Why Erdogan is No Mubarak

Sule Yaylaci on the critical differences between the protests in Turkey and the Arab Spring.
By: /
June 18, 2013
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What started as a relatively small-scale demonstration against the demolition of a park in Istanbul has escalated into the largest anti-government protest during Prime Minister Erdoğan’s 11-year rule. The scope of the movement has grown far beyond the initial environmental concerns; it now embodies a myriad of concerns, frustrations, and resentments towards Erdoğan’s rule and policies. The protesters themselves are a wide-ranging group from different social and political backgrounds: Kurdish and Turkish nationalists, communists, anti-capitalist conservative group, and Kemalists marching side by side in unprecedented solidarity. The movement has even inspired apolitical or otherwise indifferent people to participate. Facebook and Twitter have been widely used to organize protests and to tell the world what is happening.

It is tempting to draw the conclusion that the Arab Spring has come to Turkey. A number of commentators have drawn parallels between the two movements given the common grounds such as the absence of a dominant political party or an organization behind the protests and widespread use of social media. But what is happening in Turkey right now is not a new branch of the Arab Spring, and it should not be confounded with it. It is a Turkish reaction to a Turkish problem. And trying to place them in the same category will not only jeopardize our understanding of what is actually happening on the streets of Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, and close to 60 other cities, and but also hamper the accurate approach to the problem at hand in Turkey.

Consider the case of Egypt, of all the countries of the Arab Spring, seemingly the most similar to Turkey. First and foremost, Egypt was an authoritarian regime under the rule of emergency law when the Arab Spring erupted there. Turkey, on the other hand, is an electoral democracy, and has been since 1945. Its democracy was interrupted by three major military coups, but except for these periods, it always elected its leaders with free and fair elections. It is the only secular democracy in the Muslim world, even though it has never necessarily been a fully consolidated liberal democracy. Yes, there has always been room for further democratization. But governments do change with competitive multiparty elections.

What the protest movement in Turkey is seeking to do is curb the increasingly authoritarian tendencies of the government and express the grievances of the public with the current rule of the government.

Erdoğan’s party, the AKP (Justice and Development Party) came to power in 2002 with a landslide victory, and ever since has increased its share of the vote. In the last election, it garnered 50 per cent of the votes and secured enough seats in the parliament to pass regular laws with the majority of votes.

During Erdoğan’s first two terms, many reforms were undertaken to further democratization and expand liberties, including enabling head-scarved women to enter public spheres and universities and broadcasting and education in Kurdish. But in his current term, his rule has not been any different from that of a tyrant.

His style of governance has become extensively repressive and imposing. As the leader of the party, Erdoğan has an immense power over his delegates and party members. His ideas determine the policy of the party and no oppositions is allowed. His MPs are rubber stamps. The mayor of Istanbul, the person who should be overseeing changes in the city plan, does not have any power to speak of. Intra-party opposition is not possible, and opposition from the other parties in the parliament can be easily ignored. Erdoğan, with his dedicated and ardent supporters within the party, maintains his dominance and involves himself with micro-management.

The current system is more of a personalistic regime than a single-party majority rule. Erdoğan has an image of an 'ideal society' that adheres to the Sunni-Islamist values he embraces. He is trying to homogenize the Turkish society along these lines by suppressing dissent and other identities and values, and implementing draconian laws. More and more, he has intervened in the lifestyle, family life, and choices of people. He advocates larger families, asking for three children from every family, and has attempted to restrict abortion rights. More recently, his party has passed a law restricting the sale, consumption, and advertising of alcohol, and president approved it during and despite the protests.

The bleak state of press freedom is just another indicator of his oppressive rule. Nearly all major media organizations are owned by large-scale companies with ties to political parties, leading to self-censorship. The internet is subject to the same censorship policies.

And freedom of speech is under attack. According to a December 2012 report from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 49 Turkish journalists were incarcerated, more than any other country in the world that year, up from just eight the year before. Not surprisingly, in the Reporters Without Borders's 2013 World Press Freedom Index, Turkey ranks 154th among 179 countries, regressing 16 places in two years. Channels for democratic participation are being overridden and mechanisms for raising opposing voices are being eviscerated. Erdoğan’s rule has become truly suffocating and claustrophobic for those who did not vote for him.

Erdoğan’s dismissive and condescending attitude towards the protesters has been extensively commented on by the world’s media since the outbreak of the unrest. This is not surprising when his distorted perception of democracy is taken into account. Erdoğan thinks that democracy begins and ends with the ballot box. When asked about the complaints of the people regarding the park, he told reporters that he has already gotten permission from the people who voted for him in the elections, and now he can do whatever he desires.

