Gezi Park was Turkey’s Arab Spring, and the long-term effects have been similar

At the beginning of the Arab Spring, I worked as a researcher for the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, an NGO based in Manama, which reported on the human rights situation there. I’ve never been to Bahrain, and it seems unlikely now that I would be let into the country.

In 2012, I wrote an article for the Guardian with my friend and boss at the BCHR, Nabeel Rajab, about the alleged torture that workers at Bahrain’s Formula 1 circuit had been subjected to. Their crime was to be a member of Bahrain’s Shi’ite majority. Nabeel was put in prison that year and has spent most of the last eight years in prison.

Almost everybody else who worked for the BCHR in Bahrain were either imprisoned or chose to go into exile. In 2013, I went to Istanbul for a joint training event with activists from Europe and Bahrain (because Istanbul is situated in between). It happened to be in the middle of the Gezi Park protests, and when I saw teargas canisters flying in the streets, I could finally put a smell to the videos of Bahraini opposition protesters being attacked by police which I had been watching for two years before that.

What happened in Bahrain, Egypt and Syria in 2011 was more brutal than the Turkish government’s treatment of its civilian protesters during Gezi, but the outcome was remarkably similar. Most of the people who took a leading role in the protests ended up in jail. Just look at what is still happening to Osman Kavala, the philanthropist who has been prosecuted for supporting the Gezi protests.

When protesters occupied the Pearl Roundabout in Manama, the Bahraini dictators became so worried about their survival that they called in help from their Saudi protectors, who sent troops to crush the uprising. I remember the images of one man, whose skull had been blown apart by a tear gas canister, being carried through the streets. The protesters, asking for democratic reforms and an end to sectarian discrimination, were slandered by Bahrain’s rulers as being Iranian puppets.

Likewise, the Gezi protesters were called ‘terrorists’ and ‘looters’ by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, as he attempted to dismiss their legitimate concerns about the privatisation of public spaces and government corruption.

Governments have a monopoly on the use of violence against their citizens, and when protests like at Gezi or during the Arab Spring break out, they can usually keep a lid on them as long as the police and military remain loyal. What they can’t do is make the issues that resulted in the protests go away, unless they are willing to compromise and accept criticism.

The jailing of journalists also increased in many of the countries which had Arab Spring protests, with Egypt particularly going on a crusade against its free press. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, U.S. foreign policy think tank: “In the years since (the protests), countries such as Egypt have tightened their grip on cyberspace by restricting internet access, enacting laws that facilitate censorship and jailing people over their anti-government posts online.” Again, this has also happened in Turkey.

It is ironic then that Turkey supported the Arab Spring protests, particularly in Syria and Egypt, where it perceived that democratic reforms would give Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated groups greater power and therefore give Turkey greater influence. Yet both in Turkey and countries whose Arab Spring protests were crushed, democratic backsliding has occurred. 

Just as the repression resulting from the Bahraini and Syrian uprisings led to even greater sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shi’ite segments of the population, the crushing of the Gezi protests also heralded the beginning of the end for the Kurdish peace process. Worried about its survival, Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) turned to nationalists for support after the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) won seats for the first time in 2015, leading the government to abandon attempts to resolve the Kurdish issue.

In both Bahrain and Turkey, therefore, the issues that resulted in the Arab Spring and Gezi protests are even worse now than they were when those protests began. A government can keep its citizens and their political aspirations quiet only for so long. Eventually it is going to have to deal with the substance of their demands.

One thing about forcing all your political opponents into exile is that they don’t stop working for reform, they just have to do it in the capital cities of your allies, rather than on their own streets. Bahraini activists are continuing to lobby in the United States; 18 organisations signed a joint letter on Wednesday calling on the U.S. government to prioritise human rights more in its dealings with Bahrain.

Likewise for Turkey, the presence of journalists forced into exile like Can Dündar in Germany will be an ongoing source of bad press for Erdoğan’s government and will probably have a negative effect on Turkey’s ability to solve its financial problems by increasing investment from foreign companies.

I remain convinced that the inevitable end for the Gulf dictators will come when the world finally shifts away from oil consumption. An economic system which is dependent on Gulf oil is what keeps the absolute monarchs there in power, and their social contract relies on having huge budgets to buy off their citizens materially. The collapse in the price of oil in 2020 puts a huge hole in the Saudi budget, and if they are no longer able to buy their citizens off, they will eventually be forced to reform.

Turkey’s social contract is fundamentally different from this, but the AKP’s success has also been based largely on the economic progress it has made since 2002 and the concurrent improvement in living standards in 2002-2014. But again, inflation and the collapse in direct investment has seen a huge drop in the living standards of Turkish people beginning from 2014 onwards. Turkey’s per capita GDP hit a peak of $12,519 in 2013, dropped to $9,042 in 2019 and is expected to see further decline in 2020, according to economist and former two-term AKP deputy Haluk Özdalga.

In both the Gulf and in Turkey, the restless ghosts of the Gezi and Arab uprisings may return in the future to cause more problems for their rulers. As in 2010 or 2013, it only takes one desperate man or a fight over a small park to start something that could bring a government to its knees.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.