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A Turkish riot policeman uses tear gas as people protest against the destruction of trees in a park brought about by a pedestrian project, in Taksim Square in central Istanbul May 28, 2013.
Turkish riot policeman uses tear gas as people protest against the destruction of trees in a park brought about by a pedestrian project, in Taksim Square in central Istanbul May 28, 2013. REUTERS/Osman Orsal

As part of my job as Managing Director for the Hellenic American Leadership Council, I closely monitor and study developments in the Eastern Mediterranean region. For those of us who have been following Turkey's politics and policies, the protests in Istanbul this week are not surprising. Here's some context, as well as an explanation of why what's happening in Turkey is so important to American interests.

This is meant to be a primer to those unfamiliar with the nation's politics. For far more sophisticated analysis, you should check out the good folks over at Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, and people like Aaron Stein and Soner Cagaptay at The Atlantic who have been churning out amazing, nuanced analysis on the issue.

Turkish protests
Protestor vs. police in Turkey yesterday, from

The protest began earlier this week as peaceful opposition to government plans to raze a park in Istanbul and erect a mall there instead. The crackdown by police was swift, fierce and excessive. Consequently, the protest expanded into a broader protest against the government. Tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets have been used against the protestors, resulting in many injuries and at least several deaths (details on that are fuzzy, I'll explain why below). This morning, Turkey's Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, stated defiantly that the proposal to get rid of the park will proceed, and he lashed out at the protestors.

Turkey is a country of some 76 million people (99% of whom are Muslim). The country has had a robust secular identity in the past. You may hear the name "Ataturk" in various analyses -- that's the leader who created the modern Turkish state, ushering in secularism and turning Turkey towards the West. Turkey has for a long time vigorously held on to this secularism in its public sphere (so much so that even headscarfs were banned in the public sector). That's changed over the last decade, especially with the election of the conservative Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2003.

Erdogan and his party, the AKP, have unquestionably blurred the line between religion and state. Domestically, this means that Turkey has embraced some controversial laws recently, including a complete ban on all advertising and images of alcohol. This means that all images of beer, wine, etc. have to blurred on TV.

That sweeping, ill-conceived law is indicative of Erdogan's agenda. Still, Erdogan remains generally popular in Turkey. By his third term, he established himself as a Middle East rock star, catapulting on the international stage and even being a contender for TIME's 2011 Person of the Year (he ended up winning the People's Choice category). His popularity has taken a hit over the past couple of years as he has pushed policies that have many asking whether Turkey is "turning away from the West."

One of the best descriptions of Turkey I've read is from Soner Capagtay. I think it sums up the delicate balance there and why there's friction between those who want Turkey to become more progressive vs. those who believe Turkey should embrace and live by its Ottoman history:

Turkey's two halves are like oil and water; though they may not blend, neither will disappear. Turkey's Islamization is a fact, but so is secular and Westernized Turkey.
This piece on the "Turkish paradox" and the tension between religion and democracy in Turkey is also a good read. FREEDOM OF PRESS (OR LACK THEREOF) IN TURKEY
Turkish prime minister and President Obama
A couple weeks ago, when Erdogan visited the U.S. and held a press conference with President Obama, it was at the height of the AP scandal. I wrote at the time how ironic it was that the president was (rightly) being grilled on freedom of the press and press intimidation when, standing just feet away from him in the next podium was the world's worst jailer of journalists.

Yes, the Turkish government jails more journalists and bloggers than any other country in the world, including China. The Committee to Protect Journalists has been relentlessly fighting for their release. Meanwhile, the European Federal of Journalists has even launched an international campaign to free those journalists, allowing media institutions around the world to "adopt" and fight for the release of individual jailed reporters.

Here's a sampling of some recent cases:

  • Just last month,a foreign news editor in Turkey was handed down a conditional 14 month jail sentence for a providing  a mocking definition of Abdullah Gül University on Turkey's version of Urban Dictionary, writing sarcastically that "its graduates would continue to attend the Abdullah Gül's school of life [marked by] unemployment, bribing, [and] favoritism." 14 months.
  • Last week, a Turkish-Armenian blogger was sentenced to jail for over a year for committing "blasphemy" by "openly denigrating the religious values held by a certain portion of the population." His jail sentenced was extended from 9 months to over a year because "the crime was committed through the press."
  • In April, a famous pianist, Fazil Say, was handed "a suspended 10-month prison term, "convicted of insulting Islam and offending Muslims in postings on Twitter."

Erdogan's reputation has also taken a hit because of his infamous tirades against the press (believe it or not, Erdogan has personally sued reporters for libel when they published criticism of him he did not like, and he's won in court). Helen Pidd at The Guardian has reported that while “[t]he judicial authorities in Turkey will not reveal exactly how many people Erdogan has taken to court for making fun of him,” in the first two years of his term, Erdogan managed to strong-arm about $200,000 a year in compensation from people who dared to criticize him.

You can start to see why so many journalists in Turkey are wary of what they write, and why so many have taken to the streets in Turkey to protest a government they think doesn't honor basic democratic freedoms.

McClatchy's Roy Gutman profiled the stunning lack of press freedom in Turkey a couple weeks ago:

Erdogan put pressure on their publications and attacked them by name or indirectly, raising a multitude of questions about whether Turkey has the advanced democracy it claims 10 years into Erdogan’s prime ministership. [...]

In place of hard-hitting watchdog reporting, the result is self-censorship. Some journalists say 30 percent to 40 percent of their reports are never published.

“Flattery is the key thing in Turkish media,” Mert told McClatchy. “It has never been as bad as it is now.”

Major events go undiscussed.

Indeed, part of the reason why details about injuries and possible deaths are unconfirmed is because the Turkish press generally (though not completely) did not initially cover the protest or broadcast from the area.

They did, however, carry Prime Minister Erdogan's response to the protests live this AM. His response will astound you.

This morning, Erdogan addressed the protests by noting that some of the force may have been excessive but insisting that the police would still act against the protestors:
"Police were present in Taksim yesterday," Erdogan said. "They will be present today and they will be present tomorrow too. Taksim cannot be a place where extremist groups run wild."
Now for the chaser:
"All attempts [for change] apart from the ballot box are not democratic," Erdogan said.
Other versions of the quote that I've seen online: "All attempts to change government apart from the ballot box are not democratic, are illegitimate."

Peaceful protests are "undemocratic." That certainly won't go over well in terms of quelling the outrage at Erdogan's authoritarian streak.

I've seen the phrase "Turkish spring" a lot in the past 24 hours, but it's not really an appropriate term - at least not yet. First, Turkey is nothing like Egypt, Libya, Syria, etc. Elections are free and fair, Erdogan skated to his third term by being wildly popular, and he enjoys unwavering support from President Obama and other Western leaders.

In fact, the United States has drawn closer with what it sees as a stable, moderate Islamic ally over the last several years. Prime Minister Erdogan is one of President Barack Obama’s closest international allies (indeed, the president called Edrogan more times than any other leader except Prime Minister Cameron).

That's why it will be interesting to see how the White House responds to a petition on that calls on the president to condemn Turkey's treatment of the protestors (the petition needs 100,000 signatures, the threshold for an official White House response).

Feel free to add in any developments in the comments as this story unfolds.


Originally posted to Georgia Logothetis on Sat Jun 01, 2013 at 05:20 AM PDT.

Also republished by More and Better Democracies.

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