Taksim Square Protests: Erdogan is No Dictator, But Tolerating Dissent Isn't Exactly His Forte


The demonstrations at Taksim Square over the building of a mall over Gezi Park, one of the last public parks in Istanbul, has enraged many amongst the residents of the city. An objection that was initiated by a small group of environmentalists has now led to a countrywide revolt against the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its leader prime minister (PM) Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Over the past decade Erdogan has been duly praised for his democratic reforms and uplifting a declining economy. Calling him an "autocrat" would be disingenuous and an inaccurate representation of the term itself.

However, his supremacy over Turkey's political scene in the last few years has seen him become more defiant and unwilling to tolerate dissent. From restricting press freedoms to curbing civil liberties, Erdogan is increasingly disintegrating the democratic credentials that he once championed.

In 2010, Erdogan pushed for a referendum that would give more liberties to civilian institutions and individuals, while reducing the autonomy of the military establishment, which had ratified controversial clauses after their unceremonious coup in 1980. The referendum included more rights for individuals, more collective bargaining for workers, increased gender equality, and greater jurisdiction of civilian courts while weakening the power of military ones.

This was a positive step that curtailed the power of the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF). The European Union (EU) also praised Erdogan and his government, citing the proposals in the referendum to be a solid reflection of own requirements for democracy. The referendum was passed by nearly 60% of the voters who participated in the poll.

However all has not been well under the charismatic Erdogan. In the last few years, the freedom of media professionals have come under intense scrutiny. In 2012, Erdogan personally showed his disdain for the immensely popular soap opera "Magnificent Century" that recounts the life of famous Ottoman Empire figure Suleiman the Merchant. Erdogan called the show "seditious," and threatened the producers be "taught a lesson".

Journalists have also found themselves in the line of Erdogan's fire, which has been worryingly an increasing trend in the P.M.'s second term. In a recent report by the Committe for Protection of Journalists, Turkey had highest number of incarcerated journalists in the world in 2012, above countries such as China and Iran.

Veteran journalist Nuray Mert was dismissed from her TV show when Erdogan referred to her criticism on his Turkish policy as a sign of treachery. A longtime critic of past governments, Mert says, "I receive hateful, sexist mail; my luggage is mysteriously rummaged when I travel; my private phone calls are tapped."

Now as the fiercest public challenge to Erdogan is in full force at Taksim Square, his defiant and stubborn stance is evident. "If you bring 100,000, I will bring a million" Erdogan said at the start of this turmoil. If that had not been enough foot in his mouth, he blamed the protests on Twitter, citing it to be a menace.

Renowned Turkish columnist Mustafa Akyol writes "the way he understands democracy ('I win the ballots, I call all the shots'), and the way he degrades his opponents, has been breeding a widespread tension in the country." Akyol asserts that had Erdogan been more sympathetic to protestors, and used a "softer tone," the situation on the ground would have been pacified.

Like him or loathe him, Erdogan has been re-elected three times as PM, in free and fair elections that legitimize his popularity and his rule. His personality has galvanized Muslim leaders in neighboring Muslim states where he is immensely popular. He is neither Saddam nor Assad. To say so is deceiving and insincere. But when he advises other governments to show restraint towards their countrymen, his own chauvinistic and narrow-minded actions towards his own population are worrying and seemingly hypocritical.

To be in agreement with former U.S. President George W. Bush is a practice I generally refrain from. However, he is right when he says that power over time can be "corrosive." Unfortunately, Erdogan's actions in the face of dissent are reflecting exactly that.

Any further thoughts? Reach me on Twitter @UsaidMuneeb16