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Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Tree of Democracy [1]

A tree in the sun
What can trees teach us about democracy?

Part One

"What exactly do we understand by the term "democracy"? To me democracy is a tree rooted in the rule of law, branching out to the inalienable rights of all living things, sustained by the respect given to the dignity of life."
Ali Yildirim (Read more quotes)

If you have ever cut your finger, and tried to suck the pain away, you'll know that your blood leaves a bitter, coppery taste in the mouth. I'm sure many nations that hail themselves as democratic will have tasted this over the rising body count in Egypt, because what has happened in the name of democracy there cannot be justified.

No one wins hearts or arguments by killing civilians. Even if you start labelling them as terrorists, they will always be someone else's freedom fighters. As we watch this play out in Egypt, it feels like the whole world, especially the West, has turned its head the other way. Barack Obama's administration - quick to condemn Turkey over the Gezi Park protests - was unable to describe the situation in Egypt as a "coup" even after the massacres in Cairo.

Had Obama done so, America would have been legally bound to cut aid to Egypt, and having not done so, has indirectly financed the murder of civilians officially recorded in their hundreds (unofficially in their thousands).

What message does this give to what America thinks of democracy? That we only have a democratic responsibility to a country if it's politically expedient to national interests? That a military coup can be a tool to resolve political conflict as long as it's not in our own backyard? Or that we can surrender Western values - which we believe are universal - such as democracy and human rights for political or economic reasons? If you draw a line dependent on your interests, you immediately create opposing sides - often with you stuck in the middle.

I don't envy America's position, because it's also a case of damned if you do and damned if you don't - neither side in Egypt will end up thanking Obama. Whoever you back in such a violent crisis, however, will leave you tainted, because the violence on both sides eventually colours everyone the same. Though you may try and wash your hands of it, it doesn't mean they'll be left any cleaner. It leaves you with no credibility or moral right to dictate lessons in democracy to anyone if you ignore the wider messages that violence begets violence, vengeance brings more vengeance and battles bring only death.

It also means you leave the door open for what has happened to others, to happen to you. We know this. Through the shadows of history that creep up from behind to stretch themselves onto our present day, we know this. Yet, rather than light our way to a brighter future and cast those shadows far back, we prefer to remain in darkness. In Robert Fisk's moving article "Cairo massacre: After today, what Muslim will ever trust the ballot box again?" he makes the point that this marks a tragic turning point, from which it will take Egypt years to recover - I for one agree.

At the start of the Gezi Park protests many Western correspondents had likened it to the Arab Spring - as though democracy had finally begun to bloom in Turkey. With democracy's calamitous end in Egypt, I no longer read anyone making those same comparisons now. But just exactly what did happen at Gezi? The park has been saved of sorts, but any victory leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, because five people had to die for it. Thousands more were injured. In the darkness of its own history, many saw the support of the West for the park protests as a guiding light.

But were the Gezi Park protests simply a fight about trees and urban redevelopment? Or were the protests a sinister plot planned months in advance to topple a government - seen as Islamist and increasingly authoritarian - by left-wing groups backed by foreign powers?

Or was the national growing unrest simply a knee-jerk reaction against unexpected police incompetence and brutality, which sparked international and nationwide sympathy with the park protesters - only to be hijacked after a period of time by opportunistic and violent fringe groups?

Whatever Gezi Park will be, it will depend on which side of the "democratic line" you're on, but following the crisis in Egypt the general consensus seems to be from all camps that Gezi was not the arrival, but the test of democracy in Turkey.

In the succeeding months, protests and public assemblies and marches in Turkey have continued, with little or no fuss, on a wide range of issues. The gay pride march in Istanbul went off without a hitch - no resulting arrests or police brutality such as we saw in Russia this year owing to a populist anti-gay campaign marring its political landscape - while more recently cyclists have protested peacefully in various Turkish cities to raise awareness over road traffic accidents. Yet, when it comes to protests that are considered anti-government, police do use heightened measures.

Meanwhile, İdris Bal, a deputy of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) - the ruling party that shouldered the brunt of the anti-government protests Gezi Park turned into - has chaired a report saying Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was misinformed during the Gezi Park protests. The report was prepared by the Eurasia Global Research Center (AGAM), and it found that the redevelopment project was not handled in a democratic way.

There we have the roots of that word again. Democracy: The symbolic beating heart at the core of the original park protests. But was the Western media really applauding this in-house stand for democracy? The reality of the international media having to fill in the blanks of a Turkish press shockingly inept at reporting the news unfolding on its own doorstep didn't help matters much - but was this international reaction to their unexpected incompetence really a rally for democracy?

Or, as some claim, was the West simply looking on and rubbing its reporting hands with Islamaphobic glee to see the death throes of (what they perceive to be) political Islam? After having seen Egypt get the "Western treatment" I wouldn't blame some in Turkey for thinking this, although I wouldn't agree with it.

I have read a lot about democracy in Turkey recently. Some equate it with this notion of political Islam and its "failures", others say that it has nothing to do with Islam, but like Latin countries, is more to do with freely elected leaders becoming increasingly authoritarian, and to blame Islam - because of our own Western induced phobias - is to actually play into the hands of leaders who would use it as a political ploy to rally support within their own grass root majorities.

I agree with the latter to an extent; if anything will get Erdoğan elected again, it will be the double democratic standards of the West, which the voting majority of Turkey are witnessing from their own homes. But even people with this point of view keep missing the main point - namely what is democracy actually meant to mean?

If democracy is a universal standard that we must employ globally, why are its standard bearers not practising what their founders preached? If, on the other hand, democracy means different things to different nations, then should we start being more flexible with our meanings of democracy, recognising that it will be different things to different people?

End of Part one | Part two

Read more about the Gezi Park protests >>

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