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Not the same old protests in Turkey 13 juin 2013

Posted by Acturca in Turkey / Turquie.
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The Middle East Channel (Foreign Policy) Thursday, June 13, 2013

By Murat Somer *

For two weeks, massive antigovernment protests have rocked Turkey, a country widely seen as a bastion of stability and secular democracy in its region. According to official statements, four people have been killed and up to 5,000 injured during the countrywide clashes between police and protesters. The uprisings are becoming the biggest challenge to the government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) since it came to power in 2002.

But this is not the first time the party has been faced with mass protests. In 2007, popular « republican rallies » threatened to unsettle the government. Then, much like now, secular sensitivities were among the motivations of the protesters. International media often portrayed the fault lines in terms of Islamists versus secularists, or « black Turks » versus « white Turks. »

Then as now, the government vilified the protesters as autocrats who wanted to bring back military tutelage and impose the will of a minority on the pro-government majority. It accused them of conspiring with the « deep state » and with corporate and foreign interests in order to depose the elected government.

Other than these similarities, however, these two episodes are entirely different. Then, the AKP government and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had rightfully earned the democratic world’s sympathy and deserved the benefit of doubt. Today, they don’t.

First of all, the instigating events are very dissimilar. In 2007, rallies began when the AKP decided to nominate one of its principal figures Abdullah Gul for the presidency. The critics had a valid point that the AKP could be more consensus-oriented and gain the trust of the opposition by jointly picking a more neutral presidential figure.

But ultimately they were rallying against something that the AKP had the legal right to do. And, worst of all, the secularist military issued an anti-government ultimatum and encouraged the protests in ways that resembled the military intervention 10 years earlier.

This time, however, everything started when the police violently dispersed a peaceful sit-in to protect a public park. The ensuing anger over police brutality quickly grew into a countrywide grassroots movement because the police continued to disrespect human rights, the government was unapologetic and dismissive, Erdogan kept berating the protesters, and the domestic media was conspicuously silenced.

In 2007, it was religious Turks who legitimately felt that their personal values were under attack because many protesters seemed to be irritated by Gul’s wife wearing an Islamic headscarf. Now, secular Turks legitimately sense that their personal values are threatened.

A series of laws passed in recent years increased the scope for religious education and severely restricted abortion rights and the sale and consumption of alcohol. In addition, prominent figures have been prosecuted for « insulting religion » due to their artistic and intellectual expressions.

But much more than laws, people are incensed by restrictions on everyday life practices and Erdogan’s derogatory language. He has called abortion murder, anybody who consumes alcohol a drunkard, and the protesters both marauders (capulcu) and drunkards. In passing, he asserted that it would be legitimate for the state to use Islamic justification for restricting a harmful practice for the « people’s own good. »

Last month, announcements in the Ankara subway instructed people not to engage in public displays of affection. Erdogan declared that such immorality could not be allowed in a subway « belonging to the state » and a group of knife-wielding radicals assaulted people who protested the new restrictions by organizing a « public kissing » event.

These examples suggest that secular fears are based on some concrete policies and public statements of Erdogan and his cadre. This is different from 2007 when secular concerns mainly drew on what Turks call « intention-reading, » i.e. making inferences about the Islamists’ hidden intentions.

And, arguably, this time around many of the fears expressed by the government itself — such as the fear that the protests are fabricated merely to topple the government — can be seen as intentionreading as well. Most protesters simply want a more responsive and more accountable government that respects their personal and civil liberties and human rights.

In 2007, Turkish democracy was still under military tutelage and the threat of a military intervention was very real. The AKP won a victory for democracy by not bowing down to the military’s demands as its predecessors did. Since then, legal and political developments including the prosecution of hundreds of high-level officers for « conspiracy to overturn the government » have subdued the military.

Instead, a 200,000 plus strong, heavily armed, and barely accountable police force appears to have the power to repress civil liberties at the government’s behest. Even though ordinary attendees had mixed motivations when they joined the republican rallies six years ago, their « spokespeople » clearly included people with ultranationalist, anti-western and militaristic views.

By contrast, the 2013 protests have no visible leadership and organization. The original architects of the protests, the « Taksim solidarity group » consists of simple citizens who promote peaceful resistance to protect Gezi Park and does not necessarily represent others. Protesters are loosely organized and spontaneously mobilized through social media.

