How Turkey's Leaders Are Exploiting Egypt's Coup

The recent activity in Egypt allows Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to deflect attention from what's happening in his own country.

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People cross their arms as riot police push them to leave Gezi Park in Istanbul, Turkey, Monday, July 8, 2013. An Istanbul park that was at the center of weeks of anti-government demonstrations opened for a few hours Monday, but Turkish authorities quickly closed it and fired a water cannon, tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters heading to the area for a planned rally.

If you're reading the American press, you might think that the protests in Turkey have died down. Nothing could be further from the truth. Stranger still, if you are reading the Turkish press, you might conclude that you are in Egypt, because that seems to be the only topic of conversation.

This is why: Conventional wisdom has it that the Egyptian coup was a "nightmare" for Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, putting an end to his ambitious foreign policy fantasies. To an extent, this is true.

But from the domestic political perspective, it's just the opposite: It's his most hopeful dream come true. Not only did it turn foreign media attention away from Turkey, it enabled him to turn all domestic attention away from Turkey, lending credibility to his spurious claims that the Gezi Park protesters were coup-plotters (despite extensive, serious research suggesting that they were anything but).

As for the protests, here's the reality. Last Saturday, the Istanbul 1st Regional Court cancelled the controversial Taksim construction project, thus reopening the park for public use. Elated Istanbullus planned to gather in Gezi Park to celebrate their victory at 7 p.m. But mere hours before, the governor of Istanbul issued a Proclamation by Tweet: "We are holding the much-anticipated opening of Gezi Park tomorrow. The park, which was embellished by the Istanbul Municipality, may bring peace and joy."

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Middle East.]

The governor, in principle, does have the right to prohibit meetings on grounds of "national security, and public order, or prevention of crime commitment, public health and public morals or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others." But as his tweet suggested, he offered no argument that any of these grounds applied. In other words, he told the public, "You will enter that park when the Party tells you to, not when these 'courts' say you can."

The outcome was predictable: Outraged citizens gathered at Taksim Square, brandishing the court order in their hands. They were immediately doused with water cannons and suffocated by tear gas. Thousands of panicking Turks flooded down İstiklal Avenue. This is the center of Istanbul, usually packed with happy pedestrians enjoying themselves, and there is no earthly reason it should not have looked that way on Saturday night. The only reason it didn't is because the Party chose to engage in a massive display of contempt of court (literally).

So instead, it looked like this – and I know this, because, while I didn't take that footage myself, I'm probably in it somewhere, obscured by the clouds of tear gas. Silly me for thinking it might be nice to take a walk down İstiklal Avenue on a lovely summer evening. Some 59 citizens caught up in the melee were detained. Hysterical parents tried to convince the police to release their children, but they had no luck; scores were thrown into police vans.

But you might be forgiven for not knowing that this is happening in Turkey, because neither does the Turkish public, unless they've seen it firsthand. Erdoğan is famous for the discipline he asserts over the Turkish media, and for his ability to switch the topic of national conversation in a heartbeat. Thus, Egypt has been nearly the only story covered by the news here since the coup there began. But strangely, there has been little news about what's actually happening in Egypt. The entire conversation has been a metaphor for Turkey and its coup-ridden past, used to insinuate that the Gezi protesters – who in fact want more democracy – are plotting to eradicate it.

[VOTE: Should the Egyptian Military Have Ousted Mohamed Morsi?]

The current Turkish obsession with Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi's downfall, in other words, is not merely a natural concern for their Egyptian brothers. It's about ideology, to be sure, but it's above all about domestic politics. The unrest in Turkey has not died down, and under normal circumstances, Turks wouldn't really care that much about Egyptian democracy, unless they were saturated 24 hours a day with horrified but shallow commentary about the coup.

In reality, the protesters who chant Bu Daha Başlangıç, Mücadeleye Devam – "This is only the beginning, the struggle continues" – may be right. And if they are, it's not clear what cards Erdoğan will have left to play to make them appear to be marginalized coup-plotters. That said, the prime minister does seem to be unusually skillful at dealing from the bottom of the deck.

Claire Berlinski is Senior Fellow for Turkey at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC. She resides in Istanbul.

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