3 July 2013
Egypt and Turkey: Democracy in Trouble
By Gwynne Dyer
Egypt and Turkey have the same basic political problem. Democracy can work despite huge ideological differences, but only if everybody is willing to be very tolerant of other people’s ideas and values.
Three weeks ago the streets of Turkish cities were full of protesters demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who won his third straight election in 2011. Why? Because, they say, he is shoving conservative Islamic values down their throats.
The Turkish protests have now died down, but this week the streets of Egyptian cities have been full of protesters demanding exactly the same thing for exactly the same reason. The Egyptian army has now intervened to remove the Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, and the very survival of the new Egyptian democracy is in doubt.
Neither Erdogan nor Morsi could have come to power in a country that wasn’t fully democratic. Turkey has been a partly democratic country for sixty years, but if a politician with a religious agenda won, the army would remove him. It even hanged one prime minister in 1960.
In Egypt, three generals had ruled the country in unbroken succession since the mid-1950s. Latterly they allowed “elections”, but their party always won, and the main religious party, the Muslim Brotherhood, was always banned.
The Turkish and Egyptian generals were mostly devout Muslims themselves, but they were willing to kill to keep religion out of politics. Islamic parties were a vehicle for traditional and anti-modern values, and the generals’ goal was to modernise their countries so they would be strong enough to stand up to the West.
There was some cynicism in their policy, too. The secular political parties in Turkey (and in Egypt too, until they finally withered away under 60 years of military dictatorship) were too fragmented and disunited to pose any real threat to the army’s power, whereas a single Islamic party with broad popular support might do just that. So religion must be firmly excluded from politics.
In both countries, the generals’ modernising agenda had considerable success. Turkey is now a powerful middle-income nation, and at least half of its 75 million people are secular and “modern” in their political values. So they wanted the military out of politics, and finally the army withdrew – only to see the new Justice and Development (AK) Party, a “moderate” Islamist party led by Erdogan, win the 2003 election.
The Turkish generals let the AK rule because it didn’t try to impose its own religious values on the whole population. It refrained because even in its best result, in 2010, the AK only won 50.3 percent of the vote – and some of that support came from secular voters who saw it as the best hope for permanently excluding the army from politics.
Egypt is a much poorer, less educated country than Turkey, but at least a third of the 85 million Egyptians would also qualify as “modern” people with secular values. They were the ones who made the revolution happen in 2010 – but in the new democracy’s first free presidential election last year the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohammed Morsi, won 51.7 percent of the vote.
The Muslim Brotherhood promptly started writing its conservative religious values into the new constitution. More recently, Erdogan’s AK Party in Turkey passed some laws that imposed its religious values too.
It wasn’t a wholesale assault on the secular society – in Turkey they just placed some restrictions on the sale of alcohol – but in both countries it greatly alarmed the secular part of the population. So it took only the slightest pretext – a demonstration over the destruction of a park in Istanbul, the first anniversary of Morsi’s election in Egypt – to bring huge crowds of protesters out on the street in every city.
At that point, both Islamist leaders stopped pretending that they governed in the name of the entire nation. “Let them go into mosques in their shoes, let them drink alcohol in our mosques, let them raise their hand to our headscarved girls,” said Erdogan of the Turkish protestors. “One prayer from our people is enough to frustrate their plans.” He blamed the protests on an international conspiracy by something called the “interest-rate lobby.”
In Egypt, Morsi vowed to “give my life” to defend the new constitution written by his Islamist colleagues last year, and blamed the unrest on a plot by remnants of the ousted Mubarak regime. The Egyptian army has now suspended the constitution, but it is a “soft coup” that will almost certainly leave Morsi alive. Perhaps even free.
The Islamists are to blame for this crisis in both countries, because their political programme does ultimately involve shoving their values down everybody else’s throats. But the secular parties are also to blame, because it is their inability to unite behind a single candidate and programme that has let the Islamists win power in both Turkey and Egypt.
