Thanks Erdogan!
Pedestrians walk past a billboard set up by the Ankara municipality to thank Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) on March 25, 2013, three days after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L on billboard) apologized to Turkey over the death of nine Turkish citizens on board a Gaza-bound flotilla in 2010. © Adem Altan
Thanks Erdogan!
Last updated: June 7, 2013

What you need to know about the #OccupyGezi phenomenon in Turkey

Banner Icon Resistanbul The Turkish crisis tainted Erdoğan's reputation, but he remains the most powerful and popular leader since Atatürk himself and is not solely to blame, writes Gabriel Mitchell who puts recent events into context.

Early and often, experts drew parallels between the recent events in Taksim and those in Tahrir Square, but for Israelis, the past days remind many of the social protest movement that swept our own country in the summer of 2011, where “social justice” was demanded from the Netanyahu government. This brief analysis presents the events in Turkey within the necessary historical, social, and political context.

1. While Turkey has democratic elections, it is not a liberal state

The lack of freedom of speech and press freedom has been a serious problem in Turkey for some time. Forty-seven journalists currently sit behind bars, a dozen for producing work and engaging in activities deemed anti-state. In Turkey’s not so distant past journalists and other activists were murdered for expressing alternative political views (see Hrant Dink). In addition the state banned use of Kurdish language for decades. This is one of the biggest critiques levied against Prime Minister Erdoğan, whose actions this week only reinforced his image as an autocrat with no patience for the press, and has been festering over the eleven years of AKP governance.

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On the other hand, Erdoğan and the AKP (Justice and Development Party) still represent the majority of Turks, and though many will disagree with the use of force by police against the protestors, they will still be perceived as provocateurs. Istanbul may be the economic and cultural capital of Turkey, but its unique cosmopolitan atmosphere separates it from the rest of the country. Protests elsewhere are largely residual, supporting the main event in Taksim Square but not carrying the same quantitative and qualitative weight of Turkey's biggest city. Therefore this event is not likely the beginning of some revolution, rather the outcry of an underrepresented minority.

2. Turkey has a long history of anti-government protest… that usually is accompanied by fierce government and military reprisal, and it is critical to note the historic trends at work. 

The Republic of Turkey was founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk on secularist, not liberal, principles. In the ninety years of the republic's existence his principles were fought over by differing political factions. Military coups in 1960, 1971, and 1980 squashed any challengers to the Kemalist legacy. In 2002, when the AKP was elected into office for the first time, many believed that the yoke of authoritarianism so often associated with Atatürk’s successors had finally been lifted. Turkey’s liberal left, not a traditional partner with the conservative AKP and its religious constituents, banked on Erdoğan. Despite their fears that he was a wolf in sheep's wool, he possessed a charisma thought necessary to lead Turkey into the 21st century. He promised EU membership, peace with the Kurds, and a multidimensional economy. 

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Over the course of a decade Erdoğan has slowly smothered civil liberties. Arrests of the country’s military elite came with limited protest, and the weakening of the media caused only a few ripples. Proposed restrictions on the sale of alcohol and a more Eastern-facing foreign policy distanced the premier from an abandoned, albeit minority, constituency that had hoped for real change. Because the economy was chugging along and no one looked capable, or interested in, mounting a serious challenge to the prime minister's increasing authority, resistance to Erdoğan has been limited at best.

It is ironic that after all these years trees would unite frustrated Turks. Now Erdoğan will have to choose whether to follow in the path of his more forgettable predecessors, or pave a new political language and hear his people out. So far he has not displayed an inclination to listen.

3. Erdoğan is not solely to blame

In his first response to the events in Gezi Park, Erdoğan explained how the lack of an organized opposition had caused the protests. “The opposition has to be powerful and persistent too...if it cannot other circles will take its place,” he declared.

This is not entirely incorrect. Erdoğan’s rise in Turkish politics is partially due to his charisma, partially due to socio-economic shifts in the country, but also the result of a weak and visionless opposition. After all, it was in 2002 that 34.28% of the population voted for the AKP over the CHP, the Republican People's Party founded by Ataturk himself. A decade in the opposition, the CHP hasn't restored much faith in the old, secularist way, nor has it reinvented itself to evolve with the 21st century. 

Much will be written about how these protests could be the impetus for a more liberal-minded opposition, but liberal parties, who should not be confused for the secular CHP, have little history of success in Turkey and that is unlikely to change.  

This is a case of Turks simultaneously hating the player and the game. Erdoğan has brought unprecedented economic success and international standing – the IMF recently changed Turkey’s status from “debtor” to “creditor” – at seemingly terrible cost to their liberties. The question is whether Erdoğan is willing to balance the needs of an increasingly polarized society, particularly those who feel they lack representation in government? 

4. This is not Tahrir, and it is not Tel Aviv (exactly) 

That may seem obvious, but there are specific reasons as to why both cases don’t quite fit #OccupyGezi. 

Erdoğan is being called a sultan, yet he is the democratically elected leader who has repeatedly garnered over 50% of the national vote in a democratic country. Comparing him to Mubarak, one in a chain of Egyptian despots who never held a single clean election, is dangerous and inflammatory. Turks can still choose not to vote for him, and bolster a stronger opposition in parliament.

There is a fear, however, that he is preparing to institute the kind of constitutional reform that would restructure Turkey’s parliamentary system into a presidential one, and setting himself up for a historic power grab (think Vladimir Putin) by 2014. This fear was a driving force behind the protests, and now a critical future test to Turkish democracy.

It may be better to compare the protests with those which occurred in Israel in 2011: Israelis who demanded lower housing costs from “King Bibi” employed similar language, using imagery of their democracy transformed into a dictatorship. In each case, discontent grew over the course of several years until liberal grassroots movements reached their boiling point. 

Yet there was a distinct lack of force applied to curb the masses on Rothschild Boulevard.  One could attribute this to the size of Israel, how the country is a close-knit community; however, it is a testimony to Israel’s often-unbelievable level of democracy, and the purveyance of liberal Jewish values in mainstream society. This is an important contrast worth noting when discussing social movements and government responses. The use of force is what separates the Turkish and Israeli cases.

(Not) The End

Perhaps this week’s clashes are a prelude to something bigger, but for now predictions should be kept to a minimum. After all, Erdoğan is arguably the most powerful and popular leader since Atatürk himself. Turkey has its own story to tell and it will reveal itself in due time.

What can be said with certainty is that Erdoğan’s authority has taken a significant blow internationally. World media has glued into the event, and somewhere in his Damascus palace, Assad is likely chuckling at how hypocritical Erdoğan, who has a "bond of trust" with President Obama, must now appear before a concerned Western audience. 

The views expressed are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of Your Middle East.

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Gabriel Mitchell
Gabriel is an Israel Research Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem, Israel. He holds an MA in Political Science from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
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