[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News, with readers' comments]
The uprising in Egypt against the country’s decades-old dictatorship is truly historic. The almost 2 million people who rallied in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, and elsewhere, are certainly on the right side of history. They demand freedom, democracy and bread – to which they have every right.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan stood on the right side of history as well, with his slightly belated yet still-inspiring speech of last Tuesday. Calling on Egyptian ruler Hosni Mubarak to “listen to the wishes of the people,” and respect their yearning for liberty, Erdoğan gave the right message.
He also presented an interesting example of how Muslim values can contribute to democratic culture. By reminding Mubarak that every Muslim will go to the grave “as neither a president nor a prime minister” but a humble man or woman who will be measured only by his deeds, he defied the basis of every tyranny: greed.
I believe Erdoğan needs to continue to enhance this powerful rhetoric of democratization in the Muslim Middle East. The fact that he is the only popularly elected leader in the region, and that he has strongly stood against Israel’s war crimes against Palestinian civilians, gave him a popularity that is perfect to promote such an idealistic vision.
Another leader who once grasped that very vision, and advocated it powerfully, was none other than George W. Bush. In fact, most people that I know hated the man for invading Iraq without any decent reason – and I was no fan of that invasion either. Yet I still found the less belligerent part of Bush’s “freedom agenda” appealing. He, and his Secretary of State Condi Rice, rightly acknowledged the United States’ historic mistake of supporting Middle Eastern dictators for the sake of “stability.” They also realized that the United States should support democracy even if it brings anti-American forces to power. One reason that those forces had been so anti-American, after all, was that they had been suppressed by their pro-American dictators.
Yet, despite this “vision thing,” President Bush failed to inspire the region because of the legitimacy deficit he suffered due to the war in Iraq – not to mention Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and the “black sites” of the CIA. For worse, his administration backed off from democracy promotion right after the election victory of Hamas in Gaza in 2006. So, that “freedom agenda” was short-lived, if not already shortsighted.
Yet the need for a freedom agenda is still there. From the events in Tunis and Egypt, we can clearly see that Facebook, Twitter and Al Jazeera are much better tools for advancing liberty than the bombs and guns of “shock and awe.” But the Arab societies which enjoy these tools can still use inspirational words from authoritative voices.
That is why Erdoğan, who is such a voice, will do his “civilization” – a term he loves – a great service if he continues to push for reform across the region. He should note that Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands is not the only problem in the region, and more Muslims suffer under the brutality of their own regimes rather than that of the Jewish state.
In other words, Erdoğan’s aspiration to be the “voice of the voiceless” will be much better realized if he also criticizes human rights violations in the Middle East, including the suppression of dissidents in not just Egypt but also Iran.
Finally, Erdoğan needs to see that his calls for more freedom in Egypt need to be in parallel with more freedom in Turkey itself. He in fact deserves credit for realizing many liberal reforms in the past eight years, but all of that still makes only a half-full glass. While the AKP has challenged and defeated some of the traditions of the Turkish Leviathan, it has also made peace with, or even adopted, some of them.
A clear example is the ways of the Turkish police. The days of systematic torture are, thank God, gone, but the police can be still brutal in other ways, as we have seen recently in the student demonstrations in Istanbul and the workers’ march in Ankara last Wednesday. In both cases the police, in my view, used disproportionate violence and blocked what should have been free in a free country.
One has to admit that the protestors in these cases were not very civilized either. (In Ankara, for example, some workers started to throw stones at the police, igniting the whole conflict.) But there still is a problem with the authorities’ limited tolerance. In almost every case, they want to allocate a certain part of the city for the demonstrators, whereas the latter want more, and soon clashes begin between the two sides.
I really don’t understand why things have to be this way. Why can’t the workers march right toward Parliament, to protest a law that they despise? Why can’t they denounce the government right in front of its very windows?
The AKP would be not only more principled but also wiser to give such broader space to opposition forces. They might hear some nasty words, but they can also enjoy the honor of advancing liberty – and present a “model” which would indeed resonate from Ankara to all the way to Cairo.