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Why Are Turks So Angry?

Security Personnel prepare to disperse protestors in Turkey.

Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have had significant successes since coming to power in 2002. Erdoğan rescued Turkey’s economy, which had been reeling. He established Turkey as a world power, increasing its influence on the world stage. He also brought Turkey’s abusive military and bureaucratic establishment to heel. Turkish voters welcomed Erdoğan’s charismatic leadership and gave the AKP a mandate in three national elections. So, it was a surprise when demonstrations over a commercial development project in Istanbul’s Taksim Square spiraled into violent protests in 60 cities across the country. Why are Turks so angry?

Erdoğan’s polarizing personality is largely to blame. His arrogance and hubris make him a lightning rod for controversy. Police brutality, including the use of tear gas and water cannon, has enraged protesters adding fuel to the fire. Instead of taking on board their concerns, Erdoğan impugned them as thugs, hooligans, and looters. Erdoğan has become increasingly authoritarian, acting more like a sultan than a public servant.

Turkey’s economic boom masked anger toward Erdoğan. When the AKP came to power in 2002, Turkey’s economy was stagnant and suffering double-digit inflation. It has since rebounded, tempering his opponents. Turkey’s GDP has been growing at annual rate of 5 percent. It tripled its GDP in the past decade, benefiting from $100 billion in foreign direct investment since 2003. Exports were $152 billion last year, representing a 10-fold increase in just one decade. Per capita income has soared with a million new jobs created each year. Turkey is a leading member of the G-20.

But now with Turkey’s economy slowing down, Turks are increasingly concerned about the denial of basic human rights. The AKP-led government limits freedom of expression and undermines Turkey’s secular tradition, exacerbating social divisions. Erdoğan’s foreign policy has embroiled Turkey in regional conflicts, including the morass in Syria. Even his economic policies are under question for fueling inflation. Turkish citizens have flooded the streets to protest these developments.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists and Freedom House, the AKP systematically restricts freedom of expression in the media and civil society. Dissenting opinions are silenced via criminal prosecutions. The government refuses to repeal regressive legislation that limits freedom of expression and marginalizes political opposition. Article 8 of the Anti-Terror Act is used to suppress dissent, and Article 301 of the Penal Code makes it a crime to “denigrate Turkishness.”

The government targets journalists, like Hasan Cemal, for unfavorable reporting of its policies. The Doğan Media Group was fined $2.5 billion for unpaid taxes in what is largely considered a politically motivated move. Since May 31, the government is arresting journalists and rounding up students who used Twitter to mobilize demonstrations. Raising concerns about access to information, the Telecommunications Ministry has blocked an estimated 15,000 websites in Turkey, some for pro-Kurdish or other political content.

Judicial proceedings are also being used to eliminate political opponents. Since 2007, more than 500 journalists and military officers have been arrested and accused of plotting a coup against the AKP government. More than 300 individuals linked to the probe are still in jail, but no one has been convicted.

Erdoğan is pushing to reform the 1982 constitution. Rather than enhancing human rights, many Turks believe that constitutional reforms are intended to establish a more powerful executive with Erdoğan at the helm of a dominant presidential system.

Turkey’s secular tradition was enshrined by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the republic. Secularists accuse Erdoğan and the AKP of eroding the country’s commitment to secularism and undermining its secular institutions. Erdoğan studied at Imam Hatip school, which offers courses on Islamism. He declared himself a “servant of Sharia” during his 1994 mayoral campaign in Istanbul. In 1999, Erdoğan was imprisoned for 10 months for “inciting hatred based on religious differences.” Erdoğan was prosecuted for a poem he read at a political rally in Siirt:

“Our minarets are our bayonets,

Our domes are our helmets,

Our mosques are our barracks, …

My reference is Islam.”

Especially worrisome is the AKP’s assault on the secular judiciary. It has also confronted the security services under the guide of democratization and eliminating the “deep state,” a shadowy network of security officials and bureaucrats bent on preserving their powers and privilege. Rather than the so-called democracy opening, Erdoğan used his political capital from the 2007 election to lift curbs on public expression of religion, including limits on women wearing Islamic style headscarves at universities and public institutions. Daily prayer has become routine among AKP party members appointed to posts in the civil service. Erdoğan announced plans to build the world’s largest mosque in Istanbul. Most Turks are Muslim, but according to an April 2013 Pew Institute survey, only 12 percent of Turks want to institute Sharia law.

Turkey’s pious entrepreneurial class forms the core of Erdoğan’s constituency. Anatolian businessmen represent Turkey’s new economic elite. More Islamic and less Western, they benefit from the AKP’s spending while returning huge sums to the party in exchange for its largess and government contracts.

The government recently restricted alcohol sales and promotion. While alcohol restrictions only affect 6 percent of Turkish households, according to the government’s Household Budget Surveys, Erdoğan’s remarks disparaging alcohol drinkers turned the ban into a big issue among Turks who resent the government’s intrusion into their private lives.

Turkey’s Kurds are skeptical about the recent a cease-fire and withdrawal of forces by the PKK (the Kurdistan’s Workers’ Party). They insist that Erdoğan be judged by what he does not what he says. Rather than addressing the root causes of conflict with negotiations, Erdoğan is letting the peace process languish, increasing the likelihood of the resumption of violence.

