Democracy protestors throughout the Arab world looking to use Turkey as a model for blending Islam and democracy should be careful what they wish for. Other than the by-now ritual thundering denunciations of Israel and calls for the Egyptian military to return the country to civilian rule Turkey’s support for the protests has been strangely muted.
The normally hyperactive Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who is usually good for a comment even on a slow news days, has been missing in action. Protestors are taking to the streets in countries that Turkey is trying to get close to, but Turkish officials have nothing much to say about the bloody repressions in Iran, Bahrain, and Libya. Is Davutoglu merely stunned by the events or is he being side-lined because he became too visible? There were major stories in The New York Times and Wall Street Journal recently about Davutoglu as the architect of Turkey’s new, proactive foreign policy. As one of the few English speaking Turkish cabinet officials he was frequently quoted in foreign media. Did his star shine too brightly in a country where there is only ONE architect and ONE helmsman, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan?
The Turkish prime minister is not a man who is easily embarrassed. But even he might find his position on Libya slightly compromised because in November, 2010 he received from the Great Leader himself the Gaddafi International Prize for Human Rights. This now seems rather like receiving the International Hannibal Lecter Child Protection Award.
What’s even more confusing is that while the Arab world seems to be waking up after decades of political hibernation Turkey is showing disturbing signs of the very authoritarian trends now discredited in Arab countries.
Journalists, military officers and others are jailed on vague charges of plotting coups against the government. The ‘discovery’ of these plots and subsequent indictments began about four years ago just after the Supreme Court found the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) guilty of violating certain segments of the constitution. There was only a ‘slap-on-the-wrist’ penalty, but many in Turkey say it is no coincidence that the sweep of the alleged plotters began just after the Supreme Court decision. The AKP is desperate to discredit and weaken the political influence of the military that it views as the biggest opponent of its plans to remake Turkey.
The charges may be true, or they may not be true. Despite the passage of four years no one knows. The indictments are detailed, but the evidence has not been challenged in a court. Some call the evidence flimsy and manufactured. Not one trial has been completed and not one defendant has been found guilty or innocent. Meanwhile prosecutors have been busy uncovering additional ‘plots’ and more people have been thrown in jail. Those jailed include about 50 journalists who, according to the prosecutors, have been locked up not for their strong anti-government opinions but for their alleged involvement in coup plots.
Cynics say this is just AKP pre-election posturing as the defender of democracy against certain ‘dark forces’ – read the military and its allies. If it can indirectly paint the opposition political parties as part of those ‘dark forces’ so much the better. Erdogan is desperate to get enough votes, about 55% of the total, in the June election so that AKP has at least 367 members of parliament. This would give the party the ability to change the constitution single handedly and move to a political system with a strong president who, naturally, would be Tayyip Erdogan. This would put AKP and Erdogan in an unassailable position to change Turkey however they wanted. Winning the required votes in the June election will not be easy, and if AKP has to slander its opponents or potential opponents as ‘enemies of democracy’ so be it.
AKP’s ambivalence toward human rights at home can also be seen in its treatment of the Moslem group called Alawites, or Alevi in Turkish. This group has some doctrinal similarity to Shiites, but has been a moderate, tolerant movement in Turkey and its members have tended to vote for the social democratic CHP party, now the country’s main opposition. The majority Sunni Moslems have traditionally opposed the more liberal Alevi, and in some cases consider them heretics. According to analysts Murat Ucer and Atilla Yesilada the overwhelmingly Sunni AKP is putting pressure on the Alevi by such acts as withholding public services to Alevi villages or restricting the opening of new Alevi places of worship. Ucer and Yesilada say there is anecdotal evidence that these steps are punishment of the Alevi for supporting the wrong political party.
And then there are the Kurds. No one knows quite what is going to happen there. Will the Kurdish terrorist group PKK try to incite Turkish Kurds to large scale Egyptian type demonstrations? How will the government react to any mass acts of civil disobedience? The weekly report by Ucer and Yesilada sums up the problem facing the government.
“At the end, PM Erdogan can’t have it both ways. If he wants Turkey to become a major player in MENA (Middle East and North Africa) and a model to be emulated politically and economically by Moslem countries, he needs to address the grievances of the Kurds and the Alevites, as well as cutting the dissidents some slack.” The next few months should give a real clue to Turkey’s potential as a role model in the region.