“There is a fragile but essential link between being a strong economic power and establishing a stable democratic system: one doesn’t survive long without the other. Neither will tend to last long in the conditions of the absence of the other. Today, Turkey is a fast-rising economic power, with its internationally competitive companies turning the youthful nation into an entrepreneurial hub, tapping cash-rich export markets in the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Middle East while attracting billions of investment dollars in return. But all this progress will require a stable and functioning democracy to survive. It is not possible for Turkey to be a respectable and responsible world power without achieving fully functioning democratic status, including the freedom of expression and democratic rights. There is no exception to this, all existing evidence from the transition countries point to this same conclusion. Turkey will become a real global power only when the high level of its economic progress is matched by a strong, stable and functioning democratic system.” (GlobalFaultlines, February 2012)
I wrote the above words more than a year ago in these pages when I was commenting on the arrest of my friend Ragip Zarakolu, publisher and long-standing human rights activist. The last couple of days, what started as a protest against a development project that will remove a vital tree-lined park in Istanbul’s historic Taksim square has become a wide spread popular protest against Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with scenes of youth rebellion that echo the scenes of MENA’s Arab Spring. Amnesty International complained about extreme police brutality, following reports of more than 1,000 injuries and at least two deaths of protesters in Istanbul. “Excessive use of force by police officers can be routine in Turkey but the excessively heavy-handed response to the entirely peaceful protests in Taksim has been truly disgraceful. It has hugely inflamed the situation on the streets of Istanbul where scores of people have been injured,” said John Dalhusien, Director of Amnesty International for Europe. (http://www.amnesty.org/en/news/turkey-disgraceful-use-excessive-police-force-istanbul-2013-06-01)
The protesters say they are very angry with heavy handed police response against their peaceful demonstration and claim that this is yet another indication of what they see as the ruling AK Party’s (Justice and Development Party) increasingly authoritarian rule after a decade in power. Though democratically elected, most recently with an unprecedented margin, today hundreds of thousands of Turkey’s youth called for PM Erdogan to step aside.
Tayyip Erdogan, the former mayor of Istanbul and the winner of three elections – in the most recent elections his party garnered nearly 50 percent of the vote, has, by this electoral record, become one of the most popular politicians in modern Turkish history. However, Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly combative Islamist policies and his Putin-esque impatience with all those who criticise his policies, have long raised concerns among many in Turkey and abroad. Official Turkish television and many mainstream newspapers initially ignored the recent anti-government protests, largest for years in Turkey. Prime Minister Erdogan, typically, repeated the same uncompromising line — he recently denounced protestors by calling them as terrorists.
It is extremely worrying that the pressure upon press freedom in Turkey has increased sharply since early 2012. Dozens of media professionals, academics, human rights activists have been detained under vague anti-terror laws and submitted to intimidating legal proceedings. In August 2012, Reporters Without Borders ranked Turkey 154th out of 179 countries in its 2013 World Press Freedom Index [AP]. State authorities imprisoned journalists on a mass scale on terrorism or anti-state charges, launched thousands of other criminal prosecutions on charges such as denigrating Turkishness or influencing court proceedings, and used heavy pressure tactics to sow self censorship. The situation has worsened since then.
The recent use of brutal force by Turkish police is being driven by a desire to prevent and discourage protest of any kind. There was no need for such response– initially all the protest was completely peaceful. Such heavy handed response and brutality towards those protesters are totally wrong and disgraceful, but also completely counter-productive: the memories of Tahrir Square are still fresh.
“No government can cast aside the people’s demands for democracy,” Tayyip Erdogan was saying in February 2011. As hundreds of thousands of protesters rallied in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the same Tayyip Erdogan was calling on his Egyptian counterpart Hosni Mubarak to give his people the change they have been calling for. As hundreds of thousands of protesters are now rallying in Turkey’s squares, I wonder whether he remembers what he said just over two years ago.
1 June 2013