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Why Erdogan should back down to Turkey's protesters
The embattled Turkish prime minister returns home from abroad under pressure to apologize for a rough crackdown
 
A photo of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, altered to look like Adolf Hilter, is posted on a column in Istanbul's Taksim Square.
A photo of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, altered to look like Adolf Hilter, is posted on a column in Istanbul's Taksim Square. AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis

Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, returns home from a four-day trip to North Africa on Thursday to face demands for a personal apology for a harsh crackdown on tens of thousands of protesters that has left at least two people dead and hundreds injured.

Before leaving, Erdogan angered the crowds in the streets by dismissing them as "capulcu" — or looters. His deputy, Bulent Arinc, made a conciliatory gesture in Erdogan's absence, expressing regret for the "excessive use of force" by police against the first small protest, held to protect trees in an Istanbul park.

Arinc's concessions appeared to have helped calm tensions, as Isanbul's streets were their quietest in a week early Thursday. The big question, says Murat Yetkin at Turkey's Hurriyet Daily, is what the defiant Erdogan, who has ruled with the backing of Islamist conservatives for 10 years, will say and do on his return later in the day. "Will he carry on with his 'capulcu' line and ignore the 'leave-us-alone-with-our-modernist-lifestyles' and 'don't try to behave like our fathers' kind of demands of the masses," Yetkin asks, "or will he tone down to a moderate 'style' as hinted by Arinc?"

The demonstrations have mushroomed from an attempt to save a cherished green space in Istanbul's Taksim Square into an unprecedented and direct challenge of Erdogan's heavy-handed Islamist policies, such as controversial recent restrictions on alcohol. Protesters are even going so far as to demand he step down. His rule doesn't appear in real jeopardy — at least not yet — but political experts say he still has to make peace with his critics. "It's very rare for Erdogan to actually back down," David Pollock of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy tells The Daily Beast. "It would be smart for him to do it now."

Why? Because even though Erdogan still reportedly has the support of most of his people, he has lost the air of omnipotence that shielded him throughout his decade in power. Ben Caspit at Al-Monitor says that from now on, Erdogan has to be more careful if he hopes to stay in control.

Nothing can be taken for granted. The riots in Turkey can die out in the course of the week, or they can intensify to become a real civil war (should Erdogan make good on his threat to dispatch a million pro-regime defenders against the protesters). But one thing is already clear: Before his next caprice, Erdogan will think twice. Everything that had been easy until today, will be difficult. Including the coming elections. [Al-Monitor]

These aren't Turkey's first big demonstrations, but they are a sign of a significant shift. Whit Mason notes at Foreign Policy that the protests that broke out a week ago mark "the first time that people from all walks of life have joined forces to constrain the power of their country's leaders." Mason sees this as a sign that Erdogan has awakened a sleeping giant — an increasingly liberal population determined to win more rights — from personal freedoms like drinking alcohol to the ability to protest without fear of violence — that citizens can expect under a true liberal democracy.

President Abdullah Gul — a gentler, more sophisticated man than Erdogan and the obvious alternative to lead the [ruling Justice and Development Party] — has said the government needs to listen to the people. "The message has been taken," Gul told the protesters, in a statement imploring them to return home. "Democracy is not only about [the] ballot box."...

But if the events now taking place in Turkey come to be regarded as a landmark in its evolution as a liberal European society, as may well happen, their hero will not be a great leader but the thousands of Turks... who refuse to be dictated to by anyone. [Foreign Policy]

Despite the show of force by secular Turks, however, Erdogan has plenty of supporters who don't want him to budge. On Wednesday, a pro-Erdogan crowd attacked a small group of protest supporters in the Black Sea city of Rize, Erdogan's homeland. "Erdogan cannot backtrack now. It would mean defeat," Ali Aydin, an Istanbul car dealer, tells Reuters. "Weakness would destroy the party." Sentiments like that suggest that if Erdogan does buckle to soothe the protesters, he risks angering the power base that gave him his undeniable electoral mandate, and made him appear invincible for so long.

 
Harold Maass is a contributing editor at TheWeek.com. He has been writing for The Week since the 2001 launch of the U.S. print edition. Harold has worked for a variety of news outlets, including The Miami HeraldFox News, and ABC News.

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