Arab Dreams for Adopting Turkish Model Up in Smoke at Gezi Park

Following the outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2011, many Arabs had hoped that the nascent authorities would adopt a Turkish model of governance, yet the outbreak of the Gezi Park protests shattered those dreams.

al-monitor Protesters greet each other near a portrait of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, at Gezi Park near Taksim Square in Istanbul, June 6, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov.

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kissing ban turkey, censorship, arab, alcohol

Jun 7, 2013

When Mohammed Bouazizi set himself ablaze in Tunisia, sparking the Arab uprising, former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali did not call him a “vagabond hawker.” On the contrary, he visited him in the hospital. In Egypt, former President Hosni Mubarak pledged to meet the demands of the people and addressed the rioting masses not as rebels but as “noble youngsters.” Both leaders eventually ordered deadly crackdowns that brought about their ends. But to give them their due, they never insulted the demonstrators.

As the dictators bid farewell, the model offered to Arabs as to how Islam and democracy could tie the knot was the Turkey of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). The Islamists in Tunisia  and Egypt needed a guide, and they found it in the AKP, their sympathizer. The sheer number of interviews with Arab figures praising the Turkish model, conducted since 2011 by Anatolia News Agency alone could easily fill several volumes.

The admired Turkey

According to a YouGov opinion poll taken in January-February 2012, commissioned by the Doha Meetings, 72% of Arabs believed that Turkey was the best model for countries such as Egypt, Tunisia and Libya looking for a new direction.

But the fervently promoted “Turkish model” myth has gone up in smoke with the pepper spray billowing from Gezi Park. AKP sympathizers aside, the Arabs suddenly came to see that the Turkey they were shown as a model was confronting the Turkey they admired. They are confused, asking why the Turks have risen up.

Those who had refused to heed the “Turkish model” cliche see a common trigger in the Arab and the Turkish street: dignity. The Arab revolt sought to destroy the existing order. In Turkey, many have realized, the problem is not the regime but the authoritarianism embodied in a democratically elected leader.

Why are celebrities at Taksim?

It is important to understand how the Arabs see Gezi Park. Cairo-based Turkish journalist Aydogan Kalabalik tweeted that the presenters of Sada el Balad and Nile television stations asked him why Turkish soap opera stars had joined the demonstrations. The soap operas have been influential in the Arab attraction to Turkey. In Egypt, the Internet site published photos of actor Halit Ergenc at Gezi Park under a headline reading: “Celebrities Refuse to Bow Down to Turkey’s Sultan.”

It is apparent that comparisons to Tahrir are not given much credit. The Lebanese As-Safir newspaper, for instance, commented: “We do not believe the revolt will topple Erdogan since the AKP has changed the balances of social and economic power.”

A more analytical view about the reasons behind the revolt came from Iran. In response to “why Erdogan has fallen out of favor,” IRD writer Ali Bahmani Kajar wrote that, “The uprising, ignited by objections to the construction of a shopping mall at Gezi Park, is so deeply rooted that it could lead to bigger problems for Turkey.” He then listed the following reasons: 

  • Economic growth without social justice.

  • Regional disparities: In 14 provinces, the standard of living is comparable to that in the world’s developed countries, while it is quite bad in 27 others.

  • Backlash to great power ambitions: The AKP’s attempt to become a powerhouse, driven by Ottomanist ambitions, troubled those in the grip of poverty and economic inequality. Wary of the fate of the Ottoman Empire, which disintegrated while aspiring for great power, the people grew anxious that they could lose also the Turkish identity, shaped by the policies of Ataturk, which carried Turkey to the 20th century on an agenda of Pan-Turkism rather than Pan-Islamism.

  • Pakistanizaton fear: The creation of the Taliban in Afghanistan by secular Pakistan led to fragmentation. Turkey faces a similar threat due to its Syria policy.

  • Weakening nationalism: Peace talks with the PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party] and debates of federalism for the Kurds irked the nationalist parties.

  • Secular reactions: Secular Turks are worried about their lifestyle because of the government’s stance on issues such as alcohol.

  • Oppression: Turkey is the country with the largest number of journalists in jail. Censorship and restrictions on the media have increased.

  • US-friendly policies are opposed by leftist quarters.

Syria’s sarcasm

The scenes of violence have led to delirious joy in Syria. A “bed of roses” itself, the country warned its citizens to avoid traveling to Turkey on security grounds! Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi accused Erdogan of terrorizing his own people: “The Turkish people don't deserve all this violence. The prime minister should resign and seek asylum in Doha.” Dampress, meanwhile, jibed that “the scared Syrian opposition is fleeing Istanbul.”

The outlook of the Gezi events staggers between Tahrir and the Occupy movements in the West. If the government has really gotten the message as it claims to be and acts accordingly, the Gezi events will go down to history as an “occupy” movement and the pepper spray that smeared Turkey’s image will vanish in the wind. But if the government digs in its heels, Gezi Park will transform into a Tahrir in the minds and marketing the “model country” idea will turn into a fantasy.

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