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No More, Mr. Tough Guy

4 minute read
Stephen Kinzer

Kasimpasa, the hardscrabble Istanbul neighborhood where Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan grew up, is known for producing men who have a prickly sense of honor, are easily offended and like a fight. Erdogan brought that assertive, take-no-prisoners style into politics, and it has helped him keep his friends in line and his critics cowed. No longer: the tens of thousands of Turks who have poured onto the streets in recent days are telling their Prime Minister they are tired of the Kasimpasa leadership style.

Many Turks hoped they had left that style behind when, more than a decade ago, they finally managed to consolidate democracy and curb the power of autocratic generals who had long ruled their country from behind the scenes. The leader who brought them to this promised land was Erdogan. But more recently, buoyed by his success at the polls and by the utter lack of coherent political opposition, Erdogan has reverted back to type, acquiring the image of a headstrong, arrogant bully. He seems perpetually angry, eager to threaten his critics but rarely ready to hear them. He does not wear a uniform, but in his apparent belief that he can take Turkey wherever he wishes, he recalls the harsh, dour generals.

(PHOTOS: Protests in Istanbul After Police Crackdown on Activists)

Remarkable transformations have reshaped Turkey over the past two decades. The long-troubled economy is booming, and Turkey has a dramatically increased role in world politics. But perhaps the most radical transformation of all is the fact that Turks no longer accept the arrogance of power.

The protests came so unexpectedly that they have pollsters scrambling to conduct new surveys. While it seems likely that Erdogan’s support among the rural and Islamist base that propelled him to power will remain strong, his overall numbers will almost inevitably dip, damaging his image as a leader with broad popular support.

The protesters now arrayed against him come from a range of ethnic, economic and political backgrounds. All share the fear that their elected government is slipping back into the authoritarian mold that defined Turkey for most of its national life.

(VIDEO: Erdo-gone? After Taksim, Turkish Leader’s Political Future May Hang in the Balance)

The protests were sparked by a plan to rip up a grove of trees in Istanbul’s main square, to be replaced by a shopping mall and a mosque. The plan is abominable but would not in itself have set off such a strong reaction. Nor would parliament’s recent decision to restrict evening sales of alcohol; nor even the announcement that the planned third bridge over the Bosporus will be named for Yavuz Sultan Selim, who is blamed for massacring members of the Alevi sect in the 16th century and is considered a monster by many Alevis, who make up about 15% of Turkey’s population.

These decisions, small in themselves, add to dozens of others. Every month brings what seems to be a tightening of political space. Journalists criticize the government at their peril. Hundreds of alleged plotters are in jail.

Worst of all, in the eyes of many Turks, is the prospect that Erdogan is building a lifetime power base. He is maneuvering to change the constitution to greatly strengthen the office of President, for which he intends to run. He has gone so far as to suggest that he wants to be in power when Turkey celebrates its 100th birthday, in 2023.

(MORE: In Istanbul, a New Turkish Protest Movement Is Born)

When protesters took to the streets in Syria in 2011, Erdogan called on President Bashar Assad to seek compromise with “peaceful crowds.” How different he sounds now that he faces such crowds himself! He has called them “extremist elements,” suggested that they are in league with foreign powers, ordered police to attack them with tear gas and warned that he is determined to “settle accounts with them.”

Then he added an observation that every tyrant would endorse. “There’s this menace called Twitter,” he said, alluding to the fact that many protesters were using social media to organize rallies. “It’s all lies. This thing called social media is actually the chief source of trouble for societies today.”

Erdogan is an elected leader whose achievements are indisputable. But his Kasimpasa style is putting his legacy at risk. He should heed his own Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, who warned that the protests would “damage the reputation of our country, which is admired both in the region and the world.” Tellingly, Davutoglu made his comment on Twitter.

Kinzer is the author of Crescent and Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds

PHOTOS: Turmoil in Istanbul: Guy Martin at Turkey’s Gezi Park Protests

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