Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Iran, Turkey, and the Non-Arab Street

PRINCETON – To Western eyes, Middle East politics have again been stood on their head. Iran’s theocratic mullahs allowed the election of Hassan Rowhani, a man who announced in his first speech as President-elect that his victory is “the victory of wisdom, moderation, and awareness over fanaticism and bad behavior.”

Iranians, apparently surprised that the candidate whom a majority of them had backed (over six harder-line candidates) had won, poured into the streets and hailed a victory “for the people.” To be sure, it was a carefully controlled election: all candidates who might actually have challenged Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s authority were disqualified in advance. But, within those limits, the government allowed the people’s votes to be counted.

Next door, in Turkey, the West’s favorite Islamic democrat, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was using bulldozers, tear gas, water cannon, and rubber bullets to clear central Istanbul’s Taksim Square and Gezi Park of peaceful protesters who would not bend to his will. Erdoğan’s theory of government seems to be that, because he was elected by a majority of Turks who still support him, anyone who opposes him is a terrorist or a pawn of sinister foreign forces. He appears to see no room for legitimate opposition, for the idea that today’s majority can be tomorrow’s minority and that the rules of the game must allow both to be heard.

Four years ago, when hundreds of thousands of young Iranians flooded the streets of Tehran to protest outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection, the Iranian government shot at them with live rounds. The protests were brutally repressed, with participants rounded up, imprisoned, and reportedly raped and tortured, damaging the regime’s standing not only among Iranians, but also among the millions of young Arabs across the Middle East and North Africa who would soon rise up to demand their social and political rights.

Erdoğan was initially a hero to those same crowds. He toured Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya in September 2011 and received a hero’s welcome. He presented his Justice and Development Party as the Muslim equivalent of Europe’s Christian Democratic parties, combining economic growth, anti-corruption policies, and free elections.

Today, Erdoğan’s government looks much more like the governments against which young Arabs rose, targeting journalists and accusing a “high-interest-rate lobby” of speculators of seeking to harm the Turkish economy. He has also taken a page from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s book, not only demonizing the demonstrators, but also going after the medical personnel who care for them and the hoteliers who shelter them.

Turkey is certainly not Iran, and vice versa. But comparing current developments in the two countries yields lessons that resonate across the Middle East and North Africa. Most important, in a world that at least pays lip service to democracy, the voice of “the people” matters. It confers a kind of legitimacy that simply cannot be acquired by force and that is ultimately the surest guarantee of investment and growth.

Of course, “the people” are never truly one: fickle in their loyalties and subject to demagoguery, they often unite in opposition but fracture once in command. Nonetheless, the willingness of large numbers of people to stand up (or sit in) for their right to be heard, despite the imminent possibility of violent repression, announces to their fellow citizens and the world that something has gone very wrong.

Khamenei and his fellow guardians of Iran’s Islamic revolution were able to weather the 2009 storm, but their façade of legitimate power was collapsing. Somewhat paradoxically, the election of Rowhani will strengthen their political hand. And, though Erdoğan may well be able to force the protest genie back into the bottle, he will be significantly weakened until the next Turkish election.

A second lesson of recent events in Iran and Turkey is that the spectrum of government in the Middle East and North Africa runs from autocracy and theocracy to varieties of managed democracy. No country qualifies as a full liberal democracy – that is, as a political system that combines free and fair elections with constitutional protections of individual rights for all its citizens.

Iran has long qualified as what the American foreign-policy analyst Fareed Zakaria has called an “illiberal democracy.” Turkey, for its part, seemed to be on a path toward true liberal democracy, notwithstanding the criticism of those who pointed to Erdoğan’s jailing of journalists and generals; it is now backsliding for all the world to see.

A final lesson is that the test of a secure government is whether it can bear to hear itself criticized, even excoriated. Erdoğan seems outraged, above all, by Turkish citizens’ temerity to speak up against him.

