Anti-Government Protests Target Obama Ally in Turkey

PHOTO: Turkish youths shout anti-government slogans as they march in Ankara, Turkey, June 4, 2013.
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With protestors taking to Turkey's streets and calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Obama administration is once again finds itself having to slap an ally on the wrists for bad behavior.

It was only two weeks ago that President Obama praised his "friend" and "ally" during Erdogan's visit to the White House. Now, the Obama administration is admonishing Erogan's government for using excessive force against anti-government protestors.

"We are concerned by the reports of excessive use of force by police," said Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday as protests continued to roil Turkey's streets. "We obviously hope that there will be a full investigation of those incidents and full restraint from the police force with respect to those kinds of incidents."

The violence in Istanbul's Taskim Square began on Friday when a demonstration against plans to replace a popular park with a shopping center morphed into a widespread condemnation of Erdogan's government. The police crackdown has since resulted in chaos and violence that has left thousands injured and arrested and two dead.

On the surface it seems that warnings to a friendly regime to not overreact to anti-government protests have become a familiar refrain for the Obama administration, after protests turned to regime change in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya in recent years.

But Erdogan is a democratically elected leader three times over who boasts of close relationships with the U.S.. Unlike Egypt's Hosni Mubarak or Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, he is far from an autocratic dictator.

Yet in pursuit of a stronger alliance with Turkey, the U.S. has ignored Erdogan's growing conservatism and his tendency to govern with a strong arm, said Kemal Kirisci, a senior fellow and Director of the Center on the United States and Europe's Turkey Project at the Brookings Institution.

"This is about rights that Turkish people enjoyed that they feel are being taken away from them," Kirisci said, citing Turkish concerns about the loss of freedom of oppression and repression of the media.

"For some time people had become critical of the American administration's reluctance in bringing up these problems in Turkey," he added. "I suspect now the U.S. is going to try to make up for it; to try to raise these issues in a much more conspicuous and forceful manner, but I wonder if this is not somewhat late."

Erdogan's resistance to concerns that his regime is rolling back liberal reforms and cracking down on freedom of expression and the media has only enflamed his critics, and the backlash is playing itself out on the national stage.

"It's more than an annoyance, it's an embarrassment," said Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "There is a self-generating enthusiasm within the movement which represents different sectors of society that will continue not in least because of the attitude of the prime minister," Aliriza said. "The prime minister does not want to listen to anybody."

"It's a primal scream by people in the streets, trying to catch the attention of the Prime Minister who has been conspicuously insensitive to their concerns," he added.

In his first international trip of his presidency in 2009, President Obama praised Turkey as a model democracy and a bridge between the West and the Middle East. And in dealing with the civil war in Syria, Turkey has played a key role in efforts to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power.

And because of Erdogan's closeness to the West, the White House's call for the Turkish government to exercise restraint may actually have some effect. Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc apologized today for "excessive violence" used against those protesting plans to destroy an Istanbul park, the first sign that the pressure from the streets and Turkey's allies is having an impact.

"If Obama was to get up and say like he did with Mubarak 'don't use force against the people,' I think Mr. Erdogan would listen," Aliriza said. "He's made it very clear through his actions that he really cares what is said in Washington."

If things go well in Turkey, and the protests successfully spark an adequate response from Erdogan's government, the episode could be a boost to Turkey's democratic credentials – an example of how mature democratic societies work these problems out.

But things could take a turn for the worse if protests continue much longer, Kirisci noted.

"The time is right now for these protests to stop," Kirisci said. "I think the message has been received, it's been appreciated. [If protestors continue] they run the risk that radical groups will take this over, things will turn violent and the original message will be lost, if not lose its legitimacy."

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