Observers of modern Turkey have long been fascinated by the rise of political Islam and uneasy about its ultimate trajectory under the leadership of Turkish prime minister Tayyip Erdogan. While the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been instrumental in democratizing the country and ushering in key market reforms, success has bred contempt for the opposition and delusions of grandeur, which has a distinct pedigree in Turkish history. The ghosts of Turkey’s Ottoman past are haunting the streets of Istanbul, as the ongoing protests demonstrate that Erdogan might finally be losing his grip on power.
In the annuls of Ottoman history, no figure is as divisive as Abdul Hamid II, the last great sultan of the Ottoman Empire. He is regarded as both the savior of the old Ottoman order and the quintessential modern authoritarian ruler, who deepened the legitimacy of the state by using Islam as a tool for generating popular support and hastened his own demise by tolerating no opposition. Only with the help of the army was the Sultan deposed in 1908, after he had established a vast system of spies to sabotage the opposition and virtually bankrupted the state through lavish spending to celebrate his own rule.
Many historians see the “politicization of Islam” under Abdul Hamid II as key to the rise of the militant secularism that took root under Atatürk, when he founded of the Republic in 1923. But the great Turkish general not only established a “modern” secular order with a strong army as its guardian, he also inherited a network of secret oppositional committees that had worked in the shadows during the reign of Abdul Hamid II. When the Cold War began, the United States supported Atatürk’s anti-communism and helped train the remnants of these underground organizations. Many believe they became the backbone of the “deep state,” a controversial and much discussed idea in Turkish politics, in which secret groups within the state bureaucracy itself kept both the army and the political parties in check during the Cold War.
Only with the rise of the Islamicist party, the AKP, in 2001 and the election of Erdogan in 2003 has Turkey seemed to free itself from the shackles of the “deep state.” He instituted market reforms and curtailed the role of the army, which had often intervened in the Turkish political process throughout the twentieth century. Many pro-business secularists have supported the AKP for its faith in the free market, its fight against corruption, liberalizing trade, and for striving for good relations with all of Turkey’s neighbors.
But beating back the deep state and putting economic progress above all else has come at a cost: creeping illiberalism and a growing sense of infallibility. Under Erdogan the AKP has packed the courts with amenable judges, imprisoned dozens of journalists, and banned the sale of alcohol after 10 p.m. to appease religious conservatives. Like Abdul Hamid II before him, Erdogan melds Islam with personal vanity projects, such as the massive-public works projects in Istanbul that have been undertaken without consulting locals and have helped spark the protest movement that has spread to cities throughout Turkey, from Edirne to Trabzon.
But we should also be cautious of writing off the AKP’s monumental achievements and accusing Erdogan of exercising dictatorial power. The party won a great victory in the national elections of 2011, a record 49 percent—more than any other party in the country’s history—and polling done after the protests started show that roughly half the population still supports Erdogan and the AKP. While the crackdown has been aggressive and disproportionate, it has, so far, failed to alienate the AKP’s core supporters.
Nevertheless, Erdogan has done irrevocable damage to his reputation and international image, coming on the heels of a series of missteps that are slowly uniting a hitherto fragmented opposition. His efforts to solve the Kurdish issue angered many Turkish nationalists after he said he aimed to “trample on nationalism” in his pursuit of peace; many were angered by the notion that Erdogan would undermine the Turkish state by granting too much autonomy to Kurdish separatists in the East. The speech sparked a large protest, the “cumhuriyet yürüyüşleri” (republican protest), by hundreds of thousands of secularist nationalists, who called for the army to intervene. For years, Erdogan had cultivated a friendly relationship with Bashir Al-Assad in Syria, only to be rebuffed and ignored as the Syrian uprising began. Erodgan’s hardline stance against Assad was motivated in part by personal animus rather than realpolitik. It has not only created tensions at home, as hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees have flooded into Turkey with no end in sight, but given Turkey little political leverage and only angered regional powers such as Russia and Iran. Since the protests erupted, Erdogan’s bizarre claim that the international media was engaged in a conspiracy, along with his tirades against high interest rates, have spooked international investors—not a good sign for an economy with a growing current account deficit and an acute dependence of foreign investment.
A mild-mannered academic friend of mine from Istanbul, Kahraman Sakul, summed up the situation recently, saying: “For the first time in his political career, Erdogan has faced a united opposition. The Turkish nationalists, the secularists, the left, the anti-capitalist Muslims. They are all united against him.” The media blackout in the early days appears to have furthered escalated tensions. “I simply cannot find the appropriate words to explain how we feel ... we felt like we were betrayed and censured. These guys who own the TV channels, daily papers, banks, and energy corporations—we had no idea they were so dependent on this government’s goodwill. It’s just making people angrier.”
But will Erdogan be deposed by the army like Abdul Hamid II was back in the good old days of the Ottoman Empire? Probably not. But his personal power is definitely waning. My Turkish friend again: “Erdogan was the lesser of two evils, an alternative to the good old limited democracy controlled by the army. But now, there’s something to counter his populism. They’re not in favor of the military, they’re not saying the government is illegitimate. It’s about the person. People work until 5 p.m. and then go protest him. They demand an apology. It’s about self-respect.”
The AKP will continue to be the dominant force in Turkish politics for the foreseeable future, but there is a growing secular opposition in the middle class that is coalescing in the cities and using social media to strengthen their ties. A Turkish revolution will be neither televised nor Tweeted, but the opposition will not doubt cohere even further the longer Erdogan stays in power. Turkish democracy is far from over, nor is it really endangered; it is merely at a turning point.