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<nettime> Peter Beaumont: Recep Tayyip Erdogan struggles to make sense o
Patrice Riemens on Sun, 16 Jun 2013 10:34:03 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Peter Beaumont: Recep Tayyip Erdogan struggles to make sense of Turkey's trauma (Observer/Guardian)

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Recep Tayyip Erdogan struggles to make sense of Turkey's trauma

After a fortnight of missteps, the prime minister grasps that the protests
are harming his regime. But he has not recognised they are unlikely to end
if he removes the freedom his people expect

    Peter Beaumont, foreign affairs editor
    The Observer, Saturday 15 June 2013

Sitting by her tent in Istanbul's Gezi Park, child psychiatrist Tugba
Camcioglu, 36, ponders what brought her here. She is not, she admits, very
political. The handmade poster on her tent is about child abuse, not the
fate of the park or even the vexed subject of Turkey's prime minister,
Recep Tayyip Erdogan. "I came because the park should be kept for
children. I came to stand up for the weak," she says.

I meet Camcioglu the day after last week's assault on nearby Taksim Square
with teargas, water cannon and rubber bullets that cleared it of
protesters. It's her first evening in the park, which days later would
again be stormed by riot police.

"Turkey is like a traumatised adolescent," she explains. "We have had so
many traumas, such as what happened with the Kurds, that we are finding it
difficult to mature as a country. I'm not angry. And I'm not afraid. When
I told my nine-year-old that I was planning to come here, he said: 'Don't
go. Erdogan won't understand'."

Camcioglu is one of those whom Erdogan has branded as capulcu ? literally,
"riffraff" ? a word that has been appropriated by the protesters as a
badge of pride. It is posted on tents, homes, banners, even on biscuits.

After a fortnight of missteps by Erdogan and his moderate Islamist AKP,
during which five have died and 5,000 have been injured in protests in
dozens of cities, the prime minister's most recent moves suggest that,
while he may not comprehend the reasons for the protests, at last he
understands the damage they are doing to him.

Recent days have seen a series of dizzying flip-flops. On Thursday night,
Erdogan appeared abruptly to change tactics. Meeting in Ankara for the
first time with representatives of the protesters, he offered if not an
olive branch then the hint of one, backing down on his insistence that
Gezi Park must be redeveloped to rebuild an Ottoman-era barracks.

By Saturday evening, with protesters still refusing to leave, Erdogan was
once again in full fire and brimstone mode as he addressed tens of
thousands of supporters in a suburb of the capital, Ankara, railing about
plots and criminals, and telling those in the park to leave or face again
Turkey's security forces. Riot police were deployed hours later.

If there is a problem for Erdogan, it is that the protests that began on
31 May with a police assault on an environmental camp to save the park's
green space have long since moved on from being about Gezi's lovely old
trees. A poll of 498 protesters in the park, published last week, found
that 58% were there to protest against Erdogan and a style of government
that his critics say is increasingly high-handed; just 3% were there for
the trees.

Erdogan's gamble in agreeing to talk to the protesters ? like all his
moves in this crisis, including ordering the riot police to clear Taksim
Square last week and again last night ? has been high risk. Coming just a
few hours before police released 43 arrested protesters, in accordance
with their demands, his new tactic was clear. Seeking to confine the terms
of the protests to their original cause ? the park ? he had hoped to
defuse the wider issue of how two weeks of protests have created a
permissive space for a new opposition to a decade of AKP rule.

As that backfired, Erdogan has been pushed back to his default position of
the last two weeks: demonising those who stand against him, issuing
threats and offering ill-shaped conspiracy theories designed to mobilise
his base.

At the heart of this crisis has been a failure on Erdogan's part to fully
grasp the nature of the protests. Writing in the Turkish daily Hürriyet
last week, Taha Ozan, director of the Seta thinktank, which is close to
the AKP, reflected some of the difficulties Erdogan has encountered.

Ozan writes: "Erdogan faced the accusations of totalitarianism with only
one response: 'Do not come to me with abstract accusations that are
outside the realm of politics. Can you give me specific and tangible
examples?' This simple question does not have a tangible response other
than: 'We are afraid and we feel repressed'."

If anything has changed in the last few days, it is that Erdogan and other
senior officials appear to have recognised, at least, that such fears can
be contagious. What is clear is that there are growing political dangers
in the crisis for Erdogan and his style of government that predate the
protests. According to a Gallup poll taken before the protests, the
government's approval rating has been declining. That trend is most marked
in Istanbul, where it has dropped from 59% in 2011 to 30% in 2012, while
in the rest of Turkey it has fallen from 57% to 48%.

On the international stage too, the past two weeks have damaged Turkey's
reputation, crucially in Europe, where a group of countries led by Germany
have put further brakes on the glacial EU accession talks because of the
violence used against the protesters.

