ANKARA, Turkey — It is easy to get swept up on a magic carpet when looking at Turkey. It is a stunning place for the visitor: hundreds of Greco-Roman sites, incredible ruins going back to when man first tried to do things standing up. In the South, the Mediterranean is as clear as when Homer fantasized about it.
But politically, the country is poised for seismic shock. The elites that have held sway on and off since the creation of the modern Turkish state in 1923, under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, are worried. Israel is worried and so is the United States.
All of the angst can be summed up by a simple question: Whither Turkey? Is it to remain a model Islamist democracy, or is it to feel the pull of Islam and go to a place where the West will fear it, and its own ruling class will become a disenfranchised minority, as happened in Iran? Will Turkey, with NATO’s second-largest army, continue to be a stable American friend in an unstable part of the world?
In Ankara and Istanbul, these questions are everywhere and are spilling into the streets with sometimes violent demonstrations. There was an outbreak of street protest in central Istanbul last week, but the police put it down with tear gas and water cannons fairly effortlessly. The world might not have noticed the event if CNN international correspondent Ivan Watson had not been harassed by Turkish plainclothes police as he was live on air.
Most of the talk about Turkey’s future centers on one controversial, enigmatic man: Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He is the leader of the Justice and Development Party and the prime minister. Turks love to love him, and love to hate him.
To some, Erdogan has regained for Turkey a sense of its national Islamic identity. He has built public works and fueled an infrastructure boom that extends to the far corners of the country and has affected, in some way, all of its 74-plus million people.
To others Erdogan is an evil genius, undoing the work of Ataturk — still a revered figure, but dimming slightly in Turkish reverence.
Everything is coming to a head because Erdogan is facing term limits. He is expected to run in August for what has been, heretofore, the largely ceremonial position of president.
Some say a new prime minister will just be a front for Erdogan, in the way that Dmitry Medvedev kept the seat warm for Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Others believe there are latent constitutional powers already available to the president of Turkey and if he runs and is elected, he will rule from that office much as he has from the prime minister’s perch.
Of course, no matter how powerful and manipulative he is, there is no guarantee that he would win. He has a large number of political issues that could trip him up. The economy, although still doing well, is beginning to slow and all-important foreign investors are showing doubts about this Mediterranean jewel.
Erdogan came to power as a reformer, set to end corruption. Now corruption is an issue — an issue involving members of his cabinet and one of his sons. He has countered by accusing the media and his enemies, and has tried to block social media sites with varying success. My YouTube use in Turkey was affected briefly, and Twitter has been blocked.
Opposition to Erdogan is both intellectual and visceral. Antigovernment protests continue to flare up, like the ones last Saturday that marked the one-year anniversary of the mass demonstrations that left nine people dead, after the police violently dispersed a sit-in against government plans to bulldoze Istanbul’s Gezi Park for a shopping center.
More bitter and as angry has been the national sense of disgrace over the loss of 301 coal miners operating in a substandard mine in Soma, a district in Turkey’s western province of Manisa. The rage was focused on the Erdogan government for an intimate relationship with the mine owners and non-enforcement of safety rules.
Whatever Turkey’s political future, it remains an effective industrializing powerhouse, which totally controls access to the Black Sea. And, with eight contiguous neighbors, it is a country that is unique among those that can be said to be geo-strategically important.
On a personal note, I have been going to Turkey for several decades and it is still a wondrous place — its natural beauty, ancient sites, cities and villages, arts, food and drink, and people. The Silk Road ran through it, and modern travelers will find it as intriguing and rewarding as did Marco Polo.
The struggle in Turkey is, in some measure, our struggle also.