A Growing Economy Isn't Enough

In spite of the positive social mood in Turkey as expressed by its up until recently relentlessly rising stock market, apparently not all is well. In recent days violent demonstrations against the government have taken place, which prime minister Erdogan at first blamed on a 'few looters'. After the protests had spread to 67 cities, he implied that they were orchestrated to create a pretext for 'undermining democracy', a hint that the powerful Turkish army may be involved (watch Erdogan's statement here).

That doesn't sound very plausible though, since the army's main concern with Erdogan is that he leads an Islamic party. Turkey's army is not necessarily anti-democratic – rather it sees its role in ensuring that Turkey remains a secular state and doesn't become a theocracy. In short, the army regards itself as the guarantor of Kemal Atatürk's legacy.

Reuters reports:



“Tens of thousands of people took to the streets in Turkey's four biggest cities on Sunday and clashed with riot police firing tear gas on the third day of the fiercest anti-government demonstrations in years.

The din of car horns and residents banging pots and pans from balconies in support of the protests resonated across neighborhoods in Istanbul and Ankara late into the night, as hundreds of demonstrators skirmished with riot police.

Roads around Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's office in Istanbul were sealed off as police fired tear gas to push back protesters, and police raided a shopping complex in the centre of the capital Ankara where they believed demonstrators were sheltering, detaining several hundred. Erdogan blamed the main secular opposition party for inciting the crowds, whom he called "a few looters", and said the protests were aimed at depriving his ruling AK Party of votes as elections begin next year.

Interior Minister Muammer Guler said there had been more than 200 demonstrations in 67 cities around the country, according to the Hurriyet newspaper. The unrest erupted on Friday when trees were torn down at a park in Istanbul's main Taksim Square under government plans to redevelop the area, but widened into a broad show of defiance against the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Erdogan said the plans to remake the square, long an iconic rallying point for mass demonstrations, would go ahead, including the construction of a new mosque and the rebuilding of a replica Ottoman-era barracks. He said the protests had nothing to do with the plans. "It's entirely ideological," he said in an interview broadcast on Turkish television.

"The main opposition party which is making resistance calls on every street is provoking these protests … This is about my ruling party, myself and the looming municipal elections in Istanbul and efforts to make the AK Party lose votes here." Turkey is due to hold local and presidential elections next year in which Erdogan is expected to stand, followed by parliamentary polls in 2015.

The main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) denied orchestrating the unrest, blaming Erdogan's policies. "Today the people on the street across Turkey are not exclusively from the CHP, but from all ideologies and from all parties," senior party member Mehmet Akif Hamzacebi said. "What Erdogan has to do is not to blame CHP but draw the necessary lessons from what happened," he told Reuters.

The protests, started by a small group of environmental campaigners, mushroomed when police used force to eject them from the park on Taksim Square. As word spread online, the demonstrations drew in a wide range of people of all ages from across the political and social spectrum.

The ferocity of the police response in Istanbul has shocked Turks, as well as tourists caught up in the unrest in one of the world's most visited destinations. Helicopters have fired tear gas canisters into residential neighborhoods and police have used tear gas to try to smoke people out of buildings. Footage on YouTube showed one protester being hit by an armored police truck as it charged a barricade.

The handling of the protests has drawn rebukes from the United States, European Union and international rights groups.”


(emphasis added)

It is interesting that once again, social media – read: the internet – were used to spread the word and enlarge the protest. Erdogan probably underestimates the degree to which today's prosperous Turkey is breeding opposition to his hitherto mild Islamism. Note the trigger for the demonstrations: plans to erect a mosque in a square that is a popular meeting place of the opposition. The stock market in Istanbul has suffered a setback as the protests broke out, but still sports an enormous long term gain:



Istanbul, daily

The Istanbul National 30 Index: the setback over the past week or so has erased this year's gains.



Istanbul, LT

The market is still up more than 300% from the 2009 low.




It is not knowable yet what these protests in Turkey really signify. But we take them for now as another sign of societal change infecting Islamic countries. In some places there has been a reaction taking countries toward more rather than less Islamic influence (e.g. in Egypt), but there are powerful forces pulling in the opposite direction as well.


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