The Future of Turkish-US relations and the Gezi Protests Reply

The ongoing protests in Turkey highlight the changing nature of the ruling AKP party.

Egemen B. Bezci

The Gezi protests in Turkey’s Taksim square began as a peaceful “environmentalist” demonstration against the Justice and Development Party (JDP) government’s plan to demolish last standing green field in the middle of Istanbul, and build a shopping mall in its place. However, on the 30th and 31st of May, Turkish riot police brutally suppressed the peaceful demonstrators who were only protesting the demolition of park. The images of the police brutality including police attacking with water cannons, iron batons, tear gas and pepper sprays to the protesters triggered a reaction among certain parts of the Turkish society who have been feeling consistently humiliated by the Prime Minister Erdogan’s speeches. As a result, the protests spread to whole country and turned into an anti-government protest against the government’s increasing authoritative political discourse, humiliation, press censorship and police brutality.

It should be noted that these anti-government protests do not aim to overthrow the government by any methods but elections. The goal of the protests is to express discontent with the government’s recent interference to the people’s lifestyle and preferences. For last couple of months Erdogan has been lecturing Turks on what kind of “bread” people should consume, how much salt should be used in meals, what kind of child delivery methods should be used, how many children families should have, what kind of art should be acceptable, how men and women should sit next to each other in public transportations. This list goes on. However, the ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party) government and PM Erdogan ignore the nature and limited aims of the demonstrations and instead provoke the demonstrators by labeling them “looters and marginal”. By using such a rhetoric, the Prime Minister Erdogan only widens the divisions within the already polarized Turkish society. As a result of this polarization, Istanbul’s streets have seen some group of armed people with knives, melees and batons chanting for Islam and attacking to the demonstrators during the last weeks.  It could be argued that the PM Erdogan aims to consolidate his Islamists supporters for the coming elections, and furthermore, prepare his vote base for the new agenda of the AKP government after the elections. All these developments indicate that Turkey’s governing party is evolving in  more Islamist and authoritarian direction. Some important signs  of this transformation were seen at an interview by the Chairman of AKP Istanbul branch Aziz Babuşçu. Mr. Babuşçu stated that ‘the next ten year will not be as our previous supporter liberals desired’, he added more ‘liberals, and some liberal groups who previously supported the AKP, will not be a part of new Turkey that we will build’. The evolution of both government and the AKP party itself also carries some messages for the US politics, especially regarding the Obama administration’s new decision to arm Syrian rebels.

The AKP government members and Erdogan himself repeatedly stated that “interest lobbies” and “the Western powers” organized the Gezi protests in Taksim square. The AKP’s unyielding unwillingness to understand the nature of the protests and blame Western supported international conspiracy that is claimed to aim for weakening the PM Erdogan’s economic success. Erdogan’s perception of the Gezi protests as an international conspiracy to overthrow his government, suddenly lead the PM Erdogan and his AKP cadre to blame the US and Israel perpetuating the protests. Erdogan even claimed that people are protesting because of his willingness to criticize Israeli President Shimon Peres at a 2009 Davos conference meeting. Several JDP central committee members blames the US supporting the Gezi protests as Washington envies Turkey’s economic boom in last decade. However, the most surprising claim regarding the Gezi protests came from the government spokesperson Hüseyin Çelik. Mr. Çelik declared that the protests in Istanbul perpetuated by a think-tank in the Washington, D.C., the American Enterprise Institute as part of a project called “Istanbul Revolt”. Although the US State Department instantly falsify Turkish government’s blames on the US, the JDP cadres and the government has already spread the seeds of anti-American sentiment among its supporters. It should be noted that the anti-American sentiment is already high among Turkish citizens as a legacy of old Cold War habits, as shown by PEW Global Values Survey and Kadir Has University Social and Political Trends Surveys. The false claims of the AKP’s cadres including the PM Erdogan, does nothing but help the government to tighten its supporters against the Gezi protests by reviving the conspiracy theories of the Cold War era which Erdogan’s supporters could be convinced. Moreover, this anti-American sentiment is also gaining more traction among the Erdogan’s supporters. What do all these developments tell us about the future of Turkish-American relations?

The Gezi protests indicated that the Erdogan government showing signs of authoritarianism in Turkey. Moreover, also showed that the Turkish government is not capable of crisis management, and adopting a renewed democratic discourse to cope with new trends in the country. Just on this point, it should be reminded that Obama administration also considers providing arms for the Syrian Opposition, the Free Syria Army and tightening its alliance on the Middle East with Turkey. However, this decision carries various risks. First of all, while Turkey is busy with turmoil within the country and more suspicion rises on the Erdogan government, as well as different approaches of the US and Turkey on Syria increases the possibility of arms falling into wrong hands. Secondly, anti-Western sentiment is rising in Turkey’s conservative vote base and elections are on way in Turkey, thus, there is no guarantee for Turkey would stay with the US in same path on Syria. This picture added another problem to the already complex situation in the Middle East.  If US deliver arms to the Syrian rebels, assuming that US would delivers weapons that would cause no trouble even if they are acquired by wrong hands, would not greatly contribute to the struggle on the rebel’s side. However, the arms delivery to the Syrian rebels would drag Turkey more in the quagmire of Syria, lose most part of the country’s energy on Syrian issue instead of particularly paying attention on the democratization process needed for both EU accession, solving country’s long-standing Kurdish question and calming Gezi protests.

The Gezi protests in Turkey demonstrated that even the leaders of such a long-term Western ally as Turkey could use a cheap anti-American discourse especially when they cannot manage the domestic crisis of their countries. Seeing the AKP government’s crisis management skills, and lack of skills to adopt a democratic discourse gives the signs  that solution for Turkey’s Kurdish question as well as political unrest stemming from the Gezi protests are likely to be poorly handled by the government. As a result the AKP government members seem to use conspiracy theories and anti-US discourse to cover their mishandling of the situation. Washington’s priority in the Middle East region could be the Syrian issue and the Peace Talks. However, for Washington to keep its long-term ally Turkey from moving into an anti-US rotation in the future, the new agenda should consider the democratic promotion for Turkey in bilateral relations to avoid losing Turkey.

Egemen B. Bezci is a research fellow at the Sakarya University, Turkey and a senior editor at the Jerusalem Review of Near East Affairs. You can reach him on Twitter: @ebbezci

 Photo credit: Wikimedia commons

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