A defining moment for Turkey as it straddles East and West
June 07, 2013
SINCE THE Arab Spring revolutions broke out two and half years ago,
many Westerners have held up Turkey as the model for a modern Muslim
nation. But images from Istanbul’s Taksim Square of brutal police
attacks against peaceful demonstrators over the past week are now
threatening to shatter that image.
Hundreds of thousands of people across Turkey took to the streets in
outrage, only to be met by security forces using tear gas, batons, and
water cannons. At least two people have died, and unconfirmed reports
put the injury toll at over 2,000. Physicians on the ground are
accusing police of deliberately harming protesters. Prime Minister
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has largely shrugged off the situation, must
step in to end any continuing violence.
Moreover, the unrest should serve as a wake-up call to Erdogan and his
government, which has been in power since 2003. They must listen
seriously to the demands of the protesters. What began as a small
sit-in to save a city park from being demolished to make room for a
shopping mall has become an eruption of popular discontent – including
from some Erdogan supporters – toward an elected but increasingly
uncompromising leader who has sponsored runaway development,
discouraged political opposition, jailed journalists on questionable
grounds, and attempted to impose a conservative lifestyle on one of
the Muslim world’s more secular societies, including recent
restrictions on alcohol sales and proposed curbs on abortion.
With good reason, the White House has stressed the need to uphold `the
fundamental freedoms of expression, assembly, and association.’ US
Ambassador Francis Ricciardone has emerged as an important advocate
for press freedom in Turkey. But as one of the country’s strongest
allies, the United States should also play a larger role in pressuring
the Erdogan government to respect those democratic values in practice.
Vowing to move forward with the demolition of the park, Erdogan has
unhelpfully blamed the demonstrations on extremists. He has noted that
his party took nearly 50 percent of the vote in the last elections, as
if that statistic validated every policy decision he might make. He
has railed against social media, calling it `the worst menace to
society,’ and clamped down on conventional media more conspicuously
than ever. As the world watched clashes between police and protesters
last weekend, CNN Turk, a leading news network, aired a cooking show
and nature documentaries. On Wednesday, 25 protesters were arrested
for supposedly `spreading untrue information’ on Twitter.
Yet, unlike in Egypt or Tunisia, where long-serving strongmen governed
with little regard to public sentiment, Erdogan can’t just ignore the
message that he’s overreached. Turkey has a history of free elections
going back to 1950. Erdogan cannot run for a third term as premier but
is believed to be staging instead a run for president in 2014. The
current protests show a significant undercurrent of dissent, and
unhappy Turks must be sure their voices are heard at the ballot box.