In 2002 the ruling AK party was elected with widespread popular support from traditional and conservative Muslims who make up at least 60 percent of the nation. Rather than pushing immediately for an Islamic-style government, the AK party gradually extended civilian power over the secularized military, arrested hundreds of military leaders, journalists and academics accused of plotting against the government and started writing a new national constitution.
The opposition has largely been made up of widely disparate political parties, including the Turkish Communists, nationalists and secular Kemalists. A Muslim minority group called Alevis heavily supports the latter. These small parties have not been able to muster enough strength alone or together to stand against the AK party’s vision for a more religiously conservative, neo-Ottoman future. Feeling marginalized in the political process and angry at the recent legislation curtailing alcohol use in Turkey, many in the opposition aggressively took to the streets in downtown Istanbul, resulting in violent clashes with police, hundreds of injuries and localized destruction of property.
Unlike in Egypt where the Arab Spring pushed the Islamic Brotherhood into the seats of political power, in Turkey the uprisings are essentially an outburst of secular frustration about the gradual erosion of secularism in Turkey. The Arab Spring saw the collapse of many totalitarian leaders who ruled without the support of the people. The Turkish uprisings will likely bear little fruit since the AK party rules with the support of the majority. If Assad’s Alawite government falls in Syria the entire Mediterranean coast from Turkey to Morocco will once again come under an empowered Sunni majority with one exception, Israel, and one question mark, Lebanon. It will resemble the old Ottoman Empire, to the delight of many Turkish people.
Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan remarked to the recent protestors, “If you bring out 100,000, I can bring out 1 million people from our party.”
And that’s an understatement. When the last embers of bonfires in the Istanbul city center finally burn out and the last strokes of black graffiti get cleaned up by municipal workers, the soft secular and hard Communist protestors will see that they do not have the support of the wider public. Many feel proud the AK party has led the country in the past 10 years into unprecedented annual economic growth of 7 percent, built 10,000 new mosques, thrust Turkey into regional leadership and remained steadfast in its criticism of Israel. The secular uprisings may have happened in the spring, but it’s fitting to point out many took place at sunset.