Turkey’s democracy test with graffiti

Turkey’s democracy test with graffiti

Does anyone remember how the war in Syria started?

It was the first months of the Arab Spring. By mid-February 2011, both the Tunisian and Egyptian leaders had been ousted from power. 

In late February 2011, six boys were caught spray-painting revolutionary slogans on a wall of their school in Daraa, Syria. A local guard reported anti-regime vandalism to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s Political Security Directorate branch, which led to a retaliatory crackdown. In March, at least 15 children were arrested for painting anti-government graffiti. The locals in Daraa staged protests about their arrest and mistreatment. This first led to a “graffiti war,” with some people starting to cover walls city by city. 

“The case of Daraa, and the actions it inspired, reveals the influential power of graffiti as a primary vehicle for expressing uncensored, anti-regime political beliefs. Political graffiti is indicative of an angry population unable to express themselves through the democratic process,” wrote Jeremiah Foxwell on World Policy Blog.

Today is not the anniversary of the incidents that sparked the uprising that spiraled into civil war in Syria. So you might ask what made me write about it. I have to admit that it is just a trick of my mind.

I recalled the graffiti incident in Syria after reading the news about two students in İzmir who were detained on accusations that they had written insults against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on the walls of their university. They also wrote “end the sultanate.” Indeed, it is true that insulting the president is a crime by law. As a result, news stories on these incidents do not elaborate on “insults against Erdoğan,” in order not to repeat them. Perhaps the graffiti did indeed include serious insults against the president.

However, not a day goes by without news of a fresh detention on claims of insulting the president. But what constitutes an insult? Knowing Turkey’s limited culture of democracy and tolerance of criticism, as well as past practices, the tremendous increase in cases of insult against the president makes it clear that the line between insult and criticism must seem blurred for security officers. 

For instance, a drunken man who called the police was detained for insulting the president. If drunkards are to be taken seriously each time, I wonder when the police will find the time to chase real criminals.
Obviously, supporters of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) would be furious about a comparison between Turkey and Syria. I would have been too. We obviously cannot compare the two countries in terms of democratic governance. There is no doubt that Bashar al–Assad is a dictator with blood on his hands. 

But as I said in the beginning, sometimes one cannot prevent one’s mind from playing dangerous games. I just cannot stop myself from recalling the visits to Syria of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who was foreign minister in the early days of the uprising in Turkey’s neighbor. I remember vividly how he later recounted the advice he gave to al–Assad to reporters. 

He advised al-Assad to be tolerant of criticism; to not resort to a total crackdown on dissent; to not end all demonstrations with hundreds of deaths; to not use disproportionate force to stop protesters, especially minors. Of course, he was unable to show as an example the Gezi protests, where a number of youngsters lost their lives and some lost their eyes. 

Obviously, there is no room for comparison. After all, as the AKP often likes to underline, Erdoğan and his party have won successive elections. I can hear some saying that al–Assad also held elections in Syria one year after the start of the uprising. But Syria’s elections were called a charade, and this criticism had nothing to do with cats entering power distribution units, disproportionate coverage of the campaigns of political parties, and use of state means in favor of the party in government. 

Never mind that today only 43 percent of Turkish citizens believe elections will be free and fair in Turkey. After all, we have institutions to which you can carry your complaints. Recently, one political party complained to the Supreme Election Board (YSK) that the president of Turkey, who is supposed to be neutral according to the constitution, was breaching the law by campaigning in favor of the ruling party. Never mind that this complaint was turned down by the YSK.

Then again, blame it on my silly mind. I guess that as Turkey gives the image of distancing itself from European democracies, Middle Eastern reference points must have started to appear more relevant as a point of comparison.