Throughout the weekend, more than a few high-ranking Israeli officials rubbed their hands in delight at the huge protests in Istanbul's Taksim Square and in other Turkish cities. One can suppose that Former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman was particularly pleased. He will most definitely find an opportunity over the coming days to declare “I told you so.”
Israel does not need to make an official declaration regarding the situation in Turkey, but the voices emanating from the White House and capitals around Europe carry much importance. U.S. President Barack Obama, who has close ties to Erdogan, cannot limit himself to merely expressing his worry. Obama and his peers in the West must use these developments to strengthen democracy and secularism in Turkey.
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One of the pictures that will be remembered from this weekend’s protests is that of two television screens. In the image, one screen was tuned into CNN’s international news broadcast and displayed clashes between police and protestors. The other, tuned to CNN TURK, CNN’s Turkish channel, was airing a cooking show.
This image, which spread like wildfire throughout social media, is just one example of the Turkish media’s fear of covering the protests against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, his government, and his party. Many Turkish television channels hesitated to report on the protests for many long hours, and the state news agency made mention of them only after Erdogan himself spoke, and lashed out at the protesters.
After all, over the last few years, Erdogan’s Turkey has become a prison for journalists. According to the organization Freedom House, which strives to preserve freedom of journalism throughout the world, Turkey is the nation that has arrested the highest number of journalists in the world over articles that they have written and published. In that context, one can suppose that many writers and editors thought twice before they gave the green light to articles or pieces about the protests.
Although the protests started as an effort by a few hundred activists, aimed at stopping a greedy real estate project in Istanbul’s Gezi Park, the violence exhibited by police against a civil protest of secular youth prompted thousands of people to take to the streets in protest. Thus what started as an environmental protest quickly turned into a political demonstration against Erdgoan and his party, which has been controlling the nation for over a decade, weakening its legal system, curbing opposition and dissent and boosting intelligence agencies.
One of Erdogan’s favorite activities is making speeches, in which he preaches to other leaders in the region. First he criticized Israel for genocide and war crimes in Gaza, then called on Muammar Gadhafi and Hosni Mubarak to “heed the voice rising up from the people” and go home – and finally, he called Bashar Assad a murderer.
Even if he was correct in some of those cases, he has found himself over the weekend in exactly the same position as his counterparts throughout the Arab world. His reaction to the demonstrations on the streets of Istanbul was no different than Mubarak’s, and shows just how distorted Erdogan’s perception of democracy really is.
Like Mubarak, Erdogan sent the police to violently disperse the protests, and labeled the activists provocateurs, criminals, and even terrorists. “The people protesting in the streets have questionable ties,” said Erdogan. The only thing missing was for Erdogan to claim that the protests were organized by the Israeli Mossad.
It’s too early to define the protests in Istanbul as a “Turkish Spring,” but they represent a clear message to Erdogan and his party, that a large portion of the Turkish people is fed up with the fact that he is drunk with power, and by his attempts to change the character of the republic.