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Opinion

So much for the Turkish model?

The Turkish model could still be saved, but only if Erdogan realises that it's about more than just a park.

Last Modified: 03 Jun 2013 18:59
Mark LeVine

Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine, and distinguished visiting professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh.
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Unless Erdogan takes action quickly to resolve the situation, it could completely discredit using a "Turkish" model as a template for budding democracies in Tunisia and Egypt [Huseyin Narin/Al Jazeera]

Just as no one could predict on December 17, 2010, or on January 25, 2011, that protests in Tunis and Cairo would topple governments and change the course of Arab - and world - history, it's still too early to make predictions about what, if any, real political change the present protests in Turkey might produce.

Turkey under Tayyip Erdogan is not Tunis under Ben Ali, Egypt under Mubarak, or Libya under Gaddafi. Yet it is undeniable that, despite the unprecedented level of formal democracy and freedoms that have grown under AKP rule in the past decade, Erdogan has in fact moved towards more conservative - even authoritarian - rule in the past few years, just at the time the Arab uprisings showed the moral and political bankruptcy of such policies.

Perhaps the most important question that will determine how these protests play out is how robust Turkey's democratic institutions - the parliament, the press and broader media, and civil society - will prove to be against a state that is exercising age-old reflexes to use excessive violence against any challenge to its authority. Such reflexes are, of course, not unique to Turkey; the global crackdowns on the Occupy movement, including in Europe and the United States, testify to the fact that, as neoliberal states feel their hold on power under threat, they will ramp up the "firm domination over peoples" that has long defined the ultimate goal of the modern state to protect its power and interests.

Yet however the protests will play out in Turkey, they will have one immediate impact if they are not soon resolved: they will complete the discrediting of the "Turkish model" that, since the rise of post-revolutionary Islamist parties, has been touted as a viable political future for the countries of the Arab world.

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It was never a surprise that Islamist parties would take the lead in the wake of the opening of the political processes in Tunisia and Egypt. In both countries, they had the organisational experience, size and muscle, and the allegiance of a huge base that no other social group could match, either individually or as a coalition with like-minded forces. Erdogan and the AKP's rule in Turkey, which for more than half a decade seemed to mark a decisive break with the military authoritarianism of the past, offered a powerful model for the Arab world to follow. Islamist (or at least religiously inspired), yes; but solidly democratic and, to a certain degree, even liberal - or at least "neo-liberal", in a not-completely-pejorative sense. Just as important, Turkey had one of the fastest, and healthiest, growing economies in the world - the perfect model, or so it seemed, for a similarly sized country such as Egypt, with a strong Islamist political base in the Muslim Brotherhood, to follow. 

But Turkey was never an appropriate model for the Arab world. As I explained in a column almost two years ago, when the "Turkey model" was at its most hyped, issues such as the ongoing Kurdish tensions and conflict, the routine violations of human rights and press freedoms, the lack of full accountability for the Armenian genocide, and the authoritarian tendencies that were then already being exhibited by the AKP, coupled with Turkey's unique economic assets - its strategic position between Europe and Central Asia, its strong local manufacturing base and the economic role of Islamist actors vis-a-vis a heavy state-centric system - together meant Turkey represented a model that neither could, nor should, be copied.

But with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and Ennahda to political power in Egypt and Tunisia, the model has stuck. For those worried about an Islamist-equals-authoritarian future, the relatively liberal policies of the Erdogan government suggested that this equation didn't have to hold. Turkey wasn't perfect, but it was a whole lot better than pre-revolutionary Egypt and Tunisia, never mind Libya, Syria, Yemen, or most other Arab autocracies.


Now, however, this fantasy is gone. It turns out that Turkey's government has similar, if not the same, authoritarian tendencies as the Muslim Brotherhood. The "economic miracle" that Turkey has experienced during the past decade had, for years, shielded it from the kind of protests we're now seeing - but in the end, it turns out that the very complacency such successes breed led it to overstep - pushing for greater bans on alcohol and prohibiting public kissing, to cite the two most recent examples of trying to legislate morality. And, on top of this, the attempt to remove one of Istanbul's few remaining green spaces, in a manner that reeked of corruption, cronyism and lack of concern for citizen's views, created the perfect pretext for tens of thousands of Istanbulians, and many more disgruntled citizens across the country, to launch a largely peaceful attack on state authority and legitimacy.

When the government over-reacted with a massive police presence and violence against peaceful protesters, it confirmed every fear the still large secular and oppositional publics had developed about the Erdogan government; fears justified by its increasing crackdowns on academic and press freedoms, and the attempts to completely decapitate the country's once vaunted military leadership. Indeed, Erdogan's accusations that the protests are not about ripped up trees, but rather about "ideology" entirely miss the point. His development policies are equally as "ideological", and far more modernist than Islamist. As the great modernist planner Le Corbusier once bragged: "There is an old Turkish proverb: 'Where one builds, one plants trees. We uproot them'." Such cavalier destruction in the name of "progress" may have been considered legitimate in decades past, but it has long ago lost its ideological grounding - even if governments and businesses are still enthralled by the ideas of "creative destruction".

It could well turn out that some or many of the claims of the protesters - from the more basic claim that the government was planning to build a shopping mall on the disputed land, to accusations that police are using banned chemical weapons such as Agent Orange against protesters - turn out to be wrong. But the veracity of any one claim or argument was never the point here. The government has clearly lost the trust of a large section of the population, who, like their counterparts across Europe and the Arab world, have responded by going "to the barricades", demonstrating a willingness directly to take on police - and through it, governmental power - a willingness that neither Erdogan nor the political establishment appears ready to answer in any way that doesn't further reinforce the protesters' fears for their country's future.

Thousands take part in protests across Turkey

In the Arab world, what is playing out in Turkey should put to rest any lingering visions of something approaching "liberal" Islamist governments - that is, governments that, whatever their ideological foundations, respect the rule of law and the rights of those with opposing views, and work to ensure the most robust public sphere and personal and media freedoms possible, even if they come at the expense of its power or agenda.

However, Erdogan could yet surprise everyone. The Turkish model can still be saved. But only if Erdogan quickly understands that this is about far more than a park or local politics. It's about citizens losing faith in the state to serve and represent their most fundamental interests. It might still be a minority of Turks who support the protests, but if they succeed in forcing the government to become even more regressive and repressive - and Erdogan's speech in which he declared the government would push ahead with the proposed construction despite the protests betrayed precisely the arrogance against which protesters took to the streets - the movement will spread, and even Turks who have heretofore supported the AKP will begin to lose faith in its ability to maintain a civil government.

If that happens, Turkey could in fact have a very hot spring and summer. Regardless of what happens, citizens and rulers across the Arab world will be watching with interest and concern, to see if there is in fact a hope for a religiously grounded liberal body politic, or whether, as with most other types of politics today, power breeds arrogance, violence and corruption regardless of its ideological underpinnings. That might be the most important lesson of the still uncertain Turkish uprising.

Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine and distinguished visiting professor at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh. His book, Heavy Metal Islam, which focused on 'rock and resistance and the struggle for soul' in the evolving music scene of the Middle East and North Africa, was published in 2008.

Follow him on Twitter: @culturejamming

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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