Istanbul is quiet, Erdogan weakened, but so is the opposition

INSTANBUL, Turkey — I sit atop the new, lean, boutique hotel that has just opened in Istanbul's historical financial district, a few doors down from the Turkish Central Bank, affront the square where the Galata Bridge crosses the Golden Horn.

The late night view from its top-floor open-air bar is as fantastic as from any hotel anywhere in the world: a lit-up panorama of Turkey's past, stretching on the left from Topkapi, the palace home of Ottoman sultans since the 15th century, past Hagia Sophia, Justinian's great 6th-century domed church that was transformed to a mosque when the Byzantine Empire collapsed, and is now a museum.

The six minarets of the Blue Mosque come next into view, then the Suleymaniye, the massive mosque of Sinan, the most famous Ottoman architect, and on around the Golden Horn.

Then, turning back to the far left, up the Bosphorus, where the first Bosphoros bridge floats above the waterway, its modernity garishly emphasized by an ever-changing display of thousands of colored lights tracing the steel span connecting old Europe to new Asia.

And, finally, turning one's back completely on the old Ottoman haunts, the lit-up top of the Galata Tower, Genoa's 14th-century contribution to the Istanbul skyline, glares down.

It had been 50 years, almost to the day, since I first surveyed Istanbul's splendors, not from an ultra-modern vantage point atop the old European side of the city, but from a third-floor walk-up hidden away in its Ottoman past, its price making that decade's travel bible, "Europe on $5 a Day," sound positively extravagant.

The Istanbul of 2013 is stuffed with boutique hotels and their grander cousins, a Four Seasons converting the old city jail into captivating luxury, a Kempinski built around a luxurious Ottoman palace on the Bosphoros, the prerequisite Ritz-Carlton as well as all the other name brands.

In the summer of 1963, only the Hilton served the up-market tourist trade and the local Westernized ladies who gathered for afternoon tea on the terrace, with their "Istanbul-red" dyed hair, their little fingers appropriately aloft as they sipped from China tea cups, disdaining the small, figure-eight glass containers the rest of the city was, and still is, drinking its tea from.

A half-century later, Ataturk's new Turkey continues its schizophrenic path, as twisting and perhaps as contradictory a path as that of any country, east and west. Then, a city of less than a million people, ferries not bridges connecting its two continents, and little, disconnected villages stretching up the Bosphoros to the Black Sea, the green hills above covered with trees not high-rise apartments.

In the streets, the ubiquitous 1940s DeSotos, held together by some of the world's most creative mechanics, jostled with exhaust-spewing buses, chugging scooters and horse-drawn carts. But the mixed traffic flowed nicely and one could get from Bebek, halfway up to the Black Sea, the site of the second bridge now spanning the Bosphoros, to the Galata Bridge in 15 minutes; now, without a speed boat, the trip could take close to an hour.

There were older, bent-over women in Istanbul in those days as well, wearing colorful peasant garb, a precursor of the 10 million or so Anatolians who would move into the city from the high plain over the next half-century, turning the rolling farmland along the 50-mile stretch of the Sea of Marmara from Izmit to Istanbul into a landscape of factories providing jobs and economic opportunity for the new transplants.

Turkey's been through two revolutions in the past century — the first, the Ataturk that eradicated its Ottoman past and jumped it from the 18th to the 20th century in a few years. Western alphabet, Western dress, Western manners, and the revolutionary Western idea of the separation of church and state: Mustafa Kemal was a war hero who had literally saved Turkey from dismemberment at the hands of the allies after World War I.

Only such a George Washington-type figure — Ataturk, the name his countrymen gave him, means "father of the Turks" — could have accomplished such dramatic changes in less than a decade.

The new Turkey grew slowly economically; it was just emerging from Ataturk's monumental changes when the Depression hit, and then World War II. The Ataturk Revolution struck deep roots as seen by the continued statist approach during the second half of the 20th century, when the government controlled most of the key elements of the economy. The heirs to Ataturk's military kept politicians from straying too far from the original Ataturk vision, either economically or religiously.

But the European Union beckoned and a second revolution, a transition to full-throated capitalism, accelerated the move of country Turks to the cities, bringing with them more traditional ideas about religion and society. Anatolian Turks were never as devout as most of their Arab neighbors, but the local mosque was still the focal point of their villages just as it had been in earlier centuries. And they brought that mentality to their secular city-dwelling cousins.

So as the more conservative Anatolians prospered in the cities, they turned the old Kemalist vision into a new synthesis: economic growth with a democracy no longer constrained by the military although with a renewed emphasis on Islam.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's confrontational leader, is the epitome of this new Turk. His AK Party, an offshoot of an early incarnation banned for its overt Islamism, has roughly 50 percent of the population behind it. It is a mixture of traditional Anatolians in thousands of small communities across the country and millions of others now urbanized but still retaining their Anatolian conservatism.

But Erdogan has gone too far. Over the past few years, his more sophisticated countrymen have become increasingly put off by his authoritarian, even dictatorial, ways; there are more journalists in jail in Turkey than in Iran or China.

The opposition finally exploded a month ago over a seemingly unimportant issue — the proverbial back-breaking straw — of a new shopping mall ordered by Erdogan to replace a small tree-filled park in the center of Istanbul.

Istanbul's quiet now. The protesters have gone, but everyone I talked to on the more than 600-mile trip along the Black Sea to Istanbul — a cross-section of waiters, hotel owners, bazaar denizens, barmates, whose common thread, the English language, makes it, to be sure, a less than comprehensive survey — was unanimous in their animosity toward Erdogan: he has "a dictator mentality;" "he uses religion as an excuse to get his way."

Even columnists in the largest English-language paper, owned by a pro-government media outlet, are reacting similarly: "heavy-handed … unable to come to grips with reality … police brutality."

Erdogan remains defiant, aggressively attacking the demonstrators as "traitors" or "bums," part of a "foreign conspiracy." The opposition is weak and disorganized; there are no effective leaders in any of the parties splitting the anti-Erdogan vote, no one with the charisma of Erdogan.

"We see the emperor has no clothes," one Turk told me. True, but there is no one to challenge Erdogan in his weakened state, even as the split among his hybrid version of Ottoman conservatism and Western capitalism and Ataturk's equally hybrid mix of secularism and Turkish nationalism is fully exposed.

Viewed from the perspective of the Arab Spring and the explosive reaction to Egyptian President Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood takeover, Turkey's turmoil might seem dangerous. But Turkey's democracy is solid.

It's the younger generation who initiated the anti-Erdogan demonstrations, whose sense of identity does not need an Islamist underpinning. Their negative response to Erdogan's increasing authoritarianism bodes well for their young country's future.

We're into Phase Three of modern Turkey. It will have more rough moments, but a happy ending.

Mac Deford is retired after a career as a Foreign Service officer, an international banker, and a museum director, who lives at Owls Head, Maine. This commentary was written during his recent visit to Turkey with his wife, Zhera, a native of Turkey.