Opposition in Turkey Can't Stymie Erdogan – but Contrary to Israel's, at Least It Speaks Up

It would not (yet) be fair to compare the Turkish interpretation of the term 'democracy' to the Israeli interpretation. But the two of them are approaching one another.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Turkey's President Erdogan addresses audience in Ankara, January 12, 2016.
Turkey's President Erdogan addresses audience in Ankara, January 12, 2016.Credit: Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Anybody who’s crossed the border between Turkey and Iraq knows the town of Silopi. For years Kurdish taxi drivers held a monopoly over transporting passengers via the Habur crossing to this town in southeastern Turkey. Those were prosperous years, with thousands of trucks crossing the border every day, leaving behind generous tithes in the town, after sleeping in its small hotels and buying food in its rural stores. Oil tankers passing through from Iraq would empty their bellies at local gas stations at a low price, too.

Silopi lies in the Silopi district of Turkey's Sirnak Province, which includes 23 villages in which more than 73,000 people live. Since July however, it’s become a battle zone. The town had been under military-imposed curfew for 36 days, and when it was partially lifted last week, residents who had fled and returned home found that the army had left behind mainly ruins. Many houses were destroyed and livestock had disappeared.

Remember, these are Turkish citizens. Some of them support the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (known as the PKK), which is responsible for various acts of terrorism around Turkey, but they have not been involved in any fighting per se. Although the Turkish government declares, that more than 600 PKK members were killed in the hostilities recently, it’s hard to verify that claim.

Turkey doesn’t have a Kurdish problem, it has a terrorism problem, Recep Tayyip Erdogan says, explaining the war his country is waging in the southeast. But in fact Turkey has a huge “Kurdish problem” which has dragged the nation into a small civil war. That “problem” is what led more than 1,200 Turkish academics to sign a petition calling on the government to stop the fighting in the Kurdish districts.

Academics launching a political initiative against the policy of their government isn't common in Israel. All it took to whip up a storm in our parts earlier this month was one lecturer, former director general of the Foreign Ministry Alon Liel, who led just such a move, provoking 150 students at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya to call for his dismissal, and for ministers and Knesset members to call him a traitor.

In Turkey, it was the president who opened up a front against university lecturers, ordering the investigation and arrest of 18 academics. Some will probably be tried for allegedly disseminating “terrorist propaganda,” as per Erdogan's charges and, as he says, they will pay a price for falling into a “pit of treachery." “So," the president scolded. "You think you will try to disrupt the unity of these nation, and continue to have a comfortable life with the help of the salary that you receive from the state – and pay no price for it? Those days are over In a state of law like Turkey, so-called academics who target the unity of our nation have no privilege of committing crimes.”

In Israel we probably will not be hearing such blunt accusations and statements against academics, since beyond a handful of them, it seems the government can rely on the loyalty of Israel’s institutions of higher education.

In addition, Erdogan is suing the head of the Turkish opposition party, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, for insulting him with slanderous remarks. Kilicdaroglu had called the president a religious “tin-pot dictator.” Erdogan called his rival "stupid” and “insane.” This exchange of accusations attests that even if the opposition in Turkey can’t stymie Erdogan, let alone replace him, at least it tries to speak up. In Israel, the prime minister doesn’t even have to worry about such talk.

Erdogan has another explosive tucked into his arsenal. Last week the Turkish businessman Mustafa Koç died. The multinational corporation he led engaged, among other things, in tourism and manufacturing weapons. Erdogan delivered a eulogy for Koç, but “forgot” to mention the threat he’d delivered to the businessman in the summer of 2013, when thousands of protesters clashed with Turkish security forces over the plan to tear down Gezi Park in Istanbul. Not a few of the protesters found sanctuary in the Divan Hotel, owned by Koç, who opened a special room for medical treatment of wounded demonstrators. Erdogan warned that Koç then that he would pay a price for this.

Indeed, a defense tender that Koç had won was subsequently canceled and a new one was reissued. Damaging the economic interests of political rivals in Turkey is a routine thing. Last week a senior Erdogan aide suggested nationalizing Isbank, a privately owned bank, among the biggest in the country, with assets of about $91 billion. The thing is that over a quarter of the bank's shares are held by the opposition party led by Kilicdaroglu. Just the suggestion was enough to send Isbank stock tumbling more than 3 percent. With moves of this time on top of the attacks on academics, journalists and intellectuals, the business community is starting to feel increasingly stifled.

Still, it would not (yet) be fair to compare the Turkish interpretation of the term “democracy” to the Israeli interpretation. But the two of them are approaching one another. After all, Israel always did see Turkey as a sister state.

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