Some media commentators have been at great pains to point out that the riots and popular unrest in Turkey, still scarcely being contained by the government, cannot be equated with the so-called Arab Spring that flickered into life in Tunisia in December 2010, and then spread like a raging forest fire across the Middle East.
Professor Dirk Matten, for example, asserts categorically that what is happening in Turkey is far from those popular protests against repression, human rights abuses, state censorship and the other trammels of dictatorship or absolute monarchy which the Arab masses had endured for decades. Turkey’s popular revolt, he maintains, is much more comparable to what happened in Iran in 2009, following the last presidential elections. Both Turkey and Iran, he says, are Islamist régimes that, despite all their rhetoric, subsist on neo-liberal capitalist policies and are infringing democratic freedoms in order to implement them. He points to the enormous personal fortunes acquired by the ruling élite in Iran from involvement in the state’s major industries, and the rumoured “fairytale fortune” acquired by Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his wider family “which puts him on a par with the Ayatollahs next door.”
Two cables from Eric Edelman, a former US ambassador to Turkey, released in the Wikileaks scandal in 2010, refer to Erdogan’s personal wealth. in July 2004 he told Washington that an anonymous source and Erdogan had both “benefited directly from the award of the Tupraş privatization to a consortium including a Russian partner.” The Turkish Petroleum Refineries Corporation, or Tupraş, is the state petroleum refinery. A Russian-Turkish consortium paid nearly $1.3 billion for the privatization of the country’s largest-capacity refinery in 2004.
In a second cable to Washington, in December 2004, Edelman wrote: “We have heard from two contacts that Erdogan has eight accounts in Swiss banks; his explanations that his wealth comes from the wedding presents guests gave his son, and that a Turkish businessman is paying the educational expenses of all four Erdogan children in the US purely altruistically, are lame.”
Professor Matten is not alone. Other Turkey observers also emphasise the enormous differences between Turkey and the countries that underwent – and those that are still in the throes of – the Arab Spring.
To start with, Turkey is a democracy, and Erdogan’s AK party received an impressive 50 per cent of the vote in the last general election. It is unlikely that the whole of this popular support could be eroded in one fell swoop. Then, since 2003 when the current AKP government took power, Turkey has had the fastest-growing economy in the OECD and, unlike the Arab Spring countries, has been generating jobs for its people – 4.2 million jobs, more than the UK, France and Italy put together. A flourishing economy is not the most obvious basis for revolution.
Yet Erdogan has undoubtedly been moving his country ever closer to an Islamist stance, both internally and in the world arena. Inside Turkey, restrictions on press freedom have been growing, and individual freedoms have been encroached on. It was an apparently innocuous announcement on May 28 that the government intended to build a shopping mall on Gezi Park in Taksim, one of the last green public spaces in Istanbul’s cultural and political hub, that proved for many the last straw – the latest unacceptable item on the AKP’s Islamist agenda to curtail people’s freedoms.
The movement against the demolition of Gezi Park, started by a small organisation called the Taksim Platform, called for transparency from decision-makers and the opportunity for citizens to have input into the design of public space. But the initial justification for public protest opened a Pandora’s box of disaffection with the government’s conservative stance on a whole range of issues, including recent restrictions on the use of alcohol and on human rights. Protesters are also worried about Turkey’s support of Syrian rebels, and Erdogan’s plans to strengthen the office of the president, a position he hopes soon to occupy.
As the protests continued, and as the police began using gas shells, rubber bullets, pepper spray and water cannons, the protest caught fire. Thousands of citizens across 67 cities took to the streets, despite arrests and the violence used against them. The extent of the violence was condemned by human rights groups.
“The use of violence by police on this scale,” said John Dalhuisen of Amnesty International, “appears designed to deny the right to peaceful protest altogether, and to discourage others from taking part.”
Now journalists and observers have begun to note calls for prime minister Erdogan to step down. And still the protests continue, if anything growing in strength.
Erdogan left Turkey on June 3 for a visit to North Africa in a defiant mood, dismissing the protesters as looters and declaring that the unrest would be over in a matter of days. He returned, following six days of protests that left two dead and more than 4,000 injured in a dozen cities, to face demands he apologize over the fierce police crackdown and sack those who ordered it. By any count, this has been an unprecedented show of defiance against the perceived authoritarianism of Erdogan and his Islamist AK Party.
People often maintain that things are not what they seem to be. There is a down-to-earth and commonsense way to counter such arguments. It is called the “duck test”. It goes like this: “if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.”
Has Turkey latched on to the Arab Spring rather late in the day? Time will tell.
Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 9 June 2013:
Published in the Eurasia Review, 8 June 2013: