Trudy Rubin: Democracy is facing a rough time in Turkey

06/15/2013 12:00 AM

06/14/2013 5:47 PM

If you want to understand why tens of thousands of young urban Turks have been demonstrating against their government, you need look no further than the tragic plight of Kemal Guruz.

Guruz, one of Turkey’s most distinguished academic reformers and the onetime head of Turkey’s Higher Education Council, has been held without charges in a maximum-security prison for nearly a year.

An indictment against him was finally issued a couple of weeks ago, but the details have not been made public nor revealed to him or his family. The case is supposedly related to a long-running investigation launched by the “moderate” Islamic government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan into events that led to the resignation of a more hard-line Islamist government in 1997.

Guruz, an outspoken advocate of Turkey’s secular traditions, says he had no links to the 1997 events. Turkish human-rights activists believe Guruz’s arrest is part of a systematic effort by Erdogan’s AKP party to intimidate academics, journalists and others who oppose its efforts to Islamize society.

The dragnet arrests that ensnared Guruz reflect the same arrogance of power that was on display when the government responded brutally to peaceful environmental protests against the destruction of Istanbul’s Gezi Park. That arrogance transformed a small demonstration into nationwide protests by middle-class, mostly secular youths against government intimidation of those with different views.

Erdogan has racked up solid domestic achievements – notably, economic growth that has expanded the middle class. But the crackdown in Gezi Park triggered an explosion of pent-up outrage over the AKP’s crony capitalism and coercive measures, such as banning alcohol in public places after 10 p.m. and intimidating the press.

Turkish media have been so cowed that the leading TV channels failed to cover the massive demonstrations. When social media tried to pick up the slack, Erdogan denounced Twitter as “the worst menace to society,” and 34 cyberactivists were arrested. Reporters Without Borders has ranked Turkey 154th out of 179 countries on its press freedom index, just below Russia.

Indeed, there is a strong whiff of Putinism in Erdogan’s disdain for civil society, and his hopes to change Turkey’s constitution to enable himself to become president and solidify power. The prime minister appears to think that after winning 50 percent of the votes in 2011, he needn’t listen to anyone who didn’t choose him. But his backers included many liberals who will not vote for him again.

So anyone (see President Obama) who views Erdogan’s Turkey as the model that Arab states should follow should reconsider. Indeed, long before the Gezi Park protests, the AKP’s democracy deficit was laid bare by the arrests of Guruz and many others like him.

As thousands of young people continue to demonstrate against the government, the outcome of Guruz’s case will symbolize the direction this Turkish government intends to take.

There are two options: On the one hand, Erdogan takes a hard line, dismissing the demonstrators as terrorists. He still says Gezi Park will be razed and a mosque built nearby. On the other hand, President Abdullah Gul, also an AKP leader, insists all Turkish views (secular or religious) should be freely expressed and considered by the government.

If Gul’s outlook prevails, the demonstrations will likely cool and the politicized charges against Guruz should be dropped soon. If Guruz is convicted, it will signal to Turkey’s citizens and allies that its democracy faces very rough times.

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