online 11.06.13

talking politics

The Turkish spring is shuffling the deck

by Yacov Ben Efrat

Istanbul, and with it all the major Turkish cities, has risen against what is regarded as the dictatorship of the Justice and Development Party, led by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In our consciousness, Taksim and Tahrir squares have merged, Habib Borgeiva Boulevard has become one with Al-Abasain square in Damascus, and it seems that we are witnessing yet another event of the sort we have seen since the beginning of the Arab Spring in 2011. This resemblance derives not only from the nonviolent nature of the Turkish rallies and demonstrations, but also from the fact that their initiators are young, middle class men and women, who used social media to mobilize and publicize their activism, steering away from the traditional political parties and the self-censoring mainstream media.

Despite the similarities, there are significant differences between the revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia and Syria on the one hand, and the events in Turkey on the other. Erdoğan is not an all-powerful dictator, as were Mubarak and Bin-Ali. He uses water cannons rather than bullets or Scad missiles to suppress the protests. He was voted in democratically and has been appreciated by his people throughout the years of his administration. He was able to take Turkey out of a deep financial crisis and lead the country's economy into unprecedented development, turning it into one of the most important economies in the world. Nevertheless, there is a common thread that connects the events in Turkey, Egypt, and even Syria.

The Test of Political Islam

The common denominator is obvious. Turkey's Justice and Development Party strikes a resemblance to Egypt's Freedom and Justice Party, and despite the differences between them, the behavior of Egypt's Morsi is similar to Erdogan's. Both leaders represent political Islam, while adopting a neoliberal economic approach, which prefers private capital and privatization over a welfare state that curtails social gaps. Another common characteristic is the exploitation of the majority achieved in democratic elections to enforce an Islamic constitution and an Islamic lifestyle, despite fierce opposition by a large, influential, secular and urban 'minority'.

Some describe the actions of the Egypt's Freedom and Justice Party as an attempt at Islamization. Similarly, Erdogan is trying to overthrow the principles of the secular state, as determined by Mustafah Kamal Ataturk. Egypt's youth are revolting against Morsi's attempt to hijack the revolution of January 25, 2011. They have created “the rebellion” movement, which has collected over 7 million signatures demanding Morsi's resignation. The youth of Taksim square are carrying Ataturk's portrait in the demonstrations and protesting against Erdogan's new laws, the latest of which restrict the selling of alcohol and interfere with women's dress codes.

These days, the entire region is united by the open struggle between Islamist and secular currents: between political Islam with a capitalist approach and the liberal, secular stream supporting the welfare state. This shared struggle connects the local struggles taking place in Egypt, Tunisia, and now Turkey. It is the first time that political Islam is being tested while in power. In addition, the social meaning of the slogan “Islam is the solution” is being challenged. The question being asked is: Can democracy coincide with a view that considers all secular people as infidels, that disqualifies their way of life and worldview, and prevents them from fulfilling their civil rights?

In fact, the revolutionary youth and the civilian forces are coming to terms with an uneasy truth: that their concentration in large cities such as Alexandria, Cairo and Istanbul, their adoption of modern a life-style enabled by information technology, and their connection with the developed world—all while the majority lives in rural poverty and ignorance—have played into the hands of the Islamist movements. With their incitement, the Islamists are creating sharp divisions between the poor and the middle class, the village and the city, ignorance and knowledge. They are relying on these chasms to achieve a majority in the elections.

The April 6th movement in Egypt, which tied the struggle against dictatorship to the exploitation and privatization in the factories of Al-Mahla Al-Kubra, pulled the rug from beneath the Islamist movement. The cry “Bread, Liberty, Social Justice” is a revolutionary chant, opposing the slogan that “Islam is the Solution”, which does not promise a life of dignity, does not recognize democratic liberty, and adopts ruthless capitalism, the antithesis of social justice.

Turkey and Syria

If there is in fact a common denominator between the events in Turkey and Egypt, it can be found in the struggle of liberal and leftist forces against political Islam. But what about Syria? Erdogan is calling for the end of Assad's regime, as are the rest of the leaders of the Islamist parties, including Qatar-supported Hamas. But before the outbreak of the revolution, there was an excellent relationship between the two regimes, to the extent that the requirement of a travel visa between the countries was canceled. Erdogan and Assad were then united not only by shared economic interests, but also by their joint support of Hamas and their opposition to Israel.

Erdogan embraced 'resistance' to Israel following a number of disappointments, the first of which was his failure to have Turkey join the EU. With the European path blocked, he tried to turn Turkey into a significant new regional player in the Middle East, seeking to revive the influence exerted by Turkey in Ottoman times. His attempt to play the role of mediator between Israel and Syria, taking advantage of Turkey's relationship with Israel, was the first important effort in that direction, a step which led to indirect negotiations between Assad's representatives and Israeli PM Ehud Olmert. But just as the Turkish government thought the negotiations were about to result in a meeting between Assad and Olmert, the latter initiated the strike on Gaza (Operation “Cast Lead”) without notifying Erdogan, who was humiliated by Olmert's moves, perceiving them as a personal insult.

The Gaza strike became a turning point in the two countries' relationship. The Gaza flotilla, led by the Islamist IHH was perceived as a direct defiance of Israel and its military and naval blockade on Gaza. And so it came to be that both Assad and Erdogan used opposition to Israel to mobilize the public in their countries and to enforce their own agendas: Assad strengthening a sectarian dictatorship based on nepotism and corruption, while Erdogan pushed for increased Islamization under the pretext of a struggle against Israel and the West. The Syrian people tore the mask off the Assad regime, while in Turkey a failing foreign policy and resentment against the prime-minister-Sultan have catalyzed the protests led by Turkish youth.

Current events in Turkey are proving that the 'Arab Spring' has not yet become a winter, that the revolution continues, and that the Syrian uprising is not an external conspiracy. We are at the dawn of extremely fateful political, social and ideological changes, indicating the beginning of a new era. As exemplified by Egypt and Tunisia, dictatorship in the guise of a ruthless capitalism that was tied to the American-Israeli axis has fallen, but so has the anti-Israeli, anti-American tyranny in Syria. These days we are witnessing a quintessential political and ideological battle between modern civil forces and political Islam. This is a struggle for the meaning of democracy and civil society, and equally important, for the place of the state in fulfilling social justice. In its own special way, Turkey is injecting new revolutionary content into the Arab spring, strengthening the ongoing struggle for social and political change in the region.