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​Who was behind the Gezi protests and the Dec. 17 graft probe?

Dr. Can Erimtan is an independent scholar residing in İstanbul, with a wide interest in the politics, history and culture of the Balkans and the Greater Middle East. He tweets at @theerimtanangle

Published time: March 28, 2014 13:51
Protestors hold a giant Turkish flag in front of a water cannon truck on May 31, 2013 during a protest against the demolition of Taksim Gezi Park, in Taksim Square in Istanbul. (AFP Photo / Ozan Kose)

Last year's Gezi protests in Istanbul quickly spread throughout the whole of the country and also rapidly garnered a lot of attention worldwide. 

At the time, the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was equally quick in blaming “outside forces” for organizing, planning and even funding the demonstrations he called nothing but examples of "vandalism and illegality." Addressing a crowd of supporters last summer, the PM announced that an “interest-rate lobby” was “threatening Turkey with speculation in the markets,” adding that “no power can stop Turkey’s rise except God.” Erdogan particularly blamed the international media, but also singled out Germany (in particular Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle) and Italy (and its foreign minister, Emma Bonino), as well as the European Parliament; in addition to assigning special responsibility to the United States.

After all, the Middle-Eastern street is quick to assume that the US, in the shape of the CIA, is behind every form of local political turmoil or upheaval. One has but to think back to the year 1953 and remember Kermit Roosevelt and Operation Ajax, which removed Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh from power and reinstated the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. And, thinking back to more recent events, one can also wonder about the 2011 Arab Spring and the forces that propelled the "revolution" which ended the reign of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, in power since Anwar Sadat’s assassination in 1981.

According to WikiLeaks, a "cable dated Dec. 30, 2008, indicates that a leader of the April 6 Youth Movement – a Facebook-driven opposition group – informed US officials that opposition groups had come up with a plan to topple Hosni Mubarak before scheduled elections in September 2011". The cables also indicate that the US authorities helped an April 6 leader to attend an “Alliance of Youth Movements” summit at Columbia University in New York on December 3-5, 2008. In November 2008, the US government promoted this event as an occasion bringing together “Facebook, Google, YouTube, MTV, Howcast, Columbia Law School and the U.S. Department of State ... to Find Best Ways to Use Digital Media to Promote Freedom and Justice, Counter Violence, Extremism and Oppression.” The participating youth leaders were expected to “produce a field manual for youth empowerment,” adding that this document “will stand in stark contrast to the Al-Qaeda manual on the basics of terrorism, found by Coalition Forces in Iraq.'"

In view of these examples of outside meddling in the wider Middle East, the Turkish PM's words do not seem that far-fetched anymore, or do they? Already last year, the conservative Turkish newspaper Yeni Safak known for its close ties to the ruling AK Party declared that Tayyip Erdogan said that "he had knowledge [about the Gezi events] three months prior" and referred to the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) as carrying responsibility for orchestrating the Gezi protests. The paper alleged that the AEI organized a meeting on 12 February 2013, moderated by Michael Rubin, whom the Islamist Yeni Safak describes as a figure "well-known for his anti-Turkish views."


Protestors clash with Turkish riot policemen during a protest against the demolition of Taksim Gezi Park on May 31, 2013, in Taksim quarter of Istanbul. (AFP Photo / Bulent Kilic)

The Turkish newspaper also declared that such infamous neocons as Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, John Bolton, William Kristol and Douglas Feith had also been present at this February meeting. These usual suspects, well remembered for their notorious roles in the Bush-2 administration, discussed a "possible rebellion in Istanbul" in order to "turn Taksim Square into Tahrir Square." As hinted at earlier, it has been argued by some that the Tahrir rebellion was nothing but the outcome of the Bush administration's desire to spread "democracy in the Middle East," arguably for the benefit of US business and policy interests. But rather than simply follow this line of reasoning, the Turkish paper, on the other hand, specifically blames the "Jewish lobby" and AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee lobby group that advocates pro-Israel policies to the US congress and executive branch. In this way, Yeni Safak is clearly pandering to an anti-Semitic strain that seems to be part of much of Muslim world. At the time of the Gezi events, the AEI's foreign and defense policy studies AEI vice-president Danielle Pletka wrote a reasoned response to the Turkish prime minister. Pletka said that "[s]ome in the pro-government media in Turkey are quoting AEI’s Veronique Rodman as confirming" that the above-mentioned February meeting actually took place. She then adds quickly that "Veronique [Rodman] said no such thing. She merely gave out her name for email inquiries to non-English speaking Turkish reporters." In the end, the AEI's Pletka declared plainly that "no such meeting ever took place."

