It took Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan 16 days to do what he should have done within 48 hours of the eruption of the Gezi Park resistance that has cast shadows on Turkey’s growing profile in the international arena and has become the worst crisis of his ten-year rule.
He could have done what he did on June 12 earlier, upon his return from a four-day North African trip on the 10th day of the resistance. Instead of gathering thousands of people at the Istanbul airport in the early hours of June 7 to deliver a “war speech,” if he had met the 11 representatives of the resistance, the situation could have been much different.
Delayed and half-baked measures do not become solutions. That is the takeaway of the five-hour meeting in Ankara that can best be categorized as too little, too late. Huseyin Celik, a Justice and Development Party (AKP) notable, former minister and current party spokesperson who attended the meeting with Prime Minister Erdogan and ministers of interior, culture and urbanization, declared that a referendum might be called in Istanbul to determine the fate of Gezi Park. He added also that it was time to evacuate the park. By that time, reports were already circulating that Erdogan had instructed the minister of interior to “finish this matter within 24 hours.”
It is not realistic to expect the Gezi Park protesters and their representatives to be satisfied with the “possibility of a referendum.” The Taksim Platform, consisting of some 80 leading non-governmental organizations orchestrating the resistance, announced it would not agree to a referendum and that it had no intention of evacuating the park.
With the clearing of adjacent Taksim Square on June 11 in a dramatic police operation covered live during a four-hour transmission by CNN, there is now the serious possibility that the “Gezi Park Resistance” — or what some Western observers are calling the Turkish Tahrir — will in the end become a Turkish Tiananmen.
Whatever happens, and however the Taksim–Gezi Park resistance concludes, the difficult reality is that these actions have cost Turkey, and Erdogan in particular, plenty and will continue to do so unless something is done.
First, one should remember that the action that started at Gezi Park as an environmentalist protest quickly jumped the boundaries of the park when protesters were confronted with incredibly crude and rough police intervention and disproportionate use of pepper gas. It quickly spread to the capital, Ankara; the third largest city, Izmir; the fourth largest city, Adana, in the south; and nearly 70 other cities.
The common denominator within the movement that spread far and wide was the reaction by a large segment of society who perceived Erdogan’s actions as ever-expanding arbitrary, arrogant and authoritarian one-man rule. Erdogan, instead to adopting an approach to counter these perceptions, such as by displaying a flexible and compassionate attitude, opted for the complete opposite. He put the state, the ruling party he leads and the 50% of the people who voted for him in the June 2011 elections on a war footing to combat an alleged plot managed from abroad targeting his democratic rule. In short, he chose to secure his rule with a policy that would polarize the society and thus eliminate the threat he thought he was facing before it mushroomed.
At this moment in Turkey, there is no threat of an alternative to the ruling party nor is there a wing within the AKP that could challenge Erdogan. President Abdullah Gul, seen by many as a political brake on Erdogan, even an alternative to him, does not appear to be following a course that would fulfill such an expectation. Under these circumstances, the most likely outcome is for Erdogan to gain control of the Gezi Park resistance, extinguish the flames and once again emerge as victor from another political struggle. One must be beware, however. This does not eliminate the possibility that in the medium and long terms, Erdogan, and in the short term, Turkey, will be the losers.
The longer Erdogan and his supporters attribute what is going on to an international conspiracy, Turkey’s well-known xenophobic trends become more prevalent. There can be no disease more dangerous than xenophobia to a country that wants to be an influential player in the global arena.
It is possible to detect from interviews of two famous historians on the website T24 how the outside world’s perceptions of Erdogan are undergoing a metamorphosis. The influence of T24, the most outstanding organ of Turkey's internet media, grows as the country's broadcast media loses credibility. Since Hasan Cemal, one of Turkey's most senior journalists, joined T24, it has become the most credible platform for freedom of expression. Cemal is believed to have lost his previous job because of Erdogan’s displeasure with him. The 2006 Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk chose to voice his views on the Gezi Park uprising via T24.
The website also asked renowned Oxford professor Avi Shlaim and Exeter University’s Ilan Pappe their views on the “Gezi Park resistance, police brutality, Erdogan’s attitude and possible repercussions of the events in the Arab world, led by Palestine.” Shlaim, one of the most pro-Palestinian of Israel’s so-called revisionist historians responded to questions as follows:
"In the aftermath of the 2008–2009 Gaza war, Tayyip Erdogan gained massive popularity not only in Palestine but in the entire Arab world with his clear-cut, firm attitude toward Israel and by voicing the demands of the Palestinians for freedom, democracy and justice. But today, his merciless suppression of the peaceful demonstrations in his own country have created deep doubts about his sincerity and justifies the accusations of double standards directed at him. His attitude will stain Erdogan’s name not only in the Arab world, but in the entire world. Police attacks are also casting shadows on Turkey’s image. The Arab Spring had offered Turkey an opportunity to take over leadership in the Middle East."
Shlaim continued, “Turkey was seen as proof that Islam was not incompatible with democracy. This had prepared the ground for Turkey to show itself as a model for all Arab countries. At the moment, Erdogan is no different from former authoritarian Arab dictators. Regional and worldwide disappointment over his performance is now unavoidable.”
The comments by Ilan Pappe, from the same school of history, were similar. The views of the two historians were published on T24 on June 10.
It was extremely offensive to hear CNN International speak of Erdogan in such terms as “Europe has a new Hitler.” The same night, Erdogan’s senior adviser for public diplomacy, Ibrahim Kalin, surely suffered when CNN’s famous name, Christiane Amanpour, declared, “Show is over.” Until a month ago, Erdogan was a politician being mentioned as a possible candidate for a Nobel Peace Prize as a leader heading toward resolution of the Kurdish issue. Now he is being criticized in the harshest terms in the Western world, and his credibility in the Arab world has been badly shaken.
The more Turkey distances itself from democracy, the more it will lose its cachet as a regional power and as a model country for regional states experiencing the Arab Spring. The best thing Erdogan can do for himself and for his country is to admit defeat by the Gezi Park resistance with magnanimity and retreat, instead of further escalating tensions. Although his performance until now raises doubts about whether he can do that, if one bears in mind his political skills, it is not altogether impossible. If he opts to do so, he will then have an opportunity to hear a term he likes so much: Win-win.
Cengiz Candar is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. A journalist since 1976, he is the author of seven books in the Turkish language, mainly on Middle East issues, including the best-seller Mesopotamia Express: A Journey in History.