What Turks really think about the Arab uprising

Washington Times Communities
ISTANBUL, February 5, 2011

I’m being asked by everyone I know how Turkey is responding to the uprising in Egypt. The assumption in the question is that Turks must be really be quite interested in these events.

The assumption is dead wrong.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan did give quite a canny speech last week upon realizing that Mubarak was doomed. There’s a reason he’s a successful politician. He did not actually call for anything, although somehow, immediately, he was understood to have “taken the side of the Arab people.”

If you look closely at the text of the speech, however, you’ll see that he took no stand at all (he’s too smart for that). He sounded very emotional, though. He sounded as if he truly cares. He appealed to Mubarak “lend an ear to the people’s cries and extremely human demands,” and to prevent “exploiters, groups with dirty aims, [and] those sections that have dark designs over Egypt to take the initiative.”

Now really, what does that mean? Whatever you want it to, really. Think of it as a Middle East Rorschach test. Although the words are in fact empty, if you want to hear them as a great heaping dose of solidarity, that’s how you’ll hear them. The Arab world duly went mad with gratitude: The Turkish people, their heros.

I’m sorry to tell you this, Arab world, but but the truth is that your uprising has been met with near-perfect indifference here. It’s in the news, but basically no one’s talking about it much. It might as well be happening on Alpha Centauri, as far as most Turks are concerned.

I thought at least there might be a big turnout for protests in support of the Egyptian people scheduled this week in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, but I was quite wrong about that.

The first protest was scheduled for Thursday afternoon, or so I found out on Twitter. I pitched up dutifully with my camera. To put the fact that no one–not one person–showed up in context, I should note that Istanbul is a city of some 15 million people. I see protests all the time in Taksim, and I know for sure that Turks can really get their freak on when they feel like something’s worth protesting.

When at last I saw a few bedraggled protesters unfurling a banner, I rushed over to see what was happening. It turned out they were trade unionists protesting new employment legislation now under debate in the General Assembly. A few kids from the British Socialist Workers Party had turned up, too. (Every country has them and they’re the same everywhere.)

Mind you, their confrères had just been pounded by the police in Ankara–a point journalists keen to show their solidarity with peaceful protesters might wish to note, especially given all the rapturous talk of Turkey as the model to which the Arab world should now enviously turn its gaze.

I’ve been asking Turkish acquaintances about this very notable lack of interest in the events in Egypt. Isn’t it odd, I’ve said? I mean, Turks are madly on the side of oppressed Arabs, right? Isn’t that Erdoğan’s great claim to fame, that he’s a courageous voice for oppressed Arab people?

Well yes, they’ve agreed. But the sentiment among Turks, one interlocutor suggested, was that there was something really fishy about those Egyptian protests: I mean, Arabs couldn’t organize their way out of paper bag, so it must be the Americans behind it. Or George Soros.

Another friend said, “We’ve been suffering just like the Egyptians, and when did the Arabs ever protest for us?” Still another said, “It can’t really be the Egyptians behind that, it has to be the United States. Nothing happens in this region without the United States’ permission.” Her implication: “We’re not fools. We’re not going out in the streets to do the Americans’ bidding.” Still another acquaintance really topped it off by saying, “I don’t feel any pity for the Egyptians. They betrayed us.” (The Turks have very, very long memories.)

A guy in my neighborhood told me that thirteen very powerful Jews were behind the whole thing. Behind everything, in fact. (He was quite precise about the number.)

“You know,” I said, “I really don’t find that plausible.”

He smiled, sunny and indulgent. He was amused that I could be so naive.

Note to the Middle East: You live by the conspiracy theory, you die by the conspiracy theory.

Someone else told me there had been a bigger protest by the Islamists at Fatih mosque. There were “about a thousand” people there, he said, but I can’t confirm that. In a city of 15 million people, though, those are really trivial numbers. The Islamist press is reporting that the IHH–the Islamist organization behind the Gaza Flotilla–has been organizing protests at other mosques. If it’s true, it’s interesting that the only people deeply interested in protesting are linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. Actually, it’s more than interesting. (The odds of my getting anyone to note the significance of this, however, are probably zero.)

Turks did turn out at Taksim in force for Egypt, however, on Friday. By “in force,” I mean “17 protesters showed up.” Usually you need to take a journalist’s estimate of the size of a crowd with a grain of salt, but I promise you, I counted them all and I counted them twice.

Surreal in all of this is the complete disjunct between the world’s perception of Turkey’s emotional connection to the Arab world and the reality. Here’s Foreign Policy, reporting the return of the Turks as the Middle East kingmakers:

“The popularity of Turkey and Erdogan within the Arab world has already allowed the AKP to turn traditional Turkish foreign policy on its head by drawing strength from its common heritage and history with its Middle Eastern neighbors rather than being a handicap. Turkish foreign policy under the AKP has come to articulate a vision for improving relations with all its neighbors, particularly by privileging its former Ottoman space in the Middle East, such as Lebanon, Jordan, Iran, Iraq, and Syria where agreements are being negotiated for a free-trade zone and an eventual Middle Eastern Union. The growing economic and political engagement of Turkey with the Middle East has already lead to a significant realignment in the region.”

Middle East, behold your kingmakers! I took a photo of everyone, and I do mean everyone in Istanbul who found this issue moving enough to show up to a rally in support of Egypt in the biggest square in Istanbul on Friday, directly after prayers. (We all know what Tahrir Square looked like at the same time).

When I looked at it later, I realized that the sweet guy in the center of the bottom row had been there the day before–to protest the new employment legislation. I hate to say it, but he seemed like the kind of guy who would show up no matter what they were protesting. I hope one day one of those pretty girls finally goes home with him.

I’m not joking, that was it. Seventeen. Even the passersby weren’t much interested. A few stopped to look, but were quickly dragged away by girlfriends eager to get on with the afternoon shopping.

It is just one of the many great mysteries of life that somehow the AKP has “turned traditional Turkish foreign policy on its head by drawing strength from its common heritage and history with its Middle Eastern neighbors rather than being a handicap.”

What this really tells you is that America needs to hire the AKP’s PR strategists. They’re geniuses.

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