Arab Spring, Turkish Style

I grabbed this screencap from Drudge yesterday, not quite knowing what to do with it at first.


The story, if you didn’t catch it over the weekend, goes like this:

After two days of violent street battles, Turkish anti-government protesters today scored a symbolic victory against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, by forcing police to retreat in hail of stones and debris from Taksim Square in Istanbul.

What began as a small sit-in protest over the destruction of an adjacent tree-lined park to make way for a mall has been turned by repeated police attacks and tear gas strikes into a much broader protest against Mr. Erdogan’s rule and perceived Islamization of Turkish society by his party…

In a speech today, Erdogan was defiant. “Taksim Square can’t be a place where extremists are running wild,” he said, insisting that the park redevelopment would go forward and acknowledging police may have used excessive force – “some mistakes, extremism in police response.”

Erdogan has threatened to bring out “a million” of his own supporters to counter the 100,000 protesting him, but so far that threat’s been an empty one.

Turkey is an interesting case, going back to its founding as a modern(ish) republic by Kemal Ataturk after the Ottoman collapse in 1922. Ataturk’s problem was a tough one: He knew Turkey needed to modernize, but he knew the Turkish people weren’t fully prepared for modernity. His solution was a secular democracy, guarded by the Army. The Army was the most modern, the most Kemalist institution in the country. Its job, if civilian leaders became too corrupt or too Islamist, was to depose the civilian government, clean things up, then restore civilian rule.

Messy? Yes. Imperfect? Certainly. But it also mostly worked.

It’s around this time in Erdogan’s increasingly corrupt and increasingly Islamist rule that the Army would step in. But that’s not happening because Erdogan wisely stuffed the Army’s leadership with men much like himself. He knew the end of the game he was playing, and schemed accordingly to avoid it.

But in the 90 years since the establishment of the Kemalist republic, the Turkish people have modernized. They tend to be more relaxed, more secular, and more Western in their outlook than the people of Syria or Egypt or Libya. It was probably a foregone conclusion that Egypt’s revolt would eventually be co-opted by Islamists, given the miserable state of Egyptian education. A country like Egypt where something like 90% of young girls are forced to endure clitorectomies is simply too backwards for modernity. But that’s not the case in Turkey.

In any case, I don’t expect Turkey’s protests to result in Erdogan’s fall. He hasn’t pushed his people that far, and the civil war in neighboring Syria is probably serious enough to keep them desiring stability at home.

But if the situation in Turkey does escalate, it would be the first time we’ve seen a more-secular Islamic people rise up against their more-Islamist government since Iran four years ago. And how that would play out is anyone’s guess, but this is Erdogan’s Army now — not Ataturk’s.