Two weeks ago, several dozen environmentalists gathered in Istanbul’s tree-lined Taksim Square Gezi Park, staging a peaceful sit-in to oppose government plans to replace the beloved park with a shopping center. The government responded with tear gas and water cannons, spurring one of the largest and most violent protests Turkey has seen in decades.
So far, five people have been killed and over 5,000 injured. In the last week, tens of thousands of Turks have come out to oppose Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamist ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP. Since May 31, 67 of Turkey’s 81 provinces have seen demonstrations, according to Turkey’s semi-official Andalou News Agency.
What’s happening in Turkey is that democracy, as we in the West understand it, “has been in retreat consistently over the last couple of years,” Ilan Berman, the vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, tells me.
That has implications far beyond Turkey’s borders, because Turkey has long been considered as a paragon of Muslim democracy. Even the Obama administration has pointed to it as an example, saying, on his first trip overseas as president, that Ataturk’s greatest legacy “is Turkey’s strong, vibrant, secular democracy, and that is the work that this assembly carries today.” If Turkey falters, the Arab world loses an important precedent.
Defending the prime minister, an Erdogan adviser asked, “How can a government that received almost 50 percent of the vote be authoritarian?” And indeed, since first coming to power a decade ago, Erdogan’s AKP has won three consecutive elections with increasing margins.
But those increasing win margins have brought decreases in freedoms for Turkey’s citizens. Erdogan has used his electoral victories to justify policies that infringe on the rights of anyone who opposes him.
Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies are especially apparent in his concessions to the country’s conservative Muslims, a growing constituency essential to his success. Erdogan’s AKP has crafted its political agenda around the half of the country that embraces the religious policies Erdogan is creating and enforcing. The other half — those who consider themselves Turks first, Muslims second — does not.
This other, secular half comprises the protesting lot.
In the last two years, Erdogan has ordered the demolition of a statue of two concrete figures meant to symbolize reconciliation between Turks and Armenians in the northeastern city of Kars because he deemed it “monstrous”; he has threatened judicial action against the directors of the country’s most famous soap opera because he thought it “seditious”; he has restricted when, where, and how adults can consume alcohol; and he has even placed restrictions on the availability of birth control.
More broadly, Erdogan has resurrected authoritarian measures that historically characterized Turkey. Opposing politicians have been imprisoned, and Turkey earned the title, “The World’s Worst Jailer of Journalists” in 2012, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Forty-nine journalists were thrown behind bars last year, 98 percent on anti-state charges. And Erdogan is also following the Putin model, centralizing the media. Already, his son-in-law owns Sabah, one of three major newspapers in Turkey. Erdogan’s assault on the press is having an effect. CNN-Turk, instead of broadcasting what’s happening on its back porch, aired a documentary on penguins on June 1.
What’s happening on the streets of Turkey is less about the trees and the shopping malls and more about resentment. When Turks took to Taksim Square Gezi Park, they were not merely an Occupy-inspired crowd upset about trees and shopping malls. They were expressing discontent with an increasingly oppressive status quo.
Erdogan exacerbated the situation by sending out his police forces to violently disperse peaceful protestors — all the while rejecting the claims of his dictator status by saying he was merely “a servant of the people.” Further stirring public ire, he accused the peaceful protestors of “walking arm-in-arm with terrorism.” And in a televised interview during the first week, he said, “We will not yield to a few looters coming to that square and provoking our people, our nation, based on their misinformation.”
It certainly doesn’t help that the AKP has the seemingly unfailing support of President Barack Obama. So far, the Obama administration has responded with simple concern about “the excessive use of force,” but now is the perfect time for tough love — or for tough consequences, something the administration hasn’t excelled at. At very least, the president should be taking another look at his policies toward Turkey, despite the United States’ desperate need for real allies in the Middle East.
For Turkey’s allies, the protests are an opportunity to show an elected authoritarian what democracy actually looks like. And if the protestors want the freedom they say they do, they must continue speaking out for it. When the government fears its citizens, and not the other way round, there is liberty.
Elisha Maldonado is the editorial page editor of The International Business Times, where she regularly writes about Turkish politics. She formerly edited the Turkish Press for the Gatestone Institute. Image of Republic Monument in Taksim Square courtesy of Big Stock Photo.