How it changes. When I was in Istanbul last April the mood was sombre. Even the most ebullient of friends were downcast. The latent hostility to the regime was always present, but the AKP’s hegemony, I was told many times, went deep. Erdo?an was a reptile, cynical but clever and not averse to quoting the odd verse from Nâz?m Hikmet, the much-loved communist poet imprisoned by Atatürk. The poet had escaped in a boat and been rescued by a Soviet tanker. ‘Can you prove you’re Hikmet,’ the captain asked him. He laughed and pointed to a poster in the captain’s cabin which had his photograph on it. He died in Moscow in 1963. His remains are still in exile.
Talk now was of food (the exquisite wafer-thin pizzas from the Syrian border) or the delights of children produced in middle age. Complaints were varied. An old cinema on ?stiklal was about to be dynamited. It would be replaced by yet more characterless shops that have already disfigured this historic street with its arcades and Belle Epoque apartments (where, once upon a time, many wealthy Armenian merchant families lived). There had been a few mild demonstrations against the execution of the movie house, but symbolic in character. The newspapers were talking of the regime’s latest PR triumph: sixty ‘wise men’ who would be consulted from time to time. There were photographs of their first assembly in the Dolmabahçe Palace, a suitably kitsch setting for a kitsch gathering. An old acquaintance, Murat Belge, was among their number.
Encouraged by the indifference, Erdo?an proceeded with other plans: A shopping mall in Gezi Park, a new bridge over the Bosphorus and a new grand mosque to steal the landscape from Sinân’s delicate creations. The citizens of Istanbul were never asked for their views. It was this lack of any consultation that angered the citizens and triggered the occupation of the tiny green space in the heart of the city. As we all now know, the spirit of conciliation is not the Turkish prime minister’s strong point. Nor is generosity of heart or mind. He loathes secular intellectuals, refers to the founders of the republic as drunkards or alcoholics (as if those were their defining characteristics rather than outwitting Lord Curzon and the British Empire to create a republic) and talks constantly of the danger from left-wing ‘terrorists’. When angry, which is often, Erdo?an takes on the character of a village bully, sometimes embarrassing his colleagues.
Socially conservative, politically unscrupulous, economically beholden to the building industry and militarily/politically Nato’s favourite Islamists, the party in power ignored the voices on the street. They were meant to be the model for other Muslim countries. Erdo?an’s arrogance in using violence – baton charges, water cannon and tear gas, against mainly young people – has wrecked the model. Hence the note of exasperation from the White House, and the familiar request that ‘both sides should show restraint.’ Read more