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Erdogan stokes the sectarian fires 9 octobre 2013

Posted by Acturca in Middle East / Moyen Orient, Religion, Turkey / Turquie.
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International Herald Tribune (USA) Tuesday, October 8, 2013, p. 12

By Halil M. Karaveli *

Turkey was supposed to be the stable, Muslim-majority democracy on which the United States could rely as a strategic partner in the Middle East. The demonstrations that rocked Turkey in June came as a surprise to many in the West, and the brutal repression of those protests shocked those who thought of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a democratic reformer. With international media attention no longer focused on the streets of Istanbul, conventional wisdom holds that the crisis is over and order has been restored.

But this assessment is too sanguine. Erdogan is turning Turkey into a powder keg in an attempt to shore up his own political base. He is intentionally activating the longstanding fault lines separating religious and secular Turks – and most dangerously the divide between the country’s Sunni majority and its Alevi minority. If he continues to do so, Turkish democracy itself could become a casualty of his confrontational policies.

On Sept. 8, the police and Alevis clashed for a full day in an Ankara neighborhood. Alevis, a heterodox Muslim minority who make up between 15 and 20 percent of the Turkish population, have long suffered oppression and discrimination. Their faith and places of worship are not officially recognized, and Alevi children are denied exemption from Sunni religious education.

Alevis were a significant presence in the June unrest, and the sectarian dimension of the protests has become more pronounced: All of those killed since the clashes began have been Alevis. Now, galvanized by Turkey’s pro-Sunni rebel policy in Syria and its pro-Muslim Brotherhood policy in Egypt, Alevis are in all-out revolt against Erdogan’s government.

But rather than attempt to quell these divisions, Erdogan is fueling the fire. Condemning the May 11 bombings in Reyhanli, a town near the Syrian border, he decried the deaths of « 52 Sunni citizens. » Then, on Sept. 30, Erdogan unveiled a so-called democratic reform package, which further alienated Alevis. Catering almost exclusively to the Sunni conservative constituency of his Justice and Development Party (A.K.P.), the proposed reforms ignored Alevi grievances. In response, Alevi representatives have vowed to intensify their struggle against the government.

Erdogan’s tactic of antagonizing secularists and Alevis is designed to rally the A.K.P. faithful. So far, this has proved effective; since the protests broke out, the party has risen in the polls. But in the long run, it is a risky strategy. Stoking sectarian tensions is dangerous at a time when Turkey is exposed to backlash against its involvement in Syria. Turkish support for Syria’s Sunni rebels, including jihadis, has made it a target of Shiite retaliation. Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, recently warned that Turkey may risk a fate similar to that of Pakistan, a country long plagued by sectarian violence.

Erdogan does not seem concerned about threats to the country’s social cohesion; instead, he is focused on threats to his own rule.

The prime minister has gone so far as to draw comparisons between the latest spate of protests and the conditions that preceded the Turkish republic’s first military coup, on May 27, 1960. At the time, worsening economic conditions triggered protests by university students and the police violently suppressed the demonstrations. In a recent speech, Erdogan declared: « Just as a hand is now trying to incite the youth to take to the streets, to cause unrest in the universities, the same things happened in the process that led up to May 27. »

By conjuring the ghost of the May 27 coup, a putsch that overthrew Erdogan’s hero, the conservative leader Adnan Menderes, the prime minister was effectively branding today’s protesters – Alevis and urban secularists – enemies of democracy. Also in Erdogan’s cross hairs is Turkey’s main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (C.H.P.), which he has accused of instigating the recent protests. It so happens that Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the C.H.P., is an Alevi.

Despite his conspiratorial tone, Erdogan’s 1960 analogy is actually quite accurate – just not in the way he intends.

Indeed, much like his hero Menderes did in the late 1950s, Erdogan is dividing the country into hostile camps. Before the 1960 coup, Menderes rallied his conservative base, jailed droves of journalists and tried to quash the opposition. Erdogan has shown no inclination to change the « antiterror » laws currently used to justify the imprisonment of journalists, has permitted the use of excessive force against peaceful demonstrators, and is exacerbating sectarian tensions at a time when Turkey can ill afford it.

Erdogan has enjoyed three consecutive electoral victories and no longer fears the military; he has installed an obedient army chief. Menderes had also won three elections and his chief of staff was loyal. But the 1960 coup came as a surprise precisely because it was not carried out by the generals whom the government controlled, but by lower-ranking officers. At the time, the only thing that frightened Menderes was the possible loss of American support.

During its 10 years in power, international support has helped the A.K.P defeat the military’s old guard by marginalizing generals hostile to the government. But Erdogan’s destructive policies could jeopardize that support.

The conditions for Turkey’s military coups were created by confrontational governments that responded to social discontent with oppression and violence. Erdogan has revived this authoritarian style of leadership. Unless he learns the right lessons from his country’s history, Erdogan’s conjuring of the 1960 coup could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

* Halil M. Karaveli is a senior fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and the Silk Road Studies Program.


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