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Hichem Karoui: Tolerance won’t harm Erdogan
June 09, 2013
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

Their demands included the dismissal of the governors of Istanbul, the capital, Ankara, and the city of Hatay, as well as the heads of the security forces in those three cities. The list also included the release of detained protesters; an end to the use of tear gas by the police; and the cancellation of the project that started the protests: the construction of an Ottoman-era replica that would destroy a park in Taksim Square in Istanbul.

None of these demands has a national political significance. Most have obviously been conceived after the protests and the police brutal response. The latest demand is the initial motive of the local sit-in that turned into national rioting, because of the stupidity of the police reaction.

Though Erdogan is still strong and still has his chances to survive as Prime Minister, some observers think that the protests in Istanbul and other Turkish cities may mark the end of an era; anyway they are the sign of a growing dissatisfaction.

Some wondered whether Turkey is witnessing its “spring.” But this is nonsense.  

Turkey is since a good deal of time a credible democracy.  Some Western reports describe Erdogan as a new Ottoman Sultan.  The most important Turkish leader since Ataturk is slipping toward some kind of authoritarianism, they say.

But he is certainly not a dictator, like Ben Ali or Qadhafi, an autocrat like Hosni Mubarak, and at thousands of miles away from a fascist like Bashar Al Assad. Alas! We read in some reports that “Turkey’s upheaval provides new evidence that Islam and democracy cannot coexist.” Behind such triviality lurks the old colonialist idea that Muslims are against freedom. If they are so, then it is good to subdue them into accepting dictators who would act as guardians of the new colonialist order.

The Economist put it this way: “The problem is not Islam, but Mr Erdogan. He has a majoritarian notion of politics: if he wins an election, he believes he is entitled to do what he likes until the next one.”

Really? What if Erdogan was not Muslim but Christian? What did Mr Sarkozy do in France? How about the reign of the late Margaret Thatcher? Ask people in France and Great Britain.

The problem in Turkey did not start with the protests, but rather with the response of the police.

Protests happen everywhere in well established Western democracies. Demonstrations and strikes of powerful unions are so frequent in some European countries, that they have become a habit.

This said, some hard questions need to be answered about what happened in Turkey:

Why, in the first place, did the police brutally use excessive force, with tear gas bombs and rubber bullets, etc..?

Why did the Turkish media remain deaf and mute while foreign journalists were reporting the events as breaking news? Censorship still survives, it seems. Erdogan has jailed journalists and sought to restrict media freedom.

We should not overlook the initial cause of these protests. It was the decision of the government to demolish an old park and build a shopping mall.

It was about trying to prevent the demolition of Gezi Park, considered as one of the monuments of Istanbul. People from different social and political backgrounds gathered in a peaceful environmental protest. Thousands of people have reportedly gathered in Taksim square. They were singing and dancing.

The answer of the Prime Minister has been far from conciliatory. First, he suggested that the demonstrations were organised by his rivals of the Republican People Party. This is not a serious argument, although it is not inconceivable that the opposition tried to take advantage of the protests and call for political change.

Let us not forget that some of Erdogan’s conservative allies have criticised him. The fraternity of the Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen has issued a statement on April 17, expressing deep concern about Erdogan’s unrelenting slipping toward authoritarianism.

He chose to ignore the demands of the protesters and said that “terrorist groups” have infiltrated and diverted the demonstrations. He suggested that foreign intelligence services (i.e. Syria and Iran) might be involved in the protests.

More than 1,700 people have been arrested since the beginning of the protests on May 31, including 7 foreigners.

The edgy answer of the Prime Minister stands against his own record.

Some observers point that the country is achieving continual economic success with AKP: GDP growth has averaged over 5 per cent a year since 2002, the average income per capita has increased from $3,000 to $11,000 in a decade. Turkey is considered a model for countries emerging from upheavals. Erdogan is still popular especially among small business-owners and the conservative Anatolian peasantry.

Against this pretty successful background, other observers contend that the Lira has lost 8 per cent in recent months and 1 per cent just since the protests began. The Turkish stock market has fallen about 9 per cent in the past week. Some economists have warned that, as with other economic booms built on a mountain of debt – particularly Japan, the USA, Spain, Ireland… – the one in Turkey would reach a painful end.

So is this the beginning? It is hard to assert and prove it.

Turkey is not undergoing a “forced landing” just because a few thousands protest in the streets. There are still millions of people who believe AKP can win the economic and social battle for the country.

As for the environmental battle, one has no reason to think that Recep Tayyip Erdogan is lying when he says, “We planted many trees in the last 10 years. Our Taksim project is one that holds history, environment and culture together. This project will create a beautiful environment in Istanbul.”

For as  Steven Cook observed in Foreign Affairs recently, “When he was mayor of Istanbul in the mid-1990s, Erdogan did what successful big city mayors do – he made life a little easier for the millions of residents of his beautiful, maddening megalopolis. Erdogan cleaned up the garbage in the streets, unknotted traffic, and literally cleared the air by introducing environmentally friendlier public transportation.”

So much the best! Yet, Erdogan still needs to be more tactful particularly with the youth who do not share his political views. Tolerance would not hurt him. Those in the police who took the responsibility of ordering a brutal assault against peaceful demonstrators should be punished. Why not organise a public dialogue with the leaders of Taksim square?

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The author is an expert in US-Middle East
relations at the Arab Center for Research
and Policy Studies (Doha Institute)
 

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