As a swath of protesters rail against a government they say is increasingly anti-democratic, Turkish President Abdullah Gul defended his government as a bastion of democracy, and his police and security forces as models of restraint.
In an exclusive interview with The Globe and Mail in Ankara Tuesday, Mr. Gul said that not only is his country a model for Arab states in the region, but added that if Syria had followed Turkey’s way of handling protesters, it might never have slid into civil war. And despite the country’s reputation for its fierce repression of journalists, he said that its people are free to issue the most extreme opinions.
The mild-mannered Mr. Gul is often described as the “good cop” to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s “bad cop” and, in the current crisis of protests gripping the country, this rings true.
It was Mr. Gul, a veteran of repeated attempts at establishing an Islamic-leaning political party, who called for Istanbul police to withdraw from Taksim Square two weeks ago when it was clear they had overreacted to a peaceful protest, triggering the current crisis. And it was he who stated that popular protest is a legitimate form of free expression, as long as it remains peaceful.
It is this formula, distinguishing between good, peaceful protesters, and bad, violent ones, that the government now is trying to apply to end the crisis that has shaken the country’s economy and made its allies question the abilities of Turkey’s leadership.
Mr. Gul may differ from Mr. Erdogan on some things, but the one thing he is not is disloyal.
He and Mr. Erdogan have been a team for two decades and their winning formula brought the Justice and Development Party (AKP) to power in 2002.
Now in the government’s biggest crisis since coming to office, Mr. Erdogan is looking to his President for help.
Mr. President, it’s been 18 years since I last interviewed you, and you and your country have come a long way. You must be very proud.
You have brought me all the way back into the old times, restating my memories. When you take a glance at what has transpired since those days, we see that there have been many ups and downs. But, eventually, the cadres that were there have served tremendously in the development of Turkey, particularly over the last decade, and Turkey has advanced tremendously in democratic, economic, political and in every sense possible. And I’m proud to be one of the pioneers within that process.
Mr. President, Everywhere I go in the Arab world, people look to Turkey as a model for a moderate government with Islamic instincts. What lesson have you learned in governing that you could pass on to these countries?
It’s true, Turkey has a predominantly Muslim population, a country where, at the same time, we have democracy, rule of law, pluralism, all fully realized and we had a successful economic development in place and, quite naturally, the people in those countries question “why shouldn’t we then be able to do the same thing?” So, Turkey is a source of inspiration for those people.
And, in recent weeks, there have been developments [protests] unfolding in Turkey and even those can serve as a lesson for the region because, as you know, such societal events can happen anywhere in the world – like the Occupy Wall Street movement in the U.S., like the students protesting against expensive university fees in the UK, like the unemployed people protesting in Spain.
In Turkey, the societal events of the recent weeks have begun initially with people raising their concerns over environmental issues.
But there needs to be a clear distinction made between what is happening in Turkey and what is happening in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya or Syria. The Turkish people are not out in the street making demands for fundamental rights or freedoms. They’re not raising their complaints about democracy. There is a clear distinction there.
There is another lesson to be drawn by other countries: When you observe the police and the security forces who are out in the streets, you see that none of them have ever resorted to armed weapons, they don’t carry sticks, they don’t carry weapons and there were no casualties caused by firearms. Moreover, the police forces who are trying to maintain the public order have their badge numbers on their hats and on their uniforms – it’s all visible – so the way they are equipped and the way they are acting is just like the most developed countries. And this is an important lesson.