amounts to a major real estate speculation bonanza, Erdogan and the AKP rely on two government agencies, TOKI and KIPTAS, who have been setting prices way too high for the average Turk. The prime target is the upper middle classes who vote AKP.
The AKP is absolutely obsessed with controlling Istanbul - which accounts for 85 of the 550 Parliament members (Ankara, the capital, is worth only 31). Erdogan and his cohorts have been at the helm of Greater Istanbul since 1994, at the time as members of the Refah party. Erdogan started his conquest of Turkey from the former Ottoman capital.
AKP-sponsored mega-projects have been conceived as the ultimate platform to project emerging Turkey into post-globalization, milking to the maximum the cliche of a "bridge between civilizations". After all, 50% of Turkey’s exports originate in Istanbul. The urban-political marketing of these mega-projects will condition Turkey’s global credibility among the usual suspects, "international investors". It has nothing to do with social cohesion or respect for the environment. It’s fair to argue that the Taksim Square movement has totally grasped the implications of this authoritarian, profit-hungry logic of development.
Friends of Turkey, anyone?
Erdogan may have admitted, grudgingly, that his police forces overreacted. Yet he can do no better than accuse the protesters, derided as "looters", of being "linked with terror" and having "dark ties"; their sole aim would be to cost the AKP votes in the 2015 parliamentary elections. He bragged he could bring out a million AKP supporters to the streets for every 100,000 protesters. Well, 5,000 of them have already managed to throw stones at his office in Besiktas.
Protests have already spread to Izmir, Eskisehir, Mugla, Yalova, Antalya, Bolu, Adana and even AKP strongholds such as Ankara, Kayseri and Konya. They are at the tens of thousands. As car horns and residents banging pots and pans from balconies supporting the protests are now to be heard every night in Ankara and Istanbul (even in sleepy residential areas on the Asian side), this may be reaching hundreds of thousands.
There’s no question the Taksim Square/Occupy Gezi/Down with the Dictator movement is quickly expanding to a cross-section of secular Turkey totally opposed to the AKP and Erdogan’s highly personalized/autocratic mix of hardcore neoliberalism and conservative religion.
Secular Turks also clearly see how Erdogan is trying to milk all he can from a hazy "peace process" with the Kurdish PKK so he can amass enough votes for a constitutional referendum. The referendum would erase the parliamentary system and install a presidential system - very handy as Erdogan’s term as prime minister expires in 2015, and he yearns to remain in the helm as president.
Erdogan may have a solid majority across conservative Anatolia. But he may also be playing with fire. This is a man who over two years ago was yelling, "Mubarak must listen to his people" - and so should Assad in Syria. Now the majority of Turks totally reject Ankara’s "logistical support" for the "rebel" Syrian gangs.
The irony cherry in the cake is Damascus, now gleefully warning Erdogan to curb the violent repression, listen to "his people", or resign.
What next? Erdogan installs a no-fly zone over Istanbul (or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization installs a no-fly zone over Erdogan)? The Turkish "rebels" receive direct support from Damascus, Tehran and Hezbollah? Damascus calls for a "Friends of Turkey" international get-together?
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