After Erdoğan appeared to broker a deal with the protesters regarding the fate of Gezi Park, the planned demolition of which sparked the initial demonstrations, one of my Twitter followers expressed his satisfaction at the outcome and said the demonstrators should now go home, because “three weeks is enough.” But enough for what?

Recall that the Occupy Wall Street protesters in 2011 took over lower Manhattan for two full months. New York City officials ultimately did shut down the protest, but largely for health and sanitary reasons and related complaints by neighborhood residents. At a press conference on the day the protests began, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said: “People have a right to protest, and if they want to protest, we’ll be happy to make sure they have locations to do it.”

Meanwhile, in Syria, “the people” rose up, were fired upon, took up arms, were manipulated, and began a cycle of sectarian killing and revenge that can only fracture them further. Neither Iran nor Turkey has reached that point. Nonetheless, peaceful protest, lawsuits, political negotiation, compromise, and ultimately fresh elections would provide both countries – and many others in the region and beyond – a far better way to resolve their internal tensions than the approaches their leaders currently employ.

Read more from our "Iran’s New Man" Focal Point.

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    1. CommentedM. Yilmaz

      To Western eyes, Turkey’s location has always been controversial. Criticizing Turkey from the Western values’ point of view on the one hand and comparing the same country with Middle Eastern countries on the other is a common mistake that the “Western eyes” do on Turkey. The events that took place in Turkey are totally different from the events that initiated the Arab Spring. As the investigation goes on, very interesting facts have been revealed such as the financing of protestors by some certain people or the flow of capital from the Turkish Stock Exchange during the protests. Of course, Turkey is a democratic country and the current government is a popularly elected one. If one does not know about the feelings and sentiments of the people who were disregarded in the past, would not understand how Mr. Erdogan gained popular support from 50% of the voters. Making remarks on Turkey without acknowledging this fact is a common mistake (or an intentional habit) which is made by Western eyes. There is a common understanding in Turkey that some forces who do know that they cannot beat Mr. Erdogan in ballot boxes wanted to overthrow his government by way of mass protests. In the past, their work was much easier. What they needed to do is to call on the military generals to make a coup d’etat and then to regain the authority to run the state. However, one of Mr. Erdogan’s achievements was to keep the military generals in their bases and to make them mind their own businesses. Those generals who did not do so, are being trialed. Another important fact about the protestors is that some of them (who have never been to a mosque) entered into a historical Mosque with their shoes on. Anyone, who is familiar with Islam or who has been to a Mosque once would know that no one is allowed to visit a Mosque with his/her shoes on. This caused a great wave of indignation among devout people of the country, who still forms the majority of voters. Therefore, whatever the protestors do, Mr. Erdogan is still a hero and amid accusations of being a dictator, he will certainly rely on democratic institutions and will definitely win the next wave of elections.

    2. CommentedAhmet Demirtas

      The writer seems to have missed much of the up-to-date and verified information. Most of the so-called medical personnel were actually not health professionals, as it came out later, but were members of illegal organizations. Erdogan said almost the same words as quoted from Michael Bloomberg when he proposed other locations for demonstrations due to health and sanitary reason. Ironically enough as to the claim of the writer in her last sentence, it was well emphasized during the whole period that the legitimate way to resolve this tension was the elections. And finally, under no law you could ever be called a “peaceful protestor” if you shot 3 policeman.
      As to the jailing of journalists and generals; if you do fail to fully grasp the dispute between Erdogan’s team and the Gulen-affiliated bureaucracy in judiciary and police, you may feel comfortable to say that Erdogan “jailed” them. Yet, things are not as they seem to be superficially.
      From the outset, Erdogan did make a sharp distinction between what is and is not a legitimate opposition, blaming those real “terrorist” groups for provoking the innocent demands. Contrary to what is asserted, had he not allowed for any room for legitimate opposition, a couple of TV channels would not have been broadcasting for many years against Erdogan, calling for coupe d’état by the public, if not by the so-called “tamed” military – with no ban during these years. Today's majority is the sum of the minorities, each of which has in the past been suppressed for the sake of “state” – or of groups who used to hide their interests behind the power of state.
      The writer fails to comprehend the nuance between what the real situation is, and what it is shown to be, and even what others desire it to be. One should quit taking any further orientalist approach while writing about Turkey, since neither such an approach is as innocent anymore as it allegedly was in the past, nor Turkey is as it had been until a decade ago.
      And for the newly democratizing societies, it should well be understood that democracy is not something that is continuously reviewed and updated by some “groups” –national or international-, if not “countries”, to serve to their malicious interests. If there still is any belief in genuine democracy, this could only be survived with a commitment to universally recognized principles of democracy.

