Will Trump follow Erdoğan's playbook on quelling Gezi unrest in 2013?
A powerful deja-vu: The scenes outside White House Monday evening was a bizarre reminder of what took place exactly seven years ago in Istanbul, during Gezi Park protests. In many ways, the pattern of reactions of Erdoğan in 2013 - then Prime Minister - and Trump in 2020 seemed a copy paste of the latter: Quelling peaceful demonstrations with teargas and brutal police force and usage of the holy shrines to divide and polarize.
Gezi Protests had erupted on May 28, triggered by the authorities's acts to cut down five trees a night before at Gezi Park, Taksim Square. Within two-three days, large crowds had passed the Bosporus Bridge, filled the streets of both sides of the strait, assembled outside the PM's work offices in Dolmabahçe, gathered en masse at the city center.
As opposed to the American media now, almost all the Turkish media outlets - some of them whose headquarters just meters away from the epicenter of the demonstrations, had failed totally to cover the historic event, which would come to amount to a massive socio-cultural resistance against Erdoğan's restrictive ways of ruling Turkey. At the night of May 27, CNNTurk was famously broadcasting a documentary of Penguins, as its rival Haberturk - whose newsroom is a walking distance to Taksim Square - was busy airing a live debate on schizzophrenia. Third channel, NTV, pretented all was calm in the city - no problems at all.
In a matter of days, the unrest had spread to 79 of 81 provinces. Erdoğan - just as Trump did - hid from public view until June 2, and when he appeared on TV, he downplayed the escalation, but gave the first signals of how he had thought of dealing with the angry crowds: He called them 'a bunch of marauders'. After these words, police became apparently emboldened and its attacks turned extremely violent.
The AKP was in turmoil. President Gül distanced itself from Erdoğan's approach and worked discreetly, via the governor of Istanbul, to calm the police forces down. Some key cabinet ministers decided to meet the Prime Minister before he embarked on a plane to Marocco, on June 3. Their intent was to persuade him that meeting peaceful demontrations with brutality was unacceptable.
The critical meeting - which included some of AKP's founding fathers - lasted for hours. The attempts to change the mind of Erdoğan was in vain. He was determined to crush the protests by any means necessary. In the following days, he kept busy calling key TV channels, threatening them, and managed to keep Haberturk TV, NTV and CNN Turk in the shackles of self-censorship.
Meanwhile, Bülnet Arınç, then vice PM and a heavyweight founding father of the AKP, apologized for the violence in public. On his way back, Erdoğan was outraged for what he saw as ''softening'' of his government behind his back. After he landed in Istanbul's Yeşilköy Airport, he held a huge demonstration, ordering Arınç and others to be at his side and, using a rhetoric coloured with religion, he declared war at Gezi protesters. The rest is history, a bitter one, to be remembered as the only spontaneous civic uprising in the country's history, buried in the ground, with the help of the security apparatus, and a flunkey media, who helped spread official lies such as protesters entering Dolmabahçe Mosque with bear cans and shoes.
The Imam of the mosque, who was an honest man, denied staunchly that this wasn't the case, and the price he paid was to be sent to the easternmost spots of Turkey. The religious communities of Turkey, including Gulen Movement, had jumped on the same official bandwagon: According to them the protests were acts of terror, infiltrated by evil forces, domestic and international. The playbook was therewith complete, the ground on which the civic uprising to be eradicated was prepared. Through lies and complicity of the AKP supporters, Gezi was from July 2013 on a story to be remembered with sorrow over the killings of at least six young demontrators, with bitterness over the intolerance of Erdoğan and his men: it marked the beginning of the end for Turkey's hopes on adopting a democratic rule.
In many ways, Trump's erratic and reflexive reactions to the nationwide unrest in the U.S.A., triggered by the killing of George Floyd is a powerful reminder of the solid mindsset of his ''friend'' in Turkey. Both are narrow-minded populists, closed to diverse advise, extremely vain and malevolent, deeply authoritarian and paranoid. Both are following the same pattern: Polarize, demonize, disrespect the rule of law, divide and rule.
But, while Erdoğan has a free ride towards achieving his goal to establish a Central Asian style one-man rule, Trump's adoption of Erdoğan's advanced playbook for autocracy may seriously backfire. Turkish President cunningly used and abused the profound divisions within the country, and the societal allergia against the Kurdish minority and anti-Western sentiments, widely spread amongst the pious as well as the seculars. He played one social segment against the other, and succeeded, because he knew how to grow his control over the security apparatus, the judiciary and the media. Today, they are all at his side as fellow travellers.
This is where Trump's challenges are: However deeply he may remain determined to gain control over the administration, he miscalculates that the American society, despite divisions, would at the end of the day not tolerate a path towards a rule where the military and the Bible will play convincing roles. His gamble will backfire, and he may have already prepared his political end as the elections approach.
Nevertheless, the Americans should remember what happened in Turkey in the early days of June, and it wouldn't harm any of them if they draw the right conclusions from the case study called Gezi. So far, American response is encouraging: Driven by civic courage and wisdom, it is important to note the police officers standing up to their erratic president, and the church leaders taking a clear distance from blending religion with politics.