But conspiracy theories can be persistent, and the then-Minister for EU Affairs Egemen Bagıs at the time appeared on Turkey’s TV 24 to state that "external powers made some meetings to incite anarchy in Turkey before the demonstrations [at Gezi]." Nearly a year has passed and at the moment the Turkish government is embroiled in a far-reaching corruption scandal that started on 17 December 2013 (known popularly as #AKPgate). Now that the local elections are looming this weekend the various political parties competing in the contest are involved in a veritable propaganda war. The ruling AKP, for instance, has been distributing a huge number of pamphlets, carrying the ominous title “Everybody Needs to Know These Facts,” for the past three months. The pamphlet claims that the same forces that tried to undermine Turkey with the Gezi protests are now at work again. The pamphlet's claim is that these “known forces” – namely the AEI and Israel – are now trying to achieve the same goal by means of employing a "corruption tactic" instead of hiding behind an environmental argument, as was used in the Gezi protests. The booklet replicates the allegations made by the Islamist newspaper Yeni Şafak, adding that the "same stratagems" are now being used again.

Even though the election pamphlet does not cite a specific source for these "new" claims, visual references to a variety of pro-government newspapers are made – Sabah, Star, Takvim and Aksam, to name a few. With regard to the ongoing graft probe, the booklet claims that the success of the Turkish financial institution Halkbank, so heavily implicated in the corruption scandal, upset Israel to such an extent that immediate action was apparently required. Particularly, Turkey's commercial dealings with Iran and the KRG in northern Iraq, realized via Halkbank, it is claimed, upset certain circles in Israel. And as a result, "[t]he goal is once again to strike Turkey." The AKP election pamphlet states that the 17 December graft probe and last year's Gezi protests have a "common goal." Quite literally, it is stated that the "issue at hand is to precipitate Turkey's collapse". And turning the whole thing into a personal affair, the booklet states that "[o]ne of the most important targets of this conspiracy is… Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan" – to upset the country's "political balance prior to the approaching elections." And once again, the chiefs of the “interest-rate lobby” are blamed for "supporting these dirty operations." In its closing pages, the AKP pamphlet then also makes cursory reference to the "parallel state" that is supposedly at work in Turkey.

Protestors chant slogans against the goverment on June 1, 2013, during a protest against the demolition of Taksim Gezi Park, in Taksim Square in Istanbul. (AFP Photo / Ozan Kose)

It might seem strange that the AKP has now apparently singled out the AEI and Israel as its main enemies. On 29 January 2004, Turkey's PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan attended an AEI luncheon talk entitled "Conservative Democracy and the Globalization of Freedom." At that time, the AEI was still supporting the "Bush administration foreign policy" goals of establishing a "new commitment to democracy in the Islamic world," and the organization all but endorsed Erdogan as a political leader dedicated to the virtues of democracy. A decade later, and now Pletka unabashedly writes that "Erdogan ... has begun to transform Turkey into an Islamist bastion. He has taken Ataturk’s legacy and is systematically dismantling the modern Turkish state. Reporters are in prison, the army has been emasculated, and secular freedoms are under siege."

As such, this sea change in the AEI's outlook had been in the making for some time. In 2011, the above-cited Michael Rubin wrote a polemic piece on Erdogan. Rubin's article states unequivocally that, "[w]hile American officials continued to endorse Turkey as a partner and a country bridging East and West, Erdogan and his confidants were quietly setting Turkey on a different course." Rubin maintains that this course will ultimately transform Turkey "into a state whose future rests in the Middle East," as a country that is firmly rooted in the Islamic world. Rubin goes on to say that Erdogan's "actions consistently show the importance he places on Muslim solidarity and Turkey's place in the Islamic world," to the detriment of Israel and the US. As a result, after having supported Erdogan and the AKP at the outset of this century, when the Conservative Bush, Jr. ran the White House, the AEI is now diametrically opposed to the brand of Muslim-Democracy advocated by Turkey's Justice and Development Party. The Turkish Prime Minister's rapprochement to certain Arab leaders, such as Hamas' Khaled Meshal, and particularly Erdogan's Davos performance in 2009 when the Turkish PM walked out on the Israeli president Shimon Peres, are instances which Rubin uses to drive home the point that the Turkish Prime Minister is nothing but a wolf in sheep's clothing.

Thus, the fact that the Islamist newspaper Yeni Şafak and the AKP election machinery have now singled out the American Enterprise Institute as one of their scapegoats does not appear to be odd at all. As such, the AEI is really used as a representative of the state of Israel. Even though Turkey used to enjoy the best of relationships with the Israel, following Erdogan's 2009 Davos performance and the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident such cordial interaction seems like a thing of the past. In spite of the fact that President Obama’s personal intervention last year caused Israel's Netanyahu to issue an official apology for the deaths of the Turkish activists on the Mavi Marmara, in turn leading to the planning of a gas pipeline connecting both countries, the current internal turmoil seems to have led Turkey's AKP leadership to persist in pursuing an anti-Israeli line, albeit for domestic and purely electoral purposes. But, whether this would justify the claim that the AEI is one of the nefarious “outside forces” responsible for last year's Gezi protests and currently on-going corruption probe seems more than a tenuous proposition. In other words, it seems, the story that the AEI, which is an organization plainly supportive of Israel, somehow orchestrated the Gezi protests and the current corruption scandal is probably just another conspiracy theory, a conspiracy theory that should be confined to the dustbin of history at some stage, sooner rather than later.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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