Published on 4 Jun 2013

Erdogan must deal with root causes of Turkey's protests

Back in 1995, I lived and worked as a reporter in Istanbul, where a certain Recep Tayyip Erdogan was the city’s mayor. There were only two occasions when his authority had much of a bearing on my life.

The first was when pious officialdom ordered that tables be removed from outside bars serving alcohol in my dangerously bohemian neighbourhood; and the second, when I got married in the city and one of Erdogan’s officials turned up to preside over the civil part of the ceremony.

My wife and I got married at our dining room table, in our flat overlooking the Bosphorus, with four friends as witnesses. Mr Erdogan’s municipal representative, a mournful fellow of few words, came bearing a small fir tree in a pot as a wedding gift. The tree died shortly afterwards, though the marriage happily has not.

I had completely forgotten about the tree until last week, which happened to be my wedding anniversary, when an argument about trees in an Istanbul park down the road from my first married home triggered the worst urban unrest in Mr Erdogan’s decade in power as prime minister.

Back in 1995, Mr Erdogan was apparently going through a green phase and considered fir trees as suitable wedding gifts. In 2013, his environmental credentials seem to have deserted him: Istanbul, one of the most beautiful cities in the world, is being desecrated in the name of economic development and apparently at the prime minister’s whim.

Protests around the country have now evolved into a rebellion against the prime minister’s authority and the way he exercises it. But it is worth remembering that an environmental cause started this crisis, coupled with the typically heavy-handed Turkish police response.

Gezi Park is not much of a park: but in a city being robbed of its green spaces, it’s symbolic value is enormous. Istanbul is not just any old city: the former capital of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman Empires is precious beyond measure. Yet Mr Erdogan, its former mayor, seems to have lost the Istanbul plot and thinks he has carte blanche to do what he wants there. Few cities can have more shopping centres than Istanbul, home to the Grand Bazaar, of course, which has inspired shopping centres the world over – so why the need to build yet more shops?

The ability of the Turkish police to turn a problem into a crisis cannot be underestimated and police violence is nothing new; but what is new is the civic response. Not Kurdish activists or the far left on the march as per the norm,  but a wider cross-section of outraged people, furious at the governing style of one of Turkey’s most forthright and seemingly talented leaders since Ataturk himself. Some of them are secularists, worried that new restrictions on alcohol sales will put Turkey on the slide towards Saudi Arabia; but this seems to me a far more personal protest about Erdogan himself.

The deputy prime minister is playing “good cop” to Mr Erdogan’s “bad cop” and says he will meet some of the demonstrators and review their concerns. Ironically enough, Mr Erdogan is in north Africa, his hopes of promoting Turkey as the role model for the Arab Spring in tatters for now. Hopefully he will resist the temptation to bait the protesters in his home country with any more disparaging remarks: his arrogance, combined with inept policing, could prolong a protest which would otherwise fizzle out. The nightmare scenario – and it is extremely unlikely – is that demonstrations escalate to the point that the army sides with the people on the streets.

With any luck, these last few days will mark the zenith of Mr Erdogan’s hubris. We may witness no change of style from him. Indeed, he will probably tough it out till the protesters go home. But behind the scenes, something may have changed: the leader is no longer invincible; his party will question him; his ambition of assuming the presidency no longer seems quite so certain.

And if his ceasefire with Kurdish PKK fighters comes undone – there were reports of clashes yesterday – his boomtime economic legacy will be seriously tarnished by social divisions which are no longer confined to the remote south east, but now on display in Turkey’s biggest cities.

So let the trees in Gezi Park be, Mr Erdogan, and deal with the root (!) cause of the problem, before tensions escalate any further. My tree died. Istanbul’s should stay and live.

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Jonathan Rugman is the author of Ataturk’s Children – Turkey and the Kurds

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