ISTANBUL- While the Turkish government spent much of the last couple of years branding itself as a paradigm for Egypt and other Arab Spring countries, the reverse is now taking place: Egypt is becoming the nightmare scenario for Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The violent phase of the protests in Istanbul, Ankara and other Turkish cities is over, for now, but the struggle to set their legacy has only just begun, and Erdogan would be well-advised to take a lesson from the mistakes of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood.
True, the danger of a military coup in Turkey at the moment is close to zero, if only because Erdogan has locked up an entire
army college (some 330 officers) on charges of plotting against him. But the parallels between the two countries run far beyond the superficial. For the record, so too did Egyptian still-President Mohammed Morsi try to purge the army last year, although he only removed a few top generals.
Most importantly, both countries are experimenting with moderate political Islam, and the experiments have produced mixed result as far as genuine democracy is concerned. It is true that Islamic radicals (extremists) and Islamic conservatives (moderates) are two very different species which have fought in the past, and it is also true that the Turkish government, in particular, has implemented a number of popular reforms. However, another fact is that the moderate Islamists' majoritarian understanding of democracy is radically different from that of more liberal constituencies present in both countries.
The Turkish and the Egyptian governments - both democratically elected - have cracked down on the press, rolled back some civil liberties and planned to change the constitutions in ways many citizens found unacceptable. Enter Taksim square and Tahrir v. 2.0.
The dangers of social friction become more acute as the economy declines. Egypt is in dire straits, while Turkey is currently widely lauded as an economic miracle, not only in the Middle East, but also in Europe. Erdogan deserves much of the credit for this, though the painful economic reforms executed by the previous government, which led to its downfall, also contributed.
However, there is a growing financial bubble in Turkey. Whether it is fueled by hot Arab money or by Western investors seeking to escape the low returns in the US and Europe as well as the dangers of Greece and other countries offering higher yields, many analysts expect it to pop in the next year or two. What would happen then is anybody's guess.
Turkey, similarly to Egypt, has experienced many military coups in the past decades, the most recent one in 1997. And while the danger has been neutralized for now, remnants of the deep state, where the military continues to be embedded, remain powerful. So when Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc threatened to unleash the army on the demonstrators some two weeks ago, he was playing with fire, just as the Egyptian authorities were forced to do when they sent the army to quash riots in the city of Port Said earlier this year.
At present, the Turkish demonstrators are resorting to more creative means of protest and attempts to strengthen the grassroots democratic culture. They are gathering in the evenings in parks and other public forums, standing still as a way of conveying their disagreement with the government or discussing their strategy and planning boycotts. The main banks and businesses such as Starbucks and Burger King, which closed their doors to people running from the brutal crackdown of the police, are losing customers and revenue.
Though most protesters say that more people need to join them in order for the boycotts to succeed, this strategy has already scored some victories. After losing some US$21 million of bank deposits in just a few days, the CEO of one of the largest lenders, Garanti, came out in support of the demonstrations.
More broadly, if the Turkish demonstrators can consolidate and come up with a working grassroots version of participatory democracy, they would avoid the pitfalls in which the Egyptian opposition is currently trapped. The Occupy-style tent camp in Gezi park which lasted some two weeks before being stormed with tear gas canisters, rubber bullets and water cannon mixed with pepper-spray chemicals arguably set the foundations of such a culture. Scenes of anti-capitalist Muslims praying in public with militant Marxists standing by on guard against the police sent a powerful message that reverberated in Turkish society.
"Gezi Park proved that all identities could live and function together in Turkey," said Eran Ozbek, an activist. "This did not happen for the last 30 years, since the coup in 1980. Since then, the majority of the Turkish people tried to avoid political or social statements and simply joined those who were in power. ... This was not only a riot against the government, it was a kind of waking up in the political sense, social sense, sexual sense, whatever defines a society."
"Consciously or unconsciously, this is the growing up of a nation," said Ali Sever, a doctor.
But the government is trying to push a different narrative, blaming a long list of divergent groups such as the deep state, the Jewish community, international media, soccer hooligans and Iranian agents for colluding in a conspiracy to overthrow it. It is a dangerous and short-sighted strategy.
It is true that some political groups attempted to take advantage of the protests for their own benefit. Furthermore, in the course of clashes with the police, protesters threw stones and bottles and vandalized a number of properties. Both of these factors contributed to the withdrawal of many people from the demonstrations.
But the protests started peacefully, and to a large degree remained relatively peaceful. The well-documented disproportionate use of police force which resulted in several deaths and over 7,000 injuries, some severe, and included attacks on journalists, doctors and medical facilities, was arguably a provocation in its own right.
Videos of police or police-affiliated thugs shooting slingshots at protesters (click here and here), though difficult to verify, suggest further disturbing anomalies.
Even ardent government supporters voice criticism, at least with the initial police violence.
"Erdogan was unfairly persecuted and criticized for a long time, and I understand why he came to see the protests as a continuation of this campaign," said Suheyb Ogut, a PhD student in Sociology who praised Erdogan's economic and healthcare reforms, his attempts to solve the Kurdish conflict and his initiative to allow women with headscarves back into the public space, among other reforms.
"The harsh response of the police in the beginning was because of this. But it's not true, and we told him he was wrong, and he changed his approach."
Whether the government has truly learned a lesson remains to be seen. Recently it announced plans to crack down on social media dissent and to expand police privileges, rebuffing the demands of protesters for top police figures to be fired over the crackdown.
A number of bloggers were tracked down and arrested in their homes, on charges including incitement and sedition. Others were fined hefty sums for offenses such as insulting the prime minister - a girl who preferred to remain anonymous said that she had to pay the equivalent of $13,000 because of a Facebook post.
The argument that this is done in the interest of law and order appears skewed. By contrast, a large number of government supporters who issued ugly threats in an attempt to intimidate journalists and other public figures remain free of persecution.
"My twitter account has been flooded with death threats which now read 'We will [rape] you as we kill you,'" said Amberin Zaman, The Economist's correspondent in Turkey, in an email. Hers is by far not the only case.
It is not yet clear if Erdogan truly intends to proceed with a wide crackdown on all dissent, or if his speeches, which branded protesters as "looters," "traitors" and "foreign agents" who allegedly desecrated mosques and assaulted women in headscarves, are merely intended to rally his supporters for the upcoming local elections. In either case, what is widely perceived as divide-and-rule politics carries significant dangers.
The threat to Turkish democracy would be particularly grave if police attack the peaceful forums and "Standing Man" protests, quashing attempts to implement a genuine civil society. In some cases, such as in Mersin, the site of the 2013 Mediterranean Olympics, as well as in the capital Ankara, this has already happened. Other cities, such as Istanbul, have remained relatively peaceful, at least since June 22.
With suspense hanging over Turkey, the scenes in Cairo and other Egyptian cities stand as a warning sign.
Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst.
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