It is hard for democracy to survive in a country where large parts of the population hold radically different ideas about the purposes of the state and the rights of its citizens. Urbanisation will ultimately resolve this conflict, for in one more generation most of the recent immigrants to the fast-growing cities will have adopted secular values. But in the meantime, Egypt will have a very rough ride. Maybe Turkey too.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7, 13 and 14. (“There was…politics”; and “At that…him”)
5 June 2013
Paris 1968, Istanbul 2013
By Gwynne Dyer
It’s certainly not another version of the “Arab Spring”; Turkey is a fully democratic country. It’s not just a Middle Eastern variant of the Occupy movement, either, although the demands of the huge crowds who have occupied the centre of Istanbul and other Turkish big cties are equally diffuse and contradictory.
It’s more like the student uprising in Paris in May, 1968, although most of the demonstrators in Turkey are neither Marxists nor students. Like the Paris demos, it began over local issues and has rapidly grown into a popular revolt against an elected government that is deeply conservative, increasingly autocratic, and deaf to all protests.
The original issue was Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan’s plan to destroy Istanbul’s Gezi Park in order to build a new shopping mall in a city that already has far too many. The park is the only green space in the newer part of downtown, north of the Golden Horn, and covering it over with yet more shops was bound to meet with some resistance.
Erdogan, in cahoots with the developers as usual, assumed that the plan to include a mosque in the new mall would placate his own supporters, while the plan to make the exterior of the mall a replica of an old Ottoman barracks that had once stood on the site would assuage everybody else’s unhappiness at the loss of the park. He was wrong.
At the start of the protest, on 27 May, only a few hundred people occupied the park. It might all have petered out if the police had not attacked them with clubs and tear gas last Friday night, burning their tents after they fled. The protesters came back in far larger number the next day, and the same thing happened again. By the third night, city centres were being occupied all over Turkey, and it wasn’t just about Gezi Park any more.
Prime Minister Erdogan, leaving for a tour of several Arab countries on Monday, dismissed the protests as the work of “a few looters” and “extremist elements”, and said he’d sort it out after he got back on Friday. Unruffled, you might call him – just as you would have described French President Charles De Gaulle in the first days of the 1968 revolt in France.
It’s been a week, and the protesters have not quit. Meanwhile, in Erdogan’s absence, his closest colleagues have been conciliatory. President Abdullah Gul said “the messages sent in good faith have been received,” and Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said “The use of excessive force against the people who initially started this protest…was wrong.”
But what is it really about? After all, Prime Minister Erdogan has led his moderate Islamist party, the Justice and Development Party (AK), to three successive wins in national elections, each time with a bigger share of the vote. He has presided over a decade of high-speed economic growth that has lifted millions out of poverty, and he has finally forced the army out of politics. Why don’t they love him?
Some do, but many people think he has got too big for his boots. Erdogan retains the support of the pious and deeply conservative peasants and recent immigrants to the cities who make up the bulk of his supporters, but he wouldn’t have won without the backing of secular, urban voters who saw him as the best chance to expel the army from politics and put Turkish democracy on a firm footing. He has now lost their trust.
He won it by promising that his government would not shove conservative Islamic values down everybody else’s throats, and until recently he kept his promise. But his last election victory, in which he got 50 percent of the vote in a multi-party race, has emboldened him to believe that he can ignore his erstwhile secular supporters.
He has pushed through new laws restricting the sale and consumption of alcohol. Despite the misgivings of most Turks, he enthusiastically supports the Sunni Muslim rebels in Syria, as part of a broader strategy of re-establishing the political and economic dominance that the Ottoman Empire once enjoyed in the Sunni Arab world.
He even insists on naming the proposed third bridge across the Bosphorus after the 16th century Ottoman ruler, Yavuz Sultan Selim, who is notorious for massacring tens of thousands of Turkey’s Alevi religious minority. Around a quarter of Turkey’s population are Alevis, and they have not forgotten. Once Erdogan could play public opinion like a violin; now he is arrogant and tone-deaf.
So where does this end up? Not with the overthrow of Turkey’s elected government, and probably not in a military coup either. Most likely there will be apologies, and some government concessions, and the turbulence will subside. Erdogan will not even be removed as AK party leader right away, though some of his senior colleagues now clearly see him as a liability.
