Norman Stone

What’s eating Turkey

Erdogan is good at making enemies – but he has had help from Syria

What’s eating Turkey
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‘Islam, politics, economics — choose two’ is a great line, said by one of my Turkish students, and it would make a good exam question. Tayyip (the name means ‘very clean’ in Arabic — cf. ritual washing) Erdogan (meaning ‘strong hawk’, a Turkish nationalist reference) came to power in 2002 with a very good press. This was to be what the world wanted — a Muslim version of German or Italian Christian Democracy — and for years he gave it that. The rival parties destroyed themselves in silly bickering and corruption, and Erdogan’s party was very successful, with reforms in health and housing that improved the lives of ordinary Turks no end. The party’s representatives were often approachable and took a joke; Zaman, the intellectual Islamic newspaper, is well edited and has columnists with varied opinions. The currency was stabilised — no more of these million notes that made foreigners titter and Turks cringe — and exports boomed. Foreign money got interested, and state property was sold off to, on the whole, general satisfaction (the old Turkey was quite socialist and even now has a five-year plan, though no one notices it). All, in other words, not unlike Christian Democrat Italy in the days when it just went on and on, to the rage of communists, who took a third of the Italian vote but who had no prospect of power beyond the localities.

This is where Erdogan departs from the Italian stage. Instead of recognising differences, and allowing dissenters to support who they choose, an Islamic absolutism has taken hold. The details are grotesque.

There are three first-rate international universities in Turkey, and they have faculty clubs where wine is drunk. A decree came out that alcohol must not be sold in universities. The faculty club is now a nuclear winter. You have to apologise to foreigners, then take them by taxi to a hotel; the academic staff have lost a friendly place and the waiters are out of a job. Other nonsensical restrictions were rushed through parliament in a vote taken at 7 a.m. with half of the government’s own supporters absent: a little cloud to be placed over wine glasses on TV and film; warnings à la cigarette packets placed on bottles of wine (at the making of which the Turks have become proficient); administrative chicanery to stop drinking even in places popular with tourists. Prime Minister Erdogan defended it all with reference to restrictions elsewhere, but everyone knows that Turkey does not have a Finnish (or English) drink problem to justify such things. Drink-driving accounts for about 1 per cent of traffic accidents, far less than speeding, let alone the fasting month of Ramadan, when drivers with low blood-sugar swerve around the road.

But the government has dug its heels in, and the silly puritanism goes on and on: injunctions in the Tube stations to ‘behave morally’, and internet censorship (if I search for Daily Mail in my internet café the word ‘forbidden’ comes up, because someone mistakes ‘Mail’ for ‘male’). There are plans for a gigantic concrete mosque on the last remaining green hill on the Asiatic side of the Bosphorus. It will be a universally visible eyesore, probably intended as Erdogan’s monument, rivalling the Ankara one to Turkey’s founder, Kemal Atatürk. And yet another nice earner for the construction companies who form this government’s brigade of guards.

It was the proposal to put a shopping mall — Istanbul’s 93rd — over that small central park that ignited the present protests. The government overreacted absurdly, showering tear gas on to side streets and beating up harmless do-gooders. But all this concrete reflects something more: the Arab presence. Arabs have replaced Israelis in the tourist market, partly because Mr Erdogan has been very popular for adopting the Palestinian cause.

Arab money is behind the shopping malls and is underpinning the Turkish current-account deficit. The Saudis and Qatar seem to be mainly involved, and now they buy up land in Yalova, over the water from Istanbul, as well. This has delighted the foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, who takes a romantic view of the Ottoman empire, and the linking of Albania to Georgia and Syria, and the thinking is not without logic and merit, but the Turkish hand has been overplayed.

Erdogan has abandoned traditional co-operation with Israel, and enjoyed being lionised by Arabs. But that policy has come badly unstuck over Syria. The Assad government has not fallen, and its spokesman has been rubbing his hands at Erdogan’s discomfort: he recently recommended Erdogan take up exile in Doha, ‘with Ali Baba and the 40 shopping malls’. Meanwhile, Turkey has some 400,000 Syrian refugees, who are far from popular — loathed, in many places.

Interviewed last Saturday, Erdogan obviously had learned nothing from his discomfiture. He began to lecture again (social media is a terrible evil, anyone who has a beer is an alcoholic etc) and said that the troubles were the work of foreign agents. He blames the print media too and has tried to control it by imprisoning journalists — 800 of them — on trumped-up charges, and by threatening their owners with punitive taxes (a tactic also tried on the most intrepid of the foreign journalists, Boris Kalnoky of Die Welt).

To Kalnoky we owe a curious fact. The present crisis in Turkey really began a month ago, when the main square of a town called Reyhanli, on the Syrian border, was badly bombed — 50 killed. No one took responsibility. The Turkish government at once blamed the Syrian one, and arrested some dozen people without obvious evidence. It then laid down a ban on reporting, and to this day what happened is not clear. It is not obviously in the Syrian government’s interest to provoke further trouble with Turkey; on the other hand, it is indeed in the rebels’ interest, since they are now losing. As it happens, a left-wing organisation called Redhack was able to read the Turkish police records, and found that Turkish intelligence knew in advance of the bomb plot and warned the local authorities, to no effect. Everyone assumes that the Erdogan government banned news reports because it wanted to conceal this. Its involvement in the Syrian civil war is very widely condemned — I have not met a single defender of it — and it has obviously gone off the tracks. What is very odd about the present demonstrations in central Istanbul is that the names of the 50 dead at Reyhanli were pinned to separate trees in the little park where the demonstrations started. Erdogan gets the blame for that bombing because of his failed Syria policy.

What next? Erdogan has eclipsed his own party, and the knives are out, no doubt discreetly encouraged by the Americans. He has lost the support of the newspaper Zaman, which cancelled its contract with the government news agency because of expense and inefficiency. The President, his one-time associate Abdullah Gül, is obviously uneasy; the hot Arab money is moving out. Erdogan must have thought until quite recently that everything was going his way. But it may be Assad who will have the last laugh.