x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Erdogan must show maturity over protests

The protests in Turkey are about the nation's identity and its future. The world will be watching to see what happens.

The most important thing to remember about this week's protests in Turkey is this: they are not the latest round in the Arab Spring. Taksim Square, where Turks have been gathering to air their dissatisfaction with prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government, is not Egypt's Tahrir Square.

What began five days ago as a protest over the planned removal of trees from nearby Gezi Park escalated to include trade unionists, who called a two-day strike of public-sector workers, so-called Kemalist secularists, feminists and numerous others who feel a deep alienation by their Islamist-leaning government. An umbrella group calls itself "Occupy Taksim", thus identifying itself with protests in the US, UK and other western democracies, where the aim has not been to overthrow the government but rather to force government to listen.

Mr Erdogan initially fuelled the Istanbul protests, along with others that flared across Turkey, by reacting disproportionately: sending in police with tear gas and threatening to bring in a million of his own supporters to counter the dissenters. While he did belatedly admit that "mistakes were made", he should have followed the conciliatory strategy of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) colleagues.

President Abdullah Gul, who has at times taken a more moderate approach to governing than the prime minister, has assured the protesters that their concerns are being heard. Then yesterday, the deputy prime minister, Bulent Arinc, went further, apologising to those injured in the protests and offering to meet them to discuss their concerns. He also described the protests as "just and legitimate".

Turks were right to have expected a swifter response. Mr Erdogan may feel he has the mandate to ignore the masses in Taksim - he has won three elections in a row, with a personal vote of 49.95 per cent in 2011. Still, it is clear that some Turks are demanding they be heard now. Turkey has been hailed a "model" Middle Eastern democracy, but it is also the world's biggest jailer of journalists, and reports of human rights abuses are frequent. Clearly Mr Erdogan can and must do better.

The challenge for any leader in a democracy is to rule for all the people. That means making good laws to protect the interests of all citizens, not just a leader's base. Mr Erdogan is obliged to approach these protests with this in mind.

The current protests are about the nation's identity and its future. The world will be watching to see what happens.