The continued detention of Kurdish civic and political leaders has exacerbated distrust born from three decades of violent conflict. In 2009 and 2011, thousands of Kurds associated with the Unıon of Kurdistan Communities (KCK) were arrested for pro-Kurdish activities and ties to the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party. They face trial on terrorism charges while hundreds are held in administrative detention.

Since Erdoğan’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu heralded a policy of “zero problems with neighbors,” Turkey’s regional relations have deteriorated precipitously. Turkey-Syria relations are especially tense.

Rebuffed by President Bashar al-Assad, Erdoğan has given Syrian opposition figures free reign to operate in Turkey. Arms are transported from Turkey to the Free Syrian Army, which includes virulent anti-Western elements. About 800,000 Syrian refugees have crossed the border into Turkey with the cost of refugee relief estimated at $1.5 billion by the end of 2013. While Turkey welcomes cash from the international community, it refuses to allow refugee agencies to operate camps for Syrian refugees; Turks are chafing under the cost of refugee relief.

Resentment has been exacerbated by the bombing in Reyhanli on May 11, which killed 51 and injured 140 people. Reyhanli is in Turkey’s Hatay Province, which mirrors Syria’s ethnic and sectarian mix. Many Turks are questioning the AKP’s approach towards Syria. About 20 percent of Turks adhere to the Alevi sect, a branch of Islam practiced by Assad with ties to Shia Islam. Turkey’s Kurds also have fraternal ties with 2 million Kurds in Syria. Kurds fear Arab jihadis and Sunni rebels backed by Erdoğan

Erdoğan also supports militant Sunnis in Gaza, where he patronizes Hamas. The AKP turned a blind-eye to the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010, during which Israeli commandos interdicting a flotilla delivering supplies to Gaza killed nine activists. The incident poisoned Turkish-Israeli relations. Security, diplomatic, and political cooperation was suspended. Lucrative trade and tourism collapsed. Israel recently apologized, but relations are still strained.

Turks are also embarrassed by international demands for official recognition of the Armenian genocide. Stuck in its policy of denial, Ankara adamantly refuses to use the “G-Word.” Turks expect intense political and moral pressure to recognize the events as genocide during the 100-year anniversary of the Armenian genocide on April 24, 2015.

European Union member states have grown increasingly hostile to Turkey’s accession, causing its bid for EU membership to stall. The European Commission has expressed concern over Cyprus, as well as domestic issues such as Turkey’s criminal justice system, restrictions on freedom of expression and media, and the wide definition of terrorism in Turkish law. No new chapter in the negotiations has opened since 2011.

The slowdown of Turkey’s economy is also damaging to Erdogan. Turkey experienced a classic credit boom, as banks and businesses issued short term, high yield bonds. Economic growth has been fueled by public spending tied to public borrowing. A $400 billion public works program includes large infrastructure projects such as a $10 billion airport for Istanbul and a new $3 billion bridge across the Bosphorus. A 40-kilometer canal linking the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara will be expensive and have a huge environmental impact. In 2012, $4.7 billion was spent on construction projects in Istanbul alone.

Fears of a currency crisis could shake the overheated property market and threaten the banking system. Turkish consumers will have to tighten their belts in response to the country’s growing debt burden. Wealth is already disappearing with stocks plunging 9 percent during the first week in June.

Turkey’s troubles do not represent a full-blown crisis. Without any structural economic reforms, Turkey is likely to have moderate growth rates into the foreseeable future. The AKP-led government is not expected to undertake major reform initiatives anytime soon, with local and presidential elections looming in 2014 and parliamentary elections in 2015.

Turkey’s leader is his own worst enemy. Erdoğan took a good-will tour of North Africa instead of staying at home to deal with the fallout from popular protests. Humility is not in Erdoğan’s DNA, but he should address the nation to show remorse and acknowledge mistakes. Apologizing would burnish his image, not cause him to lose face.

Still words alone will not mollify protesters. Arrested protesters should be released, and the state should compensate the 2,400 who were injured. There must be accountability for police brutality. Security personnel who used excessive force should be charged. Those with command responsibility in the areas worst affected by violence—the governors and police chiefs of Istanbul, Ankara and Hatay—should be sacked.

In addition, Erdoğan should announce plans to cancel the construction of a shopping mall in Taksim Square, which set-off the protests last week. He should publicly renounce pending legislation allowing the government to confiscate nature preserves for construction in the “public benefit.”

Erdoğan needs a political success. To this end, he should rededicate himself to the PKK peace process. Conditions for negotiating with the PKK would be improved if KCK (Union of Communities in Kurdistan) members were released.

Recent protests are more street party than political movement. Popular discontent is not likely to translate into political mobilization or support for opposition parties. Rather than dismiss events, Erdoğan can take advantage of them as a learning opportunity.

Erdoğan should heed the advice he gave Hosni Mubarak during the height of protests in Tahrir Square. He warned against repressive measures to stay in power. “No government can survive against the will of its people. We are all passing, and we will be judged by what we left behind.” Mubarak ignored Erdoğan’s counsel and ended up in the dock. Erdogan should learn from Mubarak’s misfortune lest he suffer a similar fate.

David L. Phillips is director of the Peace-building and Rights Program at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. This article was originally published on the World Policy Blog of the World Policy Institute.


For additional reading on this topic please see:
Blurring the Borders: Syrian Spillover Risks for Turkey
Turkey’s Economy: An Example for the Middle East and North Africa?
Learning From the ‘Arab Spring’: Turkish Foreign Policy in Flux


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