Tens of thousands — bridging left and right, pious and secular — spontaneously came together for the first time in Turkey’s history this June. Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s strongman politics and megaprojects, notably the demolition of Istanbul’s Gezi Park to make way for yet another shopping mall, were met with the strongest critics yet. Protests cropped up across cities as the sit-in against the park’s demolition snowballed into a demonstration against the Justice and Development Party (AKP)’s increasing authoritarianism.
Yesterday, anti-government protests were revived as demonstrators clashed with police in Istanbul, Ankara and southern Turkey following the funeral of a 22-year-old protester. Though the Gezi protests are old news for the global media, “Gezi” remains the point of reference in Turkish politics. Public forums have sprung up in parks throughout Istanbul to fill the void of parliamentary opposition.
A month ago, verdicts for the Ergenekon trial, which tried alleged coup plotters, were handed down in a purpose-built courtroom outside Istanbul. Only 21 of the 275 accused, including a former chief of staff, lawyers, journalists and academics, were acquitted. But defense lawyers have long claimed that much of the evidence was doctored. Families of the accused were not allowed into court and the police teargased the thousand-strong group outside. The trial is seen as AKP’s witch-hunt for critics — using conspiracy to quash dissent and reinforce AKP’s moral superiority as a democratically elected party persecuted by ex-military personnel and allies.
In the meantime, AKP leaders are constructing the world’s biggest courthouse in Kartal. This is the way they have chosen to implement the party’s vision of “justice and development” — megaprojects complimented by increasing control of the judiciary, the arrest of lawyers and judges, the highest number of imprisoned journalists, harsh tax fines on businesses thought to be supporting dissenters. AKP has not only revived but also intensified the tactics of the old state it once used to abhor.
As of late August, at least 60 journalists have been fired or forced to resign for covering the protests, indicating that the Turkish media moguls have only gotten better at self-censorship. Erdogan recently threatened to sue the British Times for publishing a letter by the likes of Sean Penn and David Lynch, who condemned his “dictatorial rule.” The Turkish Minister for EU Affairs called the letter “a crime against humanity.” AKP leadership has been keen on using such Orwellian doublespeak, appropriating the language of human rights whilst violating human rights.
In the absence of an independent media, the majority in Turkey, who are excluded from international coverage and social media, are solely exposed this kind of rhetoric. “Every four years we hold elections and this nation makes its choice,” Mr. Erdogan had said in response to the protests in June. “Those who have a problem with government’s policies can express their opinions within the framework of law and democracy.” That very framework of law and democracy is corroding while AKP keeps preaching democratic values; therein lies the irony of AKP’s “justice and development.”
Turkey has been hailed as a model democracy for the rest of the Middle East. After all, GDP growth averaged over five percent a year since the AKP took office in 2002. Justifiably, many were taken by surprise by the excessive police brutality against protestors, which left 7,478 injured and five dead. Yet instead of engaging with the protestors like a “model democracy,” AKP did its best to criminalize protestors and threatened to gather AKP supporters against demonstrators. In a country that prides itself for being a “cultural mosaic,” the AKP’s aggression only served to further divides. Party officials have traced the protests’ roots from domestic terrorist groups to the mysterious “interest rate lobby” with tentacles reaching Brazil, but to none of AKP’s own policies.
The U.S.’s grand strategy in the Middle East, working with moderate Islamist groups like Turkey’s AKP and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, was forecasted to make the region more democratic by supporting the moderates and isolating the radicals. Yet the political maturity of many of these moderate groups was overestimated. In an interview with Corriere della Sera in 2011, President Obama had described Turkey as “a great Islamic democracy,” but not as “a democracy.” It almost reads as if “moderate” Islam is a euphemism for “moderate” democracy; it is democracy bon pour l’orient, or “good enough for the Orient,” as the French used to stamp their diplomas for colonial students.
The Gezi protests cannot be reduced to the rise of a global middle class and an alienated youth in search of more liberties, as suggested by columnists like Francis Fukuyama. The protests, rather, point to the corroding foundations of a republic where fundamental rights for political participation and consultation, the right to a fair trial and free speech are eroding. Despite the absence of a popular, all-encompassing political party, Gezi has come to represent a democratic catharsis, a re-awakening of political discussion outside of a parliament that may be good enough for the Orient, but has failed to deliver for the thousands who have taken to the streets.
Sera Tolgay is a senior in Branford College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.