Turkey, which has been held up as a model for Islamic democracy for the countries of the Middle East by both Western powers and its neighbors, still remains a model, according to experts, who note that the recent demonstrations are a test for the country’s democracy as well as for its role as a model in the region.
The demonstrations, which began as a small protest against plans to demolish Gezi Park in Taksim in downtown İstanbul, turned into clashes between police and protesters, and spread to other cities in its early days. Facing a harsh crackdown by the Turkish police, the resistance of the protesters turned into a broad show of defiance against the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AK Party).
The question of Turkey being a model for the countries of the region has been opened up to debate with the recent incidents. Some say the latest protests and the government’s handling of the situation show that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Islamist model is a failure, while others say the anti-Islamist rhetoric used by some protesters make it clear that the aim of these protests is only to attack the AK Party.
For the past two weeks, people demonstrating in the streets in various squares across Turkey have even called for the resignation of Erdoğan and his government. Those protesters who describe themselves as liberals, socialists or Kemalists have felt their lifestyle to be under threat due to legislation introduced by the AK Party in recent years. A law bringing tighter rules to the sale of alcohol exacerbated the concerns of some individuals, who took this as interference by the state in their private lives. Some parts of society were also disturbed by Erdoğan’s harsh rhetoric and the heavy-handed way he likes to do things in Turkey. Excessive police force towards protesters also damaged the legitimacy of the government.
“These are not easy challenges but are a test of a real and modern democracy that goes beyond the ballot box,” says Dr. Bessma Momani, a Middle East expert at the University of Waterloo, Canada, and a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution.
According to the professor, the problems that the protests have brought to the fore are multifaceted. “The Turkish government, like all modern democratic governments, needs to have an accountable police force that does not infringe its own authority and at the same time allows people the opportunity to participate in the political decision-making process in between elections through allowing public discourse, a liberal media and empowering civil society,” Momani told Sunday’s Zaman.
The Turkish prime minister has increasingly come under criticism for his insistence on projects that many citizens did not approve of. The resistance, though, was not always from the groups that did not vote for him. For instance, conservative circles also criticized a mosque project on Üsküdar’s highest hill, Çamlıca, suggesting that it will ruin the silhouette of the city.
According to Veysel Ayhan, a Middle East expert at the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM) and a lecturer at Abant İzzet Baysal University, the recent protests and the government’s response to them have revealed that Turkey is not so liberal and democratic after all. “There is a rhetoric which polarizes and ignores demands of the ‘others’,” Ayhan says, while underlining that “othering” some part of the society is not only done by those who hold power but also by people who take to the streets to oppose the government’s polarizing rhetoric.
On the other hand, a professor at Ankara’s Gazi University, Mehmet Şahin, thinks that although the demonstrations have tarnished Turkey’s image in the international arena, the protests have had a positive effect on debates regarding Turkey being a model for countries in the Middle East. “I do not think the protests have removed the possibility of Turkey as a model in the region. The situation in the country after the Gezi Park protests may also show that Turkey indeed sets an example. Citizens can express their concerns and complaints, while the authorities end up listening to the demands of people,” Şahin adds.
“Turkey can still be a model. Despite these challenges to Turkish politics, the way the Turkish government has progressed in its economic development and its containment of the military powers are all positive lessons for Arab democracies to learn,” Dr. Momani notes as she adds that the Arab democracies need to learn from Turkish mistakes as well, for instance the way the police dealt with protestors. “No democracy benefits from having a heavy-handed approach in dealing with protestors,” she warns.
When asked about repercussions in the region if the “Turkish model” fails, the analysts agree that it will create uncertainty and a feeling of insecurity among people in Middle Eastern countries.
“Those people in Egypt’s Tahrir Square were demanding to build a civilian and democratic country. Now, if Turkey slides towards authoritarianism, those people will unfortunately sink into despair and agree that these models [Islamic democracies] are failures,” notes Ayhan.
Underlining that the masses in Arab Spring countries were referring to Turkey while expressing their demands on the streets, Şahin notes that those people will be confused if the Turkish model cannot succeed. He also warns that the failure of the Turkish model will also protract the instability in the region, exacerbating disorder and conflict.