Ziya Meral, a Turkish academic based in the UK, believes that the protests
are rooted in a complex clash of ideas and personal values that has arisen
during an AKP era of economic policies that created a new, tech-savvy
consumer society, especially in cities, whose growing economic and social
autonomy is now at odds with how Erdogan and the AKP believe Turkish
society should be.

Their expectation has long been institutionalised in Turkish society,
where journalists, university professors and even doctors have been
required to conform and help shape public attitudes.

"It's not a clash between an Islamist party and secularists ? instead, it
represents a postmodern crisis for Turkey," Meral said. "Erdogan and the
AKP came into power rejecting the old-school style of Islamist politics
that had come before. They wanted economic improvement and they wanted to
be open to the world.

"The shift came after 2011. By then, the military was no longer a force.
Consumption was increasing. The EU was out of the picture with its own
troubles. With its large majority, [the AKP] started behaving as previous
governments had done ? insisting on being the 'gatekeeper' of the Turkish
identity, while emphasising majoritarianism over pluralism."

If in the past "gatekeeping" meant enforcing a strict vision of secular
nationalism, today it means creeping socially conservative Islamist
values, the most recent iteration of which ? described by many people as
the "last straw" ? has been tighter limits on the sale of alcohol.

For many in Gezi Park, this is precisely the issue: the conflict between
their growing desire for personal autonomy in the new Turkey and
state-prescribed notions of "Turkishness".

But the crisis has been exacerbated by other tensions. There has been deep
discontent, not least within the ranks of Erdogan's party, ove e
historic peace process with the Kurds, and public rumblings over his Syria

Erdogan's attempts to rewrite the military-era constitution, which would
create a presidential system of government, have aroused suspicion that
the new system would most benefit the prime minister himself.

All of these complaints have been reflected in the protests as the
demonstrations have rippled outwards, drawing in an uneasy coalition of
often contradictory interests.

Indeed, the worst of the violence last week, during the clearing of Taksim
Square, saw Kurds and Kemalists ? secular nationalist followers of the
founder of the modern Turkish state ? standing shoulder to shoulder with
anarchists and environmentalists all pursuing their own agendas.

Like Meral, political analyst Ihsan Dagi ? who has written extensively on
the AKP's time in power ? believes that the friction in Turkish society is
a direct result of the party's own policies. The protesters in Gezi Park
are by and large those who have grown up under and often benefited from
the decade of AKP rule.

"Erdogan looks at how incomes have increased over the past decade and
asks, why are people complaining? What he is missing is that in the new
consumer society, people believe they have the right to make their own
choices about what they buy, how they live and what they choose to drink,"
said Dagi.

Despite believing that Erdogan is fundamentally a pragmatic politician,
Dagi suspects that some of the prime minister's mistakes in the last
fortnight stem from both his own sense of being under attack and his need
to appeal to his core voters by sounding defiant in the midst of a crisis.

His sense of affront is not entirely surprising. Chants in Gezi Park have
ranged from straightforward calls for him to step down to the outright
vulgar, including from football "ultras", on Friday night, who shouted:
"Tayyip, Tayyip, suck my dick."

"Erdogan took it very personally at first," says Dagi. "The reports of
people close to him say he saw it as an attempt to force him to resign or
harm him so he couldn't stand again."

One story tells of a furious PM being calmed by his daughter after
storming out of the Ankara meeting with protesters. But Dagi believes that
many of Erdogan's problems are of his and his party's making by narrowing
the terms of Turkey's political conversation.

"The magic formula of the AKP and Erdogan in the last 10 years was that it
generally acted in a wider coalition allowing different political ideas
and identities. But that started to crumble two years ago and some of the
more liberal politicians who felt that they could work with Erdogan turned
against him. I think he's realised now that he needs to build bridges
again and open dialogue to a wider audience."

However, Dagi is still not convinced that Erdogan has understood the real
nature of the protests: "He sees it as deeply political, something that
needs to be controlled to keep Turkey manageable. But really this is a
social resistance, not a political uprising.

"This isn't about removing him from power. It's people saying to the AKP
and Erdogan there are limits to the powers they try to assume."

Turkey's prime minister showed his determination in moving to clear the
park with water cannon and teargas. He may have won this battle, but the
most serious crisis of Erdogan's 10 years in power is far from over.


Born in February 1954, Erdogan attended an Islamic high school before
studying business administration at Marmara University, graduating in
1981. He spent 13 years as a semi-professional footballer, but his father
reportedly blocked a move to top club Fenerbahçe. Erdogan's passion for
politics was greater: time as a student activist was followed by a
decision to join the Islamist Welfare Party after the 1980 military coup
in Turkey.

A pragmatic approach as mayor of Istanbul from 1994 to 1998 ended with his
imprisonment for reciting a poem in public that was regarded as incitement
to religious hatred. He established the Justice and Development Party
(AKP) after his release and it won a landslide victory at the 2002 general
election, taking nearly two-thirds of the seats. In 2011 the AKP was
re-elected for a third term.

Erdogan married Emine Gulbaran in 1978 and the couple have two sons and
two daughters.

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