Analysis: Arab uprising spirit comes to Turkey

Former Pentagon official: We can call this start of the ‘Turkish Spring'; Mideast lecturer says "Erdogan is not Mubarak."

June 3, 2013 01:36
Demonstrators shout slogans during an anti-government protest in Istanbul, June 1

Turkish anti-government protest 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Have the Arab uprisings made their way to Turkey? It seems the Turkish people took a page out of the Arab peoples’ playbook, with large numbers demonstrating in the streets in order to bring about political change. The protesters seem to be made up of more secular Turks affiliated with the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1924.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is acting according to character, defying the pressure and promising to plow ahead with his plans to build at the Istanbul Park. He painted the protesters as criminals: “They are burning, damaging the shops. Is this democracy?” he asked.

However, Erdogan seemed to give in a little, saying that there would not be a mall, but a mosque, to replace Taksim Square.

It is hard to see how the prime minister would give in to the opposition or even quit if the pressure keeps up.

Efrat Aviv, a researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies and a lecturer in the department of Middle East studies at Bar-Ilan University, who closely follows the Turkish media, told The Jerusalem Post that it is difficult to find out what is going on because Turkey does not have a freedom of the press and its media are not broadcasting much about the protests.

In addition, she said, one of her contacts inside the country said that on Saturday, Facebook and Twitter were shut down for a few hours.

Aviv sees the outburst as a result of a building tension that blew up because of a number of factors that have been irritating a large segment of the population, and not only secular Turks, but also some religious people and Erdogan voters.

The jailing of generals and political activists, the limitations on alcohol and smoking, the failure to act in Syria, which has created a major refugee problem in Turkey, police brutality, and upset over the peace process with the Kurds were already on the minds of much of the public when the police overreacted at the park, causing masses to turn out in protest, after what might have been a non-event if not for the police action.

However, perhaps it was just a matter of time before an event like this caused things to boil over.

“Erdogan is not Mubarak,” said Aviv, adding that she does not see this like an Arab uprising. Perhaps the protesters got some inspiration about the power of the people from the uprisings, but Turkey is a democracy, not a perfect one, but definitely on a completely different level than the Arab states, she said.

Burak Bekdil, a columnist for the Turkish daily Hurriyet told the Post that the reason there were less protesters on Sunday was "mostly due to a kind of 'victory feeling' on the part of the protesters, not because Erdogan stepped back."

"I expect protests to resume at every opportunity from now on. It may be a long, hot summer... But this is certainly not going to be a Turkish Spring, with Erdogan, by all indications, maintaining his popularity around 50 percent," said Bekdil.

He does not see the protest as a "game changer," because the economy is doing well and he sees Erdogan as someone who will try not to create too much of a crisis situation as he does not want to be compared to those such as Assad.

The Post spoke with Taner Aydin, the bureau chief in Israel of the Anadolu Agency, the official government news agency in Turkey. He articulated and defended Erdogan’s positions as though he were a Turkish diplomat, saying that the protest was illegal to begin with, sparked over a non-issue – moving some trees.

Aydin complained that the Western media was not fairly portraying the protests.

First, he said, Turkey is a democracy and like in any democracy, if protesters or anarchists start to burn shops and create problems, the police intervene. This is true in the US and Israel, he said, adding that the only legitimate way to get rid of the government is to “win elections.”

When asked about reports that Turkey has arrested many journalists and generals, he echoed the AKP government’s line that “anywhere in the world, if the military is involved in a coup,” they are arrested. He added that many of the journalists that have been arrested were really activists who were supporting the planned coup.

Michael Rubin, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Pentagon official who was just in Turkey, told the Post, “We can certainly call this the start of the ‘Turkish Spring.’"

 “Just as in Egypt and Bahrain, the government managed to ignite sparks of discontent into a full-scale uprising because of excessive use of force and general arrogance,” he said.

He said the protests are a reaction by Turkish liberals who have been upset with “Erdogan’s increasing desire to steamroll over anyone who disagrees with his agenda, by any means necessary.”

The Post asked Aydin about Rubin’s assessment, and he laughed it off as “ridiculous.”

“The Turkish economy is doing great,” Aydin said, arguing that there is no deep divide in his homeland, but a simple case of a “small minority that wants to rule the country” but did not win an election.

And how can the government be against the press? It allows criticism of the government every day, he said, mentioning the opposition affiliated Hurriyet newspaper, which is “100 percent against Erdogan.”

Aydin went on to play down the protests, noting that the turnout on Sunday was down, saying that “in a few weeks, nobody may remember them.”

But clearly, something seems to have changed, and the chances that Turkey would be named to host the 2020 Summer Olympics seem to be much less today than a few weeks ago when it was a favorite to be awarded the Games.

Ariel Cohen, a senior research fellow at the US think tank the Heritage Foundation, who is also traveling in the region, concurred with Rubin that the protests could not be easily brushed under the rug.

“This is a serious blow for the Erdogan government. The appearance of social stability in Turkey was shattered.

The main square in its main city was enveloped in tear gas,” said Cohen.

Cohen believes that the polarization between the secular and the Islamists will only grow, and “more violence is likely to reignite in the future.”

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