Foremost, they don’t spring from the same source. Although the Islamist government headed by Recep Tayyip Erdogan is nowhere near as tyrannical as Iran’s ayatollahs, the protesters in Istanbul have more in common with those who took to the streets of Tehran in 2009, than they do with the masses who toppled Arab despots in recent years.
The latter instigated mayhem for a variety of reasons which were nothing like the yearnings for civil liberties that the West wrong-headedly ascribed to them. Arab insurgencies were fuelled both by Islamic reactionary fervor as well as by ethnic/tribal divisions. Arab civil-libertarians were scant and soon drowned out in the turmoil.
In Tehran four years ago, the demonstrators were members of the urban westernized minority who continuously long to throw off the Islamic theocratic yoke. Istanbul’s demonstrators largely fall into a similar category. They comprise Turkey’s better educated and yuppier upper crust. They are outnumbered by the culturally very different masses in outlying areas.
Istanbul’s western oriented populace has plenty to bellyache about even if things aren’t nearly as oppressive as in Iran.
For them Erdogan, in power since 2002, has gallingly altered their country’s point of reference from Europe – as per the vision of Kamal Ataturk, modern Turkey’s founding father – to the Muslim Mideast.
It was a piecemeal transformation whose cumulative effects are becoming increasingly intolerable. The return to Islamic garb for women, which Ataturk forbade, the compulsory Koran classes in schools, restrictions on alcohol sales and ever bans on bright lipstick for Turkish airlines stewardesses, all add up.
“Insulting Islam” has become a punishable crime in courts controlled by the government.
Erdogan’s party which rose on a strident anti-corruption campaign is now perceived as more corrupt than its predecessors. The Erdogan personality cult – as exemplified in his omnipresent portraits – only exacerbates the antipathy, as do Erdogan’s vituperative outbursts, of the sort he has frequently aimed at Israel, but which also proliferate domestically.
The pugnacious Erdogan, moreover, now aims to run for president, since he cannot continue for another term as prime minister. Accordingly, he aims to change the rules of the game and make the presidency more potent. Those urban Turks who are relatively Europeanized shudder at the thought but their country cousins in distant provinces are passive and Erdogan draws his power from the less upwardly mobile among his state’s citizenry.
All this makes for a complex picture that is nothing like the simplistic stories the media prefers. The riots in Istanbul have exposed the dark seamy underside of his rule that Erdogan prefers nobody see and they have revealed his unmistakable anti-democratic inclinations and alacrity to cruelly crush dissent.
This sullies his image and gives the lie to his rhetoric and impudent lectures to others. But this doesn’t necessarily hasten his end.
This is a point we mustn’t lose sight of. Internationally, it’s another feather plucked from the Obama Administration’s cap. Washington presented Ankara as its stalwart ally and supposedly a bastion of democracy in the region. That myth is now largely debunked.
There’s no denying that the only truly western democracy in the Mideast is little maligned Israel, where freedom isn’t a foreign import but a genuine inherent mindset. Yet it is this very distinct contrast to its Muslim milieu which not only intensifies Israel’s isolation but also draws fire in its direction from both assorted regional autocrats and their hardly liberal opponents.
His domestic troubles are guaranteed to only make the already quarrelsome Erdogan all the more nervous and confrontational. He has always used Israel as a tool to win influence in the Arab world and rally disparate Turkish constituencies to the cause of standing up to Israel – the ogre he expediently propagandizes against.
Such proclivities will not disappear. If anything, the embarrassed and pressured Erdogan can be counted upon to divert attention from himself by directing reinvigorated vitriol against Israel, as in his much-touted plans to visit Gaza.