The protesters in Paris in May, 1968 didn’t get what they wanted right away either. Indeed, like the protesters in Gezi Park today, they weren’t even sure exactly what they wanted. But 11 months later Charles De Gaulle resigned, and France has never since had to cope with the problem of a Strong Man in power.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 7 and 12. (“Erdogan…wrong”; “It’s been…wrong”; and “He even…deaf”)
24 March 2013
Kurds and Turks: End of the War?
By Gwynne Dyer
“We are at a point today when the guns will fall silent and ideas will speak,” declared Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the Kurdish insurgency in Turkey, on 21 March. “Turks and Kurds fought together (in the First World War), and launched the Turkish parliament together in 1922. The basis of the new struggle consists of ideas, ideology and democratic politics.” And with that, he declared a cease-fire.
Ocalan has declared cease-fires before, but the Turkish government made no substantial concessions on Kurdish rights so the fighting resumed. Nor is “democratic politics” a phrase you would readily link to Abdullah Ocalan, who tolerates no dissent in the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the organisation he created thirty years ago to fight for independence from Turkey. But this time really may be different.
After three decades of low-level guerilla war in southeastern Turkey (about a thousand deaths a year), both sides have concluded that they cannot win: the Kurds cannot win their independence, and Turkey cannot crush the armed Kurdish resistance to its repressive rule. So Ocalan has stopped demanding independence and now talks about local self-government, Kurdish language rights, and an end to repression.
The other thing that’s different this time is that Ocalan has actually been talking to Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyib Erdogan, since last October. Not face-to-face, of course, but Ocalan has been held prisoner on Imrali island, about two hours south of Istanbul, ever since Turkish agents captured him in Kenya in 1999, so it has been easy for Erdogan’s intelligence chief, Hakan Fidan, to go back and forth between the two men.
There is every reason to believe, therefore, that Ocalan’s cease-fire declaration, though apparently unilateral, was really coordinated between the two leaders. In which case the next steps that Ocalan promised – the release of prisoners by both sides and the withdrawal of the 3,000 PKK fighters in southeastern Turkey into the adjacent parts of northern Iraq – were presumably agreed in advance too.
This is not a process that will eventually lead to the emergence of an independent Kurdish state. That goal, promised to the Kurds by the victors at the end of the First World War, has been the dream of four generations of Kurds, but it is no closer than ever.
To bring all 30 million Kurds into a single, independent state would mean redrawing the borders of four major nations – Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria – and that is not going to happen. But Kurds already have full self-government (including a powerful army) in northern Iraq, and the Syrian Kurds have effectively thrown off Damascus’s rule in the east of that country, so a lesser Kurdish dream now seems almost within the realm of the possible.
That would be a large area, still divided by national borders but with free movement across them, where the Kurds of the whole region could live, work and teach their children in their own language. More than half that area would be in southeastern Turkey, so the deal that Ocalan and Erdogan may make, if things work out, is vital to this project.
There was never any real chance that a Kurdish state could be carved out of Turkey: the population in the southeast includes a large minority of Turks, and there are now millions of Kurds living in western Turkey (including an estimated three million in Istanbul). But Turkey is a democratic country, and full civil and language rights for Kurds would give them a very large say in how the Kurdish-majority parts of the country are run.
That is what is now on the table, and Ocalan seems content with it. Why would Prime Minister Erdogan (who quite recently said that he would have liked to see Ocalan executed) be interested in making the deal with the man?
Erdogan is currently trying to get a new constitution through parliament. He has two major aims: to prevent future military coups, and to remove the anti-religious elements in the document that have restricted any political expression of Islam since the founding of the republic ninety years ago. He also wants to strengthen the presidency, now a largely ceremonial office, since he plans to run for president next year.
Ocalan has no objections to any of that. All he wants in a new constitution is full equality for the Kurds and their language. Since the new constitution requires a two-thirds majority in parliament, and Erdogan will not have that majority without the support of the main Kurdish party, the Peace and Democracy Party, both men can only get what they want if the deal goes through.
