Turkey is the latest point of fascination for those who dream about the spread of democracy in the Middle East.
The reportage and commentary is more subdued than what came in response to the demonstrations that began more than two years ago. Deaths climbing toward or above 100,000 in Syria, continued unrest in Egypt, and not especially good news from Libya and Yemen may contribute to the greater incidence of questions and multiple scenarios about Turkey''s future.
Israeli media is providing intensive coverage. All the major outlets sent their articulate and good looking representatives to stand against the backgrounds of milling crowds, burning store fronts, and massed police.
The US State Department and several Foreign Ministries have weighed in with flaccid remarks about the rights of peaceful demonstration, and urgings of restraint on the authorities.
The numbers of protesters and the violence of the police are--so far--nothing like what came earlier in Arab Spring. Some have gone so far as to say that a better comparison is with social protests in Israel, Western Europe, or the United States, but with a somewhat greater degree of police toughness and--in consequence--more casualties among demonstrators.
So far there have been two deaths acknowledged by the authorities, and more claimed by demonstrators. A union of civil servants has declared a two-day strike in support of the demonstrators. If that spreads to industrial workers, it could change the scenarios likely.
There should be no surprise about Israel''s interest. Turkey is a major element in the Middle East. We have had our troubles with the present government that may be at a turning point, thanks perhaps to the urging of our mutual allies and what is happening elsewhere in the region.
The political geography is fluid, and potentially dangerous. Israeli politicians and commentators are asking themselves several times each day about events in Turkey and Syria, "What do these latest commotions mean for us?" The prevailing sentiment is to stay out of it and watch. The Prime Minister has told political colleagues inclined rowards speculation to "Shut up." Since none of the various contending parties really likes us, anything we do to help one or another side with comments or more serious actions--and there are several sides in each country''s fluidity--is likely to help another side and may rebound to our sorrow.
Any effort to compare Turkey to what is happening elsewhere in the region must take account of several traits that set that country apart.
Substantial elements of the population and features of the economy are European, or almost European, rather than Middle Eastern. The great majority of the population is Muslim, but there is a prominent minority--now active in the demonstrations-- that while being nominally Muslim aspires to Western modes of individual freedom. That means access to alcohol and media willing to criticize the government, both of which have been on the present government''s agenda as things to restrict.
There has been an impressive spurt of economic development. There is heavy industry that serves international markets. The impressive skyline and waterfront of Istanbul are physically and culturally astride the European-Asian border. Overseas tourists come to hotels on Mediterranean beaches, and there are the beginnings of an international hub via Turkish Airlines and the Istanbul airport.
Turkey has aspired for several decades to membership in the European Union. The country has limited status in various elements of the European Community, there is a process underway for full membership, but major countries of Europe have said that Turkey is not ready. The stumbling and fumbling about Turkey contrast sharply with the acceptance of Eastern European and Balkan countries that were arguably less qualified than Turkey. There is some dispute as to whether there is a blanket opposition to anything closer to Islam than what Europe has already experienced via migration, or whether the objections really concern issues of democracy and the heavy handed way in which Turkish governments have dealt with Kurdish nationalism. Also in the picture are European Union members Greece and Cyprus, with unhappy histories and recent issues that make them suspicious of anything that smacks of Turkey''s imperial aspirations.
Turkey''s political shift from being explicitly secular to a regime that is well into the religious side of the secular-religious spectrum may be due in part to Turkish frustration on account of continued rejection by Europe. And the move toward Islam along with current demonstrations are not likely to smooth the country''s acceptance by the Europeans.
The present government was elected by procedures that qualify as reasonably democratic, and has support from traditional and religious sectors. Despite some places that are quite European, much of Turkey is a long way from Europe both geographically and culturally.
There has been a purge of senior ranks in the military, and restrictions against the military''s involvement in politics. Leading politicians claim this reflects a move toward greater democracy. Opponents see it as keeping the military from exercising the role it played for several decades to assure the country stayed on the secular path established by the iconic figure Ataturk.
Prime Minister Erdogan may be right when he says--with a hint of threat--that the protesters have not yet heard from the country''s majority that opposes them.
Israel''s interests derive from years of extensive economic and military cooperation, alongside a souring of relations during the present government''s move toward Islam. Turkish companies and personnel have been active in major construction projects. Planes to and from Israel fly through Turkish airspace, there are several daily flights to Turkey out of Ben Gurion Airport, and Israelis have flocked to the low cost resorts of Anatalya. Many of Israel''s cars come from assembly lines established in Turkey by international concerns. Most of the figs we eat come from Turkey, and some of the soap we buy with American or European brands comes from Turkish factories. Israel''s air force used Turkey''s airspace for practicing maneuvers impractical in the skies of its own tiny country, and Israel''s military industry provided its products and services to Turkey''s armed forces. Some of those arrangements have suffered under Turkey''s present government, especially since what seems to have been the contrived case of the Marmara, intercepted on the way to Gaza with some of its passengers killed as a result of their violent response to an IDF boarding party.
One of our encounters in Istanbul illustrated the multifaceted elements of Turkey as they relate to Israel. We found ourselves in a conversation with a Turkish family, whose penultimate line was, "you murder Palestinians." We continued to speak for a while, and parted with handshakes. Then we heard from a young man who had been alongside and helped with the English. He identified himself as a cadet in the Turkish air force who had trained in Israel, and proclaimed that he admired our country.
On Turkey''s agenda is a flood of Syrian refugees, a limited invasion of Turkish soil by Syrian soldiers, threats of Turkish retaliation, along with ongoing assistance to rebels in Syria. Some may be asking whether this will affect Turkey''s relations with Syria''s major ally Iran. Turkey and Iran have been close, with Turkey serving as one of the conduits for Iran''s evasion of Western sanctions.
No one should be certain about Turkey''s future. The tinder has been lit. There is a bit of a wind. The present regime appears to have considerable popular support and has avoided the most blatant kinds of overreaction. However, these are early days. Turkey is as complex ethnically, religiously, and politically as any other Muslim country, but in ways that are different from others. Arab Spring is an attractive metaphor, but may not be helpful as a guide.