Gaziantep, Turkey – Late yesterday, we traveled from Ankara to Gaziantep, a manufacturing and industrial city in southeastern Turkey, about 30 miles north of the Syrian border.
It was an eye-opening experience. The city itself is modern and booming. It has several major universities, and is a central hub for commerce and trade. New construction was visible everywhere. The airport was modest, but the flights to and from Gaziantep were full.
The best parts of the trip were the meetings with individual Turks, including business people, students, and teachers. Several families welcomed us into their homes over traditional meals.
The cut off of trade and economic ties since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war has affected some businesses, but most appear to have adapted by finding new markets and new suppliers. Indeed, I and other of my traveling companions were surprised that there were not more outward signs of the brutal war that has raged for over two years, in this city less than 60 miles from Aleppo.
The city of Gaziantep, and the surrounding province of the same name, have welcomed hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria. Syrian refugees are allowed to work. This is a point of pride among the people with whom I met, even though they recognize the hardship that it causes for some already here. They would like more help for refugees from the international community.
They also would like leading powers, especially the United States, but also Russia and China, to play a role in resolving the crisis. But that end state could not include Bashar Assad. The sense was that he had to go. One gentleman told me that 40 years of rule by the Assad family was enough. And besides, “he has killed his own people,” he said, “How can he be allowed to remain?” When I explained to another gentleman that it might be hard to find someone who can fill the vacuum left behind, he replied that a Sunni Arab could do the job. Most Syrians are Sunnis, thus they would rally behind a Sunni. And other minorities will then come along. [I’m pretty sure that an Alawite would disagree, and I suspect many Christians would as well.]
These people were generally Erdogan supporters. Many worried about how the recent protests were undermining Turkey’s image abroad. They were concerned about the impact on tourism, and on the wider economy. Some, echoing the AKP’s standard line, saw evidence of nefarious foreign plots behind the protesters. Still others felt that the protests started out as a spontaneous expression of concern about Gezi Park, but had been hijacked by interest groups within Turkey, including far left parties, and vehement Erdogan opponents.
It is obvious that Erdogan taps into the sentiment among some of the people with whom I met–and arguably many Turks, given that he is the first Prime Minister to have been elected three times–that one shouldn’t be officially ostracized for practicing religion. And it certainly shouldn’t be a crime. In that respect, some Turks believe that the Kemalists went too far. They didn’t merely set up a secular state. They were anti-religious, sneering and dismissive of believers.
Others are enthused about the economic revival that has occurred under his watch. One of my hosts explained that many of the protesters were too young to remember the poor economic times, including a financial crisis in 2000-2001 that paved the way for the AKP’s rise to power. The implication was that if Erdogan and the AKP were to lose political control to the opposition, the economy would suffer.
But there is an unsettling authoritarian streak in Erdogan’s behavior. Even strong AKP supporters worry that the party’s identity has become too wrapped up around Erdogan. The party lacks a firm institutional base, and too few voices from within the AKP who can or will challenge Erdogan, or at least help him moderate his ways. He has surrounded himself with sycophants and yes men, a closeted bubble increasingly isolated from reality. They say that in a democracy, the winners of elections have a mandate to govern. They are confident that the majorities that elected them, and returned them to power, are still with them.
Are they? What is going on politically? Has Erdogan overreached? And will the opposition use the recent protests and a growing sense of frustration and unease among some Turks to cut into his power, beginning perhaps with next year’s municipal elections? I’ll write more about that tomorrow.