Jun 20, 2013

    In Turkey, 'R' is for revulsion

    The New York Times

    HAVING witnessed the Egyptian uprising in Tahrir Square in Cairo in 2011, I was eager to compare it with the protests by Turkish youth in Taksim Square this year.

    They are very different. The Egyptians wanted to oust President Hosni Mubarak. Theirs was an act of "revolution". The Turks are engaged in an act of "revulsion".

    They aren't (yet) trying to throw out their democratically- elected Islamist prime minister, Mr Recep Tayyip Erdogan. What they're doing is calling him out.

    Their message is simple: "Get out of our faces, stop choking our democracy and stop acting like such a pompous, overbearing, modern-day sultan."

    The Turks took to the streets, initially, to protect one of Istanbul's few green spaces, Gezi Park, from being bulldozed for an Erdogan project.

    They took to the streets because the prime minister - who has dominated Turkish politics for the past 11 years and still has strong support with the more religious half of Turkey - has stifled dissent.

    Mr Erdogan has used tax laws and other means to intimidate the media and opponents into silence - CNN Turk, at first, refused to cover the protests, opting instead to air a show on penguins - and the formal parliamentary opposition is feckless.

    So in a move that has intriguing implications, Turkish youth used Twitter as their own news and communications network and Gezi Park and Taksim Square as their own parliament to become the real opposition.

    What's sad is that Mr Erdogan's arrogance, autocratic impulses and, lately, use of anti-Semitic tropes, are soiling what has been an outstanding record of leadership.

    His Islamist party has greatly improved health care, raised incomes, built roads and bridges, improved governance and pushed the army out of politics.

    But success has gone to his head. He has been lecturing, or trying to restrict, Turks on where and when they can drink alcohol, how many children each woman should have (three), the need to ban abortions, the need to ban Caesarean sections and even what docudramas they should watch.

    The Turkish daily Zaman on Monday published a poll showing that 54.4 per cent of Turks "thought the government was interfering in their lifestyle".

    Mr Erdogan (like Russia's President Vladimir Putin) confuses "being in power with having power", argued Dov Seidman, whose company, LRN, advises CEOs on governance. He is also the author of the book How.

    "There are essentially just two kinds of authority: formal authority and moral authority," he added. "And moral authority is now so much more important than formal authority" in today's interconnected world, "where power is shifting to individuals who can easily connect and combine their power exponentially for good or ill".

    "You don't get moral authority just from being elected or born," said Seidman. "Moral authority is something you have to continue to earn by how you behave, by how you build trust with your people... Every time you exercise formal authority - by calling out the police - you deplete it. Every time you exercise moral authority, leading by example, treating people with respect, you strengthen it," he added.

    Can Mr Erdogan learn these lessons? Turkey's near-term stability and his legacy hang on the answer.