Rioting in Turkey has been as sudden and quick to spread as a forest fire. An ecological protest about the destruction of a park in Istanbul has grown into a mass movement in favor of democracy. It’s not yet the Turkish Spring. What’s happened is that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the country’s prime minister these past ten years is suffering from a bad bout of dictator’s mania.
Everywhere in Turkey are photographs of Ataturk, who after the First War built the Turkish republic out of the Ottoman ruins. He had no trouble boxing the ears of imams and having mosques pulled down. Erdogan is busy restoring the old order. His advisers talk about the neo-Ottoman empire. Democracy, he is on record saying, is like a streetcar, you ride until it reaches your stop and then you get off. Inventing a preposterous conspiracy worthy of Stalin, he purged the armed forces, the judiciary, the media including the universities, and put in his apparatchiks. More journalists and generals are in prison in Turkey than anywhere else in the world. Particularly disastrous is his foreign policy that has alienated Iran, Syria and Israel and convinced the European Union not to admit Turkey now or ever. Finally he is arranging for Turkey to go over to a presidential system of rule that would make him a Dear Leader in perpetual power.
His supporters are country people who want to trust their leader and haven’t the education or the means to ask if their trust in Erdogan is justified. He says he’s a good Muslim and knows what’s best, and that is good enough for them. Those now rioting see him destroying Ataturk’s legacy by playing to prejudice and they want none of it. Who could have thought that this wily man would respond in the Bashar Assad mode of not giving an inch, calling them terrorists and unleashing the police on them. It will be hard to paper over this division. It’s an object lesson in the arrogance of office. Much more of that must lead to the Turkish version of the political spring blasting its way through the Middle East.