Long-lasting marriages have been built on less promising foundations. This time, at long last, Turkey may finally get around to recognising the rights of the 20 percent of its people who speak Kurdish. If it does, a long war will end, Erdogan will gain enormous political credit – and a post-modern version of the traditional Kurdish dream will start to come to life.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“There was…man”)
23 September 2012
No More Coups in Turkey
By Gwynne Dyer
In my trade you get used to it after a while, but the first time you wake up to find a military coup has happened overnight where you live is quite alarming. That was in Turkey back in 1971, when the army seized control of the country after months of political turmoil. It was not as bad as the 1960 coup, when the military authorities tried and hanged the prime minister, but it was bad enough.
There were two more coups in Turkey: in 1980, when half a million were arrested, tens of thousands were tortured, and fifty were executed, and 1997, a “post-modern” coup in which the army simply ordered the prime minister to resign. But there will be no more coups in Turkey: the army has finally been forced to bow to a democratically elected government.
On 21 September a Turkish court sentenced 330 people, almost all military officers, to prison for their involvement in a coup plot in 2003. They included the former heads of the army, navy and air force, who received sentences of twenty years each, and six other generals. Thirty-four other officers were acquitted.
Five years ago, nobody in Turkey could have imagined such a thing. The military were above the law, with the sacred mission (at least in their own minds) of defending the secular state from being undermined by people who mixed religion with politics. Making coups against governments that trespassed on that forbidden ground was just part of their job.
This was the duty that the 330 officers thought they were performing in 2003, according to the indictments against them. The Justice and Development Party (AKP), a moderate Islamic party espousing conservative social values, had come to power after the 2002 election: the voters had got it wrong again, and their mistake had to be corrected.
With public opinion abroad and at home increasingly hostile to military coups, a better pretext was needed than in the old days. So the plot, “Operation Sledgehammer”, involved bomb attacks on two major mosques in Istanbul, a Turkish fighter shot down by the Greeks, and an attack on a military museum by Islamic militants. The real attackers, in every case heavily disguised, would actually be the military themselves.
The accused 330 claimed that “Operation Sledgehammer” was all just a scenario for a military exercise, and the documents supporting the accusations (probably leaked by junior officers opposed to a coup) have never been properly attributed. But given the army’s track record of four coups in fifty years and its deeply rooted hostility to Islamic parties, the charges were entirely plausible, and in the end the court believed them.
The army has no choice but to accept the court’s judgement. The AK party has been re-elected twice with increasing majorities, the party’s pious leaders have not tried to shove their values down everybody else’s throats, and the economy has flourished.
A new constitution, ratified in a referendum in 2010, has finally made elected civilian governments superior to the army. It even removed the legal immunity that those who carried out the bloody 1980 coup wrote into the previous constitution to protect themselves. As a result, the leaders of that coup, retired generals Kenan Evren and Tahsin Sahinkaya, have also been brought to trial. And about time, too.
Even now, many secular-minded people in Turkey do not trust the motives of an Islamic party in government. They still think that the army is there to protect them from the dark oppression of the religious fanatics, and that any attempt to curb its power is a conspiracy against the whole principle of the secular, neutral state.
But the Turkish secular state has never been neutral. From the time when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and his companions, all military officers, rescued Turkey from the wreckage of the Ottoman empire after the First World War, the state was at war with religion.
Ataturk began by abolishing the religious schools, the Sultanate, and the Caliphate (religious authority over all Muslims) that Ottoman sultans had traditionally claimed. He banned forms of headgear, like the fez and the turban, that had religious connotations. He replaced Islamic law with Western legal codes, and declared the equal status of women and men (including votes for women).
It was understandable, because Ataturk had always argued that Turkey must Westernise its institutions and write off the non-Turkish parts of the empire if it wanted to survive in a world dominated by industrialised Western empires. But that was 75 years ago. Today’s Turkey is modern, powerful, and prosperous, and there is no external threat.
It’s high time for the Turkish army to stop waging a cold war against the part of the population who are still devoutly religious. They are entitled to the full rights of citizenship too, although they are not entitled to force their beliefs and values on everybody else.
That was the significance of AK’s victories in the past three elections, and of the trials that have finally brought the army under control. The head of the Turkish armed forces and all three service chiefs resigned in July in protest against the trials of military personnel, but President Abdullah Gul promptly appointed a new head of the armed forces – who tamely accepted the post. It’s over.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6, 8 and 9. (“With…themselves”; and “The army…too”)