I find no rhyme or reason for the ecstasy of some intellectuals in the Arab world over protests in Turkey against the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) there, except a desire to gloat over Arab Islamists who reached power in the past two years.
Despite the structural differences between the Turkish and Arab condition, whether in terms of political and social contexts or political Islam model on both countries, some deliberately overlook these differences to point out that Islamists in power are a failed model overall, but have not offered any reasons why. While some are talking about a “Turkish Spring”, others have started discussing post-Erdoganism in Turkey.
While it is true the performance of Arab Islamists over the past two years does not augur well, drawing parallels between the Turkish and Arab experiments is overly simplistic and hasty without understanding the reality of what is happening on the ground.
Despite the outward similarities between protests at Taksim Square and those in many Arab squares over the past two years, especially since protestors are mostly youth without a unified leadership, there are, however, vital differences between what is happening in Turkey and Arab countries.
There are five very critical differences between the two models, whether on the level of protest movements or relations between Islamists and their opponents. First, what is happening in Turkey today is the fruit of “Erdoganism”, not vice versa. In other words, those protesting the demolition of a public park to build a shopping mall are exercising the freedom and openness that were entrenched over the past decades, and have become an intrinsic part of the openness of “public domain” in Turkey. It is the result of political and legal transformations and changes that the AKP made in the structure of the political system in Turkey.
Demands that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan should resign can be interpreted within this framework. At a glance, it appears protests and demonstrations in Turkey want to improve and further embed democracy, not build or create it from scratch – as it appears to be the case in Arab Spring states.
Second, while social and economic demands were – and continue to be – the source and core of protests in Arab countries, the opposite is true in Turkey. The economic boom created by the AKP in Turkey, which made the country a key emerging economy in the Third World, is a main trigger for current protests in two ways. First, because it contributed to forming an emerging bourgeoisie class seeking to retake what it views as the secular “heritage” of the modern Turkish state. It is doing this by creating new areas of pressure and protest whether on social networks or occupying public domain that Turkish Islamists have occupied over the past decades. Second, raising awareness about the need to link economic liberalism with political rights and freedoms.
Thus, the root of ongoing protests in Turkey is rising anger over the erosion of the space for privacy and individualism, as well as what many protesting youth view as interference by the state in their private affairs (such as restrictions on selling alcohol, relations between sexes, arts and culture, etc.) And so, it is a battle of modernism between a conservative approach by the regime and a more liberal and open perspective adopted by this new class.
Third, one cannot draw parallels between protests in Turkey and those in the Arab world over the past two years, since the latter can be summarised in the powerful but succinct slogan: “The people demand the overthrow of the regime” which echoed across Arab Spring states.
The regime in Turkey is the descendant of the modern Kemalist state, despite attempts by the AKP to revise this structure. The state, with its culture, values and character, remains the main framework for all interactions within Turkey’s political system. Meanwhile, in the Arab world there is a continued dispute about the nature and essence of this republic, and whether it is the best format and most appropriate for Arab societies.
In other words, the ceiling of demands of the youth in Taksim is no more than demands by youth in other European cities – namely better conditions for the political system, not dissolving or replacing the regime.
Four, and most importantly, the success of the regime in Turkey – not its failure – is the main backdrop for protests, which is the opposite of what happened in the Arab world. The sustained success of the ruling party in Turkey has left negative political and psychological side effects on the opposition, some of whom lost hope in the possibility of removing this regime via ballot boxes.
In Taksim, there is a growing sense among protesting youth that the continuous success of Erdogan and his party has made them arrogant and inflated ego, which means they must leave power or be replaced. In other words, Erdogan is about to pay for his continuous success and leadership of the AKP over the past decade. This is a rare condition in politics, when a sector of society becomes bored with the victory and success of a single political party which is similar to the Conservative Party in the UK led by Margaret Thatcher and later John Major.
Five, the Islamist experience in Turkey is radically and fundamentally different from its counterparts in the Arab world, whether regarding their gradual integration over the past three decades that helped season their ideology and political discourse, or their ability to run government and deal with legitimate challenges.
Unlike for Arab Islamists, the concept of integration and moderation succeeded in Turkey and greatly helped develop the discourse of the AKP, making it more of a conservative political party rather than a literally religious one.
Erdogan criticised the Muslim Brotherhood when he visited Egypt one year ago, urging them to show tolerance and engage in dialogue with their opponents and to respect plurality. While Turkey’s AKP succeeded in maintaining a grip on power, many Islamist parties are still struggling to consolidate power and may never succeed in achieving that.