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The Honeymoon is Over

Viewpoints, July 2016
Prof. Dror Zeevi

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Despite the public outcry that led, three years ago, to the biggest demonstrations Turkey has ever known, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced recently that he will pull down the famous Gezi Park at the center of Istanbul in order to build a shopping mall and a replica of the old Ottoman barracks destroyed over a century ago. The wave of demonstrations and civil unrest, which battered Turkey in the summer of 2013, came in response to Erdogan’s development plans for Gezi Park.

Erdogan also pledged to turn the neighboring Ataturk Cultural Center into a giant opera house, and to build a “Mosque of the Sultans” in nearby Taksim Square.

Demonstrators in Taksim Square, 15 June 2013. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Demonstrators in Taksim Square, 15 June 2013. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

When opposition parties protested the planned destruction of the park’s trees, government Internet trolls began to pop up on Twitter and Facebook, warning that this time there will be no clemency. Any opposition will be met by much more than water jets and tear gas, the messages said, this time the police will come to maim and kill. In addition to 11 deaths and over 8,000 injuries, more than 3,000 arrests were made by police in suppressing the 2013 rioting.

Turkey’s government these days is Erdogan. There is simply nothing else, and the plan for Gezi Park is Erdogan in a nutshell – quarrelsome, nostalgic for the Ottoman era, and a staunch Islamist sworn to bring down the secular Kemalist republic.

This, of course, is where his conceptions of civilization, state, and society, collide with those of the European Union.

Europe and Turkey need each other. For Europe, Turkey is the last buffer against Middle Eastern, central Asian and African refugees. It is also the most convenient place from which to launch attacks against the deadly ISIS organization and is thus an important member of NATO.

“Erdogan’s conceptions of civilization, state, and society, collide with those of the European Union”

Finally, it is a big market with a young population and serious potential for growth. Until a few years ago many in Europe were willing to entertain the idea of Turkey as member of the European Union if it complies with some stringent conditions. Not anymore.

Bureaucrats may still be going through the motions, opening and closing accession chapters, but no European leader seriously considers the idea.

Europe was a model revered and emulated by the old Turkish elite who was willing to go to great lengths to get into the EU, but this elite is no longer in power.

For Erdogan, its successor, Europe is interesting mainly because it is a club that plays in the political premier league and is a potential source for funding. However, the leader’s eyes are now focused on the Far East, on Africa, and mainly on the Islamic world, with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States as his main financial lifeline.

In fact, Europe is more a liability than an asset. Democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, checks and balances, separation of powers, cultural autonomy for ethnic minorities, LGBTQ rights – Erdogan and his AKP party cronies no longer even bother to pretend that they share any of these ideals touted by Europe.

“There is already a leader in this country and he is engaging in politics,” his chief adviser announced recently. “There is no need for anyone else to engage in politics. He is engaging in politics both at home and abroad. Our duty is to support the leader in this country.”

As a package deal requiring transparency and accountability on all levels, far-reaching liberties for citizens, and a semblance of democratic process, membership in the European Union will be detrimental to Erdogan’s rule, and he knows it.

The current situation – a country in perpetual accession mode, benefitting from some advantages of the EU, while never really moving forward – is infinitely better.

Dror Zeevi is Professor of Middle East Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem specializing in Ottoman and Turkish Studies, and a member of the Forum for Regional Thinking.