He refers to the 50 percent of votes he received in the last election as a mandate, but simple math shows that there is an equal proportion of the population who did not vote for him. By his definition of democracy, protests are also anti-democratic as he very blatantly stated. He belittled the protesters by naming them “çapulcu”, (translated as “looter”, “troublemaker”, and “plunderer” in the foreign media). In his first speech after the protests began, he tried to intimidate the crowd by threatening to gather a million supporters to march against the hundred thousand protesters – not a very well-thought or politically appropriate move by a 'democratically elected leader'. He doesn't want to acknowledge the colourful and broad composition of the movement. He purposefully insists on lumping them together in small, radical categories like “marginals”, “extremists”, or “terrorists”.

Instead of moderating his stance or listening to the outcry of the public, he calls for strife. Displaying an uncompromising attitude seems to signify strength to him. Instead of sincerely listening to the grievances of the public, he uses slanderous remarks against the protesters in every speech. He falsely accuses protesters of terrorism, vandalism, and harassing women wearing headscarves. He accused them of drinking in a mosque, a claim that was later confuted by the muezzin, the caller of daily prayers, at that mosque.

Still, these demagogical moves are clever. It is obvious that his speeches are not directed at the protesters but at his supporters. Because of the wide-ranging media censorship, those who stay at home do not know about the actual demands of the crowd or the dynamics of the movement. The portrayal of the events by the prime minister is the only source of information for most of his supporters, a fact he is well aware of. He manipulates the opinions of his supporters by changing the framing of the story.

A significant portion of his voter base comes from a group that resented the strictly secular governments that came before the AKP. This group, in a sense, is taking their revenge, enjoying the fact that their values are now being imposed on society. And they are highly sensitive about religion. By drawing on maybe one instance of verbal harassment towards a head-scarved woman or accusing protesters of drinking in a mosque, Erdoğan’s is trying to appeal directly to his voters. Maintaining his rigid attitude, he hopes, will be perceived as the 'unshakable power' of his rule. Thus, his obstinacy is a tactic as well as a personal trait. He is already galvanizing his support base to “teaching [the protesters] a lesson” in the upcoming local elections. Obviously, rather than maintaining an order in the country, he is trying to secure votes in the upcoming local elections.

Nevertheless, not being able to resist the pressures, he met with some assigned ‘representatives’ of the protesters, and at the end of their conversation, he proposed a referendum for the Gezi Park. Even the proposed solution itself shows that he refuses to understand the bread and butter of the issue. First, the issue is about his obsession with majoritarianism and his dismissal of the liberal aspects of democracy, so a referendum will not solve anything as it is a method based on the votes of majority. Second, the resistance is not solely about Gezi Park. It is more of a symbol at this point, of his authoritarianism. Following these ostensibly positive steps, Erdoğan gathered a meeting with his supporters at the peak of the protests to show the size of his persistent supporters or to satisfy his personal needs. Whatever the reason was, it clearly exposed his fear of losing power, and did not do any tangible good to him or to Turkish society.  In the speech he gave, it was easy to discern that he has changed neither his denigrating and vulgar discourse replete with false description – far away from a diplomatic language – nor his perception of the movement or his obsession with elections as the only true democratic mean to express opinions.

And it is this appeal to the ballot box, however single-minded, that is a key difference between Turkey and the countries of the Arab Spring. Yes, Erdoğan's last few years can be likened to a dictatorial regime, but functioning democratic institutions are still in place. Turkey does not bear any resemblance to the long-lasting and entrenched authoritarian regimes of the Middle East. The whole movement per se is a clear obstruction in Erdoğan's path as he tries to convert Turkey into an authoritarian Middle Eastern country.

Another important difference is the dynamics of the protests. In Egypt, the protests were organized and targeted the political system as a whole. In Turkey, the protests are targeted at Erdoğan himself, specifically, his dismissive and undemocratic attitudes. What the protestors want is a better democracy: recognition of opposition, more dialogue, more participation. They want Erdoğan to correct his misinterpretation of democracy, and see that he is not invincible. They want him to acknowledge the half of voters who did not vote for him, to acknowledge that winning the majority of votes does not mean ‘legitimated dictatorship’. Indeed, toppling him would not solve this problem.

The focus should be on re-instituting and advancing freedoms, emphasizing the democratic and constitutional rights and freedoms of citizens and press, and protecting them. A strong alternative leader, stronger opposition parties, or some opposition voices within the AKP, bringing about factions to the stronghold of the party are possible pathways towards a peaceful and democratic solution to the problem.

The protesters are determined to achieve something, and they will not give up until they hear a promise or see a step towards greater democracy. Until Erdoğan understands the wishes of the other half and executes the necessary democratic principles and opens up channels for democratic participation besides elections, the protests will continue and swell in some way – perhaps not in the streets anymore due to heavy police force, but in other creative ways and forms such as the ‘ultra-pacifist’ resistance of a 'standingman' and certainly in the minds, hearts, and ideas of the people, which cannot be blocked by any state power.