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Professor Ibrahim Sirkeci Headshot

There Is Real Anger at Erdogan's Authoritarianism, But a Turkish Spring Is Unlikely

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Going back just a few weeks, there was genuine hope in Turkey over the potential for a peaceful solution to the Kurdish issue which had lingered for decades. But any goodwill raised among the secular segments of Turkish society by progress on Kurdish peace has been dashed by details of Prime Minister Erdogan and his ruling AKP party's legislative programme. Recently announced laws - including restrictions on alcohol sales and on public displays of affection - have reinforced fears that Turkey's avowedly secular state is under threat.

The tipping point was Mr Erdogan's remarks about the protests against the plans to build a shopping mall in a rare green area of downtown Istanbul, Taksim Gezi Park. The PM simply uttered that regardless of protests, the decision had been made, and so the mall would be built. The comments turned an otherwise peaceful and minor protest to protect a few trees in an urban park into a nationwide mass movement against Mr Erdogan's increasing authoritarianism.

In early hours on the third day of protests the Turkish police attacked the demonstrators who were asleep with water cannons and tear gas. Over the next 36 hours, the assault by police continued in Istanbul and other major cities. According to human rights groups over 60 demonstrators have been arrested and hundreds were injured in scuffles with police. The indifference of Erdogan and his ministers to the brutality of the police response is the main cause of the anger we are witnessing across Turkey now. Indeed, the demonstrations calmed down on the fifth day after Turkish government decided to withdraw police from Taksim.

However, there are wider concerns. It was extraordinary to see how silent the Turkish media has been about the demonstrations. Social media, in particular Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, has become the only way to get a sense of what was going on in Istanbul and elsewhere in Turkey. In many cities, it was reported that police jammed wireless communication to prevent people sending photos and news outside. None of the mainstream TV channels and printed media reported what has happened in Istanbul for over four days. When rare reports come out on the fifth day, they were largely pro-government, accusing the protestors of using "excessive measures". This remarkable censorship and suppression of press freedoms in Turkey in response to legitimate protest is reminiscent of many authoritarian regimes around the world. Only international media broadcasted the events in Istanbul as they unfolded.

The disinformation campaign by pro-Islamist journalists and AKP officials - which even denied the fact that police used tear gas - was ultimately futile. International media and social media within Turkey has proven far harder to suppress, and has been dominated with bloody scenes from Istanbul where dozens were injured by police brutality. There were solidarity demonstrations around the world. Squares in London, Berlin, Sydney and many other were filled by Turks and Kurds living abroad to show their support to those "revolting" in Istanbul and other cities in Turkey. They share the photos and videos from their friends and families protesting in Istanbul. Despite the ruling party's efforts to prevent the spread of the words and pictures through social media, we now have a large collection of evidence for police brutality, which is on par with what we have seen in Cairo and elsewhere in the last few years.

Could this lead to a Turkish Spring? Unlikely. Turkey is a politically polarised country. Public discontent and frustration with AKP policies is growing but yet unlikely to become the majority. Erdogan and his party still believes they have the conservative majority behind them; if he was forced to resign, the AKP would still be confident of continuing to run the country. This is perhaps why the ruling party has been ruthless against the opposition of any kind, particularly since the last general election.

However, the brutality of the police combined with the deception and censorship of the AKP and pro-Islamist commentators will certainly cause concern among the liberals and centrists who might have voted for the AKP in the past. Only a strong backlash in next year's elections against the Government's authoritarian turn has the potential to make a dent in the AKP's confidence about its conservative majority, and force Erdogan to consider changing course. Until then, the unrest and frustration will remain, and could well boil over into further protests.

Ibrahim Sirkeci is the Director of the Regent's Centre for Transnational Studies at Regent's University.