The core participants of the Gezi resistance are comprised of a diverse group of people, a major portion from the 1990s generation. They represent post-industrial liberal values and a new type of politics. In many ways, they are products of the rapid economic development that Turkey has enjoyed during the 2000s with the help of the AKP.

Many of the protesters are too young to remember either the 2007 rallies or military interventions. But they are old enough to recall the government’s authoritarian acts in recent years. Heavily consisting of university students and women, they include leftists, liberals, secular nationalists, and small but novel groups such as secular and Islamist feminists, vocal groups of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) activists, and « anti-capitalist Muslims. »

They rely on the « soft power » of arts, humour, and the Internet. Their main ally that has the « hard power » of mobilizing large numbers ready to challenge the leviathan-like police seems to be the so-called « Carsi, » a vocal and politicized group of soccer fans.

The hundreds of thousands who come to their support are even more diverse, hailing from across Turkey’s social and ideological spectrum. They are united by their anger over the government’s recent policies, police violence, and Erdogan’s interventionist Puritanism.

Finally, the most visible participants may perhaps be the least representative. They are small but organized militant groups of ultranationalists and extreme-leftists who fight the police with petrol bombs in front of TV cameras, and, occasionally, pro-Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) groups brandishing posters of Abdullah Ocalan.

The media in 2007 was divided with one side actively promoting the anti-government rallies. Today, the media is still divided but at the same time, the government appears to have especially subordinated the broadcast media.

One of the events that fuelled many protesters’ furore was that the Turkish affiliate of CNN International, CCN-Turk, aired a documentary about penguins while violent clashes were taking place between the police and protesters all over Istanbul. The mainstream TV and radio stations were silenced to an extent that suggested a gravely controlled and intimidated society.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, the AKP government was different in 2007. The most palpable indication of this was that, in sharp contrast to the current protests, the republican rallies were not met with heavy-handed police crackdowns. In return, while polarizing and often militant, the rallies were mainly peaceful.

Erdogan could have ended the protests on the very first day by visiting the park and telling the protesters that he was sorry for the actions of the police and his government would reconsider the demolition of the Gezi Park. Instead, he waited for more than two weeks to invite for a meeting in his office in Ankara a handful of handpicked artists and academics who were clearly unrepresentative of the protesters.

In 2007, the AKP could boast not only of unprecedented economic growth but also of revolutionary democratic reforms that earned Turkey the start of EU accession talks. Its inclusive and liberal-democratic discourse reflected a political agenda focusing on the elimination of military and judiciary praetorianism, freedoms and human rights for all segments of Turkish society, and constructing a democracy that met European standards.

To be sure, the AKP is still spearheading brave and historical democratic initiatives most importantly the peace process with the PKK. However, it also seems ever ready to oppress its opponents by whatever methods it deems necessary. Rather than seeking consensus, it seems to seek hegemony.

Rather than seeking more pluralism it seems to try to reshape society according to its own ideology. Now that the military tutelage is gone and EU prospects are more doubtful than ever, the AKP’s roadmap for further democratization is unclear. The AKP is highly critical and dismissive of the opposition, the EU, and those segments of society who do not vote for it.

Its discourse and policies often smack of pro-state elitism and pro-Islamic social engineering by using the very means of the domineering state apparatus that the AKP used to challenge and promised to bring under societal control.

In 2007, it was much more ambiguous which side represented the autocrats and which side the democrats, who were the victims and the oppressors, and who should be supported in the name of democracy and human rights. In 2007 the AKP government had earned the world’s conditional support and a chance to lead the country’s democratization. Today, the same government is acting oppressively.

Unless the opposition parties can restructure themselves as credible alternatives, it may still be the most viable political actor to steer democratic reforms such as writing a more democratic constitution. But things cannot remain the same after the Gezi protests.

The AKP must be held accountable for its actions and pushed to implement reforms lest Turkey miss its historical opportunity to consolidate true democracy. Otherwise, there is a real peril that it will evolve into a de facto authoritarian regime with a seemingly liberal economy and feckless elections every four years.

* Murat Somer is an Associate Professor of International Relations at Koç University.

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