Why Turkey Has the Liberals Egypt Needs

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Aug. 26 2013 1:03 PM

Turkey’s Hidden Revolution

How Prime Minister Erdoğan accidentally fostered a generation of Turkish liberals.

Peaceful protesters in Ankara, Turkey, June 4, 2013.
Young Turks, like those protesting in Ankara on June 4, don't fit into the country's old ideological categories.

Photo by Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images

On Aug. 5 a court in western Turkey handed down life sentences to a score of retired military officers, including the former chief of the general staff, as well as politicians and media figures, for plotting attacks that would have hurled the country into chaos in preparation for a military coup. The trial was widely regarded as flawed, but the verdicts did not provoke big protests in a nation that until a few years ago held the Army in higher esteem than any other institution. A few days later, at the end of Ramadan, the cities emptied as usual and the resorts were packed. Amid the festivities, the decapitation of the country’s former ruling establishment was largely forgotten.

To an outsider it might seem as though the Islamist prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has achieved what his former counterpart in Egypt, Mohammed Morsi, failed to do: boot the generals into irrelevance and impress on his opponents the fullness of their defeat. But that impression is incomplete. Over the past decade, emboldened by impressive mandates from the electorate, Erdoğan has indeed done much to subordinate the Army to the civilian authorities, but he has had help from an unlikely quarter: a generation of Turks who, although secular and deeply opposed to political Islam, no longer want the generals to fight their battles for them. These Turks are young (or youngish), and what they know of modern countries tells them that it’s not a good idea to have the Army running things behind the scenes. Nor has the military always contented itself with remaining behind the scenes; since 1960 the generals have staged three coups (four if you include the “soft” coup of 1997), befriended gangsters and neofascists, and sabotaged efforts to end a decades-old war against Kurdish insurgents. So, the silence of these younger, secular Turks after Aug. 5 was meaningful. It was a silence of disassociation.

Who are they, and what do they stand for? For the answer, look at the protests that swept Turkey this June, starting around some threatened sycamores in central Istanbul, spreading to no fewer than 60 of the country’s 81 provinces, and ending with five dead and many thousands injured. Amid the chaos and tear gas, new elements in society were discernible; these elements will be prominent in the political and cultural struggles of the future.

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The old Turkey—the Turkey I came to know after moving to the country in 1996—was dominated by big, obvious blocs: left, right, and Islamist, each with its own culture, leaders, “look,” and foundation myths. Each bloc was subject to an internal tyranny, with leaders-for-life and the common foot soldier shielded from truths he wouldn’t understand. The media, academe, and the huge public sector bought into this system. It was hard to get on without being a client of one bloc or another. Everyone knew where he stood.

This summer’s agitation was suggestive of a different Turkey, variegated, harder to classify. The old blocs are gone. There is now a concatenation of groups, interests, forums, and individuals—different shades of identity and belief. Over the past decade, the country has gained the most sophisticated green, feminist, and gay rights movements in the Muslim world. A large, overwhelmingly secular minority, the proto-Shia Alevis, have emerged from semi-hiding, while the Kurds, long reviled and detested, enjoy greater prominence and freedom than at any time since the Ottoman era.

All of these groups were represented on the streets in June—rallied not by tub-thumping leaders or powerful editors, but by fellow protesters using Twitter and Facebook. Not forgetting the housewives banging pots at their windows, the students, private-sector workers, and football fans who joined the protests, and the celebrities who were photographed cleaning up the mess. Turkey has a new bloc, betrothed to none of the established political parties, loyal readers of no single newspaper: a liberal bloc.

The irony is that the person who did the most to bring liberal Turkey into existence is now its adversary: Erdoğan himself. It seems outlandish to recall, but he is the man who authored some of the most comprehensive pro-democracy reforms the country has known. Erdoğan’s measures were designed above all to benefit his own, Islamist supporters who had been persecuted by the old secularist elite. But Alevis and gays and the others also came up for air. A forgotten group, the Armenians—a group that almost symbolises Turkey’s troubled historical conscience—shot back into prominence. When the Armenian newspaper editor Hrant Dink was murdered by a Turkish nationalist in 2007, hundreds of thousands of Turks marched in protest. “We are all Hrant!”

All the while, Erdoğan presided over an unprecedented expansion in material prosperity, lifting millions into the middle class, where they enjoyed greater mobility, educational opportunities, and freedom of choice. The result was a more diverse, complicated, and irreverent culture than Turkey had seen for many decades.  

Erdoğan does not seem to like this Turkey, or the liberals who inhabit it. He has criticized their drinking habits and their abortions; opponents in the media have been silenced through a combination of behind-the-scenes pressure and the courts. The prime minister supports radical changes to Istanbul’s already much-abused skyline—a mammoth hilltop mosque, the world’s biggest airport, a new bridge across the Bosporus, and endless shopping malls, all approved with little oversight. The sycamores were the last straw.

Erdoğan’s reaction to the June protests was neither thoughtful nor generous. He called the demonstrators “looters” and social media a “plague” spread by “social delinquents.” He congratulated the police, whose brutality had been deplored by human rights campaigners around the world, on writing “an epic of heroism.” Now he is lashing out, suing critics and complaining of an international conspiracy led by a sinister “interest rate lobby.” False modesty is not among the prime minister’s faults; he speaks of himself in the third person, when not using the royal “we.” He hopes to end 2014 as the occupant of a much-empowered Turkish presidency.

Erdoğan still has the numbers—pious, commercially minded Turks who constitute the country’s new establishment, and who share his conservative views. But his opponents are also a formidable force. There should be a way for liberals and conservatives to coexist—it’s the norm in many countries. Can Erdoğan be the leader of all Turks, even those who disagree with him? The auguries are not hopeful.

Christopher de Bellaigue writes and broadcasts about the Middle East and South Asia. His book Rebel Land: Unraveling the Riddle of History in a Turkish Town was published in 2010.

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