11 June 2013

What Is Next For Occupy Istanbul?

I don't think anyone really knows the answer to that question.

My Turkish friends are convinced that Erdogan will soon order the sweep of the Square and the Park and he will do so through violent means. And if he doesn't do that, they think that his bearded Islamist supporters will take matters into their own hands and do it themselves.

They also tell me that I am being too optimistic about the liberal inclinations of a new bourgeois class.

Fair enough. Maybe the civility and pluralist tolerance of the demonstrators will be met with bloodshed in the near future. And maybe the birth pangs of civil society will be more violent than I envisage.

Still, I remain optimistic as I am not persuaded that the government would be stupid enough to act violently. For one thing, they realize that that every time Erdogan escalated his rhetoric, the stock market took a nose dive. And every time he sounded somewhat conciliatory, the markets rose immediately. He may be a hot head but ultimately economy matters more than anything else. And business classes are unlikely to let him dig himself into a deeper whole.

Today around noon, police moved in to push the demonstrators out of the Square and back into the Park. There were clashes with the police and some reports of violence (the protesters maintained that the people who hurled Molotov cocktails and stones to the police were not part of their group). But once they were in the Park, the police withdrew and so far has kept its distance.

If I were to speculate about what the government and Erdogan might do in the short run, I would suggest three courses of actions to be implemented simultaneously:

First of all, the government might have a more flexible approach starting from tomorrow. Erdogan has already agreed to meet with the representatives of Occupy Gezi. He and his advisers would make an effort to separate the environmental issue from the general anti-Erdogan sentiment. After that meeting, Erdogan might actually propose to create a much larger green space that encompasses the Gezi Park. This would be the kind of grandiose gesture that he likes. In his mind, accepting their proposal would be sign of weakness but turning their modest vision into something larger would make him look like he is in charge. As W used to say, that would show that he is the Decider.

It would also give the impression that he is willing to listen to people and occasionally change his positions.  This would go a long way towards reducing public anger about his arrogant and stubborn stance. And if the protesters do not accept his offer, he can denounce them as hypocrites who are not interested in green spaces and trees.

Such a move would have no downside for him and no real upside for the protesters. Because of that I see that as a strong possibility.

Secondly, he might issue a challenge to the protesters to put their energy into drafting the new constitution. There is a process in place and it has been stalled by the opposition parties dragging their feet about Kurdish rights and freedoms. If you are so keen on liberal democracy, work with us towards a better future, he might say. Once again, that would make Erdogan look less like an autocratic Prime Minister and more of a populist politician encouraging participation.

This one is less likely than the first course of action, as Erdogan might see this as giving to much credit to these young people. But I suspect someone from the Gulen camp might actually suggest this.

Thirdly, he would continue to use harsh rhetoric in order to get his base worked up. His would suggest to them that this is not an anti-Erdogan movement and they actually target the conservative Islamist constituency of the AKP. He might insinuate that what these people want is to go back to the dark days of military backed secularism where Islamists were prosecuted relentlessly.

This one will almost certainly be implemented.

In short, my guess is that he will attempt to separate the environmental from the political and he will try to trick them to choose between equally inconsequential alternatives. He will look magnanimous in one setting and he will continue his polarizing discourse when he addresses his power base.

We'll see.

One final word:

My optimism stems not only from the vigilance of business classes who do not want to see the economy collapse but also from recent developments in Syria.

Unless Erdogan turns his focus back on that conflict, Assad might be able to strengthen his hand before Geneva talks next months. And this is something the US and the regional Sunni coalition do not want to see.

I am sure the US must be pushing him hard to relent on "that insignificant green space."

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