Police brutality directed at protesters at Gezi Park has not only kindled a nationwide mobilisation that has rocked the Turkish state, it has also unnerved its US backers and revitalised opposition to the the ‘neoliberal Islamists’
The Turkish events could not have come at a more embarrassing time for Washington. Turkey has been playing the key logistical role in the Western and Gulf-state intervention in the Syrian crisis, acting as a rear base for the Free Syrian Army guerillas and as a conduit for smuggling arms paid for by Saudi and Qatari cash.
But popular opposition to Turkey’s involvement in the war is widespread and recent bombings at Reyhanli and arrests of armed Syrian insurgents within Turkey have deepened anger that the country is being dragged into a war on behalf of religious extremists as well as Western and Gulf interests.
With two protesters already dead and foreign news media and social media filled with images of bloodied demonstrators, the selective character of Western human rights hypocrisy is chillingly obvious.
But beyond that is the spectre of yet another US ally destabilised by mass protest.
The importance of Turkey to US strategy in the region can hardly be overstated. On a visit to Turkey only a few weeks ago, US Vice-President Joe Biden waxed lyrical over the country’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan: “I think he has done an absolutely marvellous job in an incredibly difficult neighbourhood, he gushed. “And I think that our security and our economic prosperity are completely tied to and with the progress that Turkey is making.”
Turkey has been a loyal ally of US war plans since Korea in 1950 and not much has changed. As Biden noted, “I can’t remember a time when world events so powerfully brought both of our countries together in North Africa, Syria, Afghanistan and many places in between.”
The US vice-president also frankly acknowledged the country’s importance to US transnationals, including fat military contracts for US firms such as GE, Amgen, 3M and Sikorsky Aircraft, which is finalising a $3.5 billion (£2.3bn) deal to supply Black Hawk helicopters to the Turkish aerospace industries.
US support for Turkey, Biden pronounced, is one of “naked self-interest.”
Yet Erdogan’s strategy has been more wide ranging than that of some docile US satellite. In the past two decades, Turkey has become an increasingly important regional power. The modern heir of the Ottoman empire, today’s Turkey has appeared economically robust and willing to flex its muscles, both diplomatic and military, beyond its borders.
The collapse of the Soviet Union saw the emergence of several new independent states in Central Asia with strong Turkic linguistic and cultural ties. Turkey has reached out to Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgzhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, not least because of their energy resources.
In June last year, Turkey and Azerbaijan agreed a US$7bn (£4.6bn) trans-Anatolian natural gas pipeline to carry natural gas across Turkey to Europe, bypassing Russia.
Erdogan’s strategy has been based on leveraging Turkey’s geographical location, bordering as it does the Balkans, the Mediterranean, the Middle East and Central Asia.
Erdogan’s twin-track approach is to simultaneously continue to engage with the West through Nato membership and entreaties to join the European Union, while increasingly looking south and east.
While Erdogan’s response to the murderous Israeli attack against the Gaza aid flotilla’s Turkish vessel Mavi Marmara in 2010 was largely rhetorical, it nonetheless raised his profile in the eyes of many in the Islamic world. He was accorded a spectacular hero’s welcome on his visit to Egypt in September 2011 after the fall of Hosni Mubarak and became almost a poster boy across the Arab countries as corrupt and ineffectual dictatorships began to topple.
But Erdogan was always an unlikely flag-bearer for democracy and clean government.
His Justice and Development Party has roots in a series of right-wing Islamic political formations that were frequently banned from the 1970s through to the 1990s by the country’s dictatorial authorities for breaching the secular constitution.
In the 1970s Erdogan was a student cadre of the right-wing National Salvation Party and at the time even penned a play entitled Maskomya, a Turkish acronym for Masons, communists and Jews, the stereotypical enemies of the far right.
Learning from the mistakes of his predecessors, Erdogan avoided head-on clashes with the Turkish army’s high command, preferring to gradually chip away at its authority. Three years ago it was estimated that 10 per cent of Turkey’s generals and admirals were either in jail or under investigation for plots against his government.
Erdogan has steadily undermined the country’s secular constitution and positioned his party as an Islamic version of Europe’s right-wing Christian Democrats – solid, moral and conservative.
But he has also occasionally courted the more radical Islamic groups, defending Hamas and meeting prominent figures in the Muslim Brotherhood from several Arab countries.
Erdogan’s AKP is largely funded by what the Turks call “yesil sermaye” or green money, a reference to the many Islamic business benefactors and entrepreneurs who back the AKP and the widely held suspicion that considerable sums come from the Gulf states.
Turkish President Abdullah Gul, who may be using Erdogan’s heavy handedness to strengthen his own position, worked for the Islamic Development Bank in Jeddah and is considered particularly close to the Saudi regime. As with Erdogan, Gul was a right-wing student activist in the ’70s.
Chief executive of the Saudi National Commercial Bank Abdul Kareem Abu Alnasr forecast that Saudi Arabia will invest US$600bn (£400bn) in Turkey’s agricultural and manufacturing sectors in the next 20 years. This promises to be a bonanza for the well connected.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Saudi religious foundations channeled millions of dollars into building mosques and religious schools, largely seen as a means of boosting the religious right. By the time of Erdogan’s first election in 2003, there were 32,000 public schools but more than 76,000 mosques in the country.
Turkish daily Milliyet reported that in the first 10 years of Erdogan’s premiership a further 17,000 new mosques had been built. The number of public schools remained the same.
Nor should his public piety be taken at face value because Erdogan is one of Turkey’s richest men.
According to former US ambassador to Turkey Eric Edelman, Erdogan has eight accounts in Swiss banks and “his explanations that his wealth comes from the wedding presents guests gave his son and that a Turkish businessman is paying the educational expenses of all four Erdogan children in the US purely altruistically are lame.”
Erdogan may yet see off these protests but his hopes of taking up the presidency in 2014, which could give him up to another decade of political power, may be fatally weakened.
Most positively the spontaneous protest movement has not only drawn together broad sections of the urban population they have also re-energised the country’s left. Media coverage has shown the red banners of the country’s often fractious socialist and communist movement figuring prominently alongside Turkish flags and portraits of the country’s founder Kemal Ataturk.
The Communist Party of Turkey (TKP) has attacked what it calls the “neoliberal Islamists” of the AKP and identified three strands Erdogan’s agenda.
By rolling back social welfare, market regulation and in promoting employment protection in the name of decentralisation it has strengthened the hand of business interests.
Its “neo-Ottoman” foreign policy seeks to expand political and economic influence into Turkey’s neighbours and another AKP aim, according to the TKP, was to deliver “the final blow against the secular characteristic of the country while also primarily undermining women rights and the rights of non-Sunni sectors of society, such as the Alevis.”
With some trade union federations now throwing some weight behind the courageous protests and signs of division within the government itself, it is just possible that there might be a new “Turkish model” in the making that will be truly worth emulating.