    3. CommentedM. Akdag

      Anne Marie Slaughter is writin about Turkey form time to time. Once it was in February titled "Turkey's test". She metioned Turkey's rising star and urged the Turksih Government to act on the solution of Syrian problem and even advised Turkey to help the FSA.
      This time we see that she is trying to draw a gloomy picture of Turkey only with snapshots from the recent demonstrations in Turkey and unfortunate comparison between the totally different countries. It is "a la mode" in these days to write about Tukey,Iran and Arab Spring but I am not sure if the authors know anything about realities of Turkey or of other countries. In order to understand the real motives behind the recent events somone should have some basic information on the recent three decades of Turkey starting with military coup of 1980 or a little back to another one in which a Prime Minister, a democratically eleceted one, was hanged with two of his ministers and to be able to answer the questions below;
      Are demonstrators really consisted of only peaceful protesters?
      Do they demand more democracy?
      Are they representing the ordinary Turkish citizens?
      Unfortuantley there are groups among the protesters who beleive in armed revolutions perhaps still living in the mindset of cold war. Some of the press only showing the police while using tear gas and wator canon but you can easily find videos in the youtube in which polices brutally attacked by some protesters.
      When it comes to second question it is not easy to say that demonstrator demand democracy, because when a referandum proposed many of thier representative funnily objected on the ground that legitimate demands of people could not be the subject of referenda.
      Most of the protesters are from among the discontented groups. Some of them are from privileged groups of the past. Some are elite groups who think that government mostly represent the newly emerged, recently urbanised, ignorant people who are a threat their life styles. They think they are the most educated people and they are more equal than others. Of course some people who are truley environmentalist. According to the recent survey their support is very near to the support to the leftist parties of Turkey which is among %25-30. The remaining %70 is still against the demonstrations and popular support for Mr Erdogan is still very high.
      In Turkey political parties are always operated under a tutelage system of army. For the first time in history a political party is ruling Turkey with a popular support and without the shadow of antidemocratic forces.
      An over self confidence of PM should not be perceived
      as a drift from democracy. Turkish democracy is getting stonger. On the contrary some still have aspirations of old priveleged times and they are falsely accusing government and they are trying to intimidate and demonize people who used democratic rights by voting for AKP.
      As Ms Slaughter rightly mentioned somewhere Turkey is not Iran and vice versa. In Turkey people are speaking of democracy since the first set of reforms during Ottoman Empire in 1839. Turkish democracy of today is the fruit of a long struggles and is unique features which should be studied very carefully.

    4. Commentede. saglam

      Turkey's gezi park issue should not be commented with limited instructions which obtained from western mass media. first of all turkish police used tear gas and water cannon against protestors, that is the truth. but here we should doubt whether those so called "peaceful protesters" were really peaceful or not? here for instance they don't seem so passive.(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s8azKp71lZY&feature=youtu.be)

    5. CommentedFrank O'Callaghan

      Hard to take this seriously: " He presented his Justice and Development Party as the Muslim equivalent of Europe’s Christian Democratic parties, combining economic growth, anti-corruption policies, and free elections."

      The Christian Democrats in Italy were the institutionalisation of corruption.

      The Syrian nightmare is almost completely a foreign driven issue capitalising on per-existing sectarian divisions.