The current unrest in Turkey is a milestone, a turning point in the evolution of Arab Spring. Actually it’s not Arab anymore. It has gone beyond the Arab world borders spreading to Turkey and Iran, a very significant turn of events. Right in the midst of turmoil, Algeria appears to be an island of stability. It is different from other Arab states but it faces some common problems with those who have fallen victims to mass protests, take the sentiment of discontent spread among jobless youth, for instance. So I suggest having a brief look at what is happening in Turkey linking it with the goings-on in other countries of the broader region.
Wide scale protests in Turkey are still going strong. Prime Minister Erdogan is accused of usurping the power and becoming increasingly authoritarian. The complaints that the Islamist-rooted government is intolerant of dissent and the diversity of opinions and lifestyles have become loudly voiced. His proposal to ban the sale of alcohol throwing thousands of people out of work and damaging tourist trade, which is the crucial branch of economy, adds fuel to fire. Erdogan has also sickened many of his natural allies by the corruption going rampant under his rule. The protests have turned from spontaneous gatherings into a form of organized political struggle against the government. The events coincide with economy going-down trend raising the issue of structural reforms, something not expected to be undertaken anytime soon, especially since the campaigning for the local and presidential elections in 2014 and the parliamentary elections in 2015 already underway.
Erdogan and the governing Justice and Development Party have ruled Turkey since 2002, winning a series of elections. He seemed to be on top until the Arab Spring set in.
While the EU fought the crisis, Turkey projected power, and did well domestically by doing business in Arab countries. While hitting snags on the way to the European membership, it shifted the foreign policy focus to the Arab world. Big deals were done with the Libya ruled by Colonel Gaddafi. Mr. Erdogan was friendly with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Turkish companies had great prospects in this part of the world.
But the relatively benign political climate for Turkey before 2011 changed for the worse. It became a vigorous supporter of the Syrian armed rebels, balancing on the brink of undeclared war with the Assad regime. Significant sections of population were alarmed and alienated reluctant to get involved in the neighbor’s war. This is just a factor adding to strong dissatisfaction with the government’s regulation of people’s everyday life and economic slowdown.
Despite the rising emotions sweeping Turkey, this is not exactly the "Arab Spring". Perhaps incomplete, but democracy is there. Erdogan received half of the vote in the last general elections in 2011. He is still popular, while the opposition is widely believed to be too weak to pose a serious challenge. The anti-government movement has brought up no popular and undisputable leaders. True, the international image of the Prime Minister has been damaged, but the economic performance may play the crucial role defining the government’s future.
The armed forces have always been the factor defining the internal situation in the after WWII Turkey. The military brass hats have staged four successful coups in the post-war history. In spite of recent crash down on the military and trials against hundreds of Turkish servicemen, the armed forces are still a serious political force to large extent outside of Erdogan’s control. The majority of officers corps support secularism in the army, something encroached on by current authorities. The military shies away from getting involved in the events, but tear-gas protection masks have been handed down to protesters by Istanbul military hospital’s personnel. Army soldiers have helped injured demonstrators providing health care at Istanbul barracks. The army has prevented a clash between police and protesters at Hatay. While the military keep away from politics, its role will inevitably grow and change the country’s political scene if the situation continues to deteriorate.
On June 2 Ayatollah Jalaluddin Taheri died in Isfahan. Tens of thousands attended the funeral. The action turned into a wide-scale anti-government protest. The people who came to mourn started to chant slogans against the government and Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, calling him a dictator. Protesters also demanded the release of all political prisoners. The police did not intervene, probably being careful not to provoke public anger just a few days ahead of the presidential elections. The demonstration appeared to have taken the powers that be by surprise and suggested that resentment is rife. There must be concern in establishment circles that the result of this week’s poll will also lead to popular unrest.
The presidential election took place on June 14, 2013 with Hassan Rouhani winning the race with over 50% of the vote to avoid a run-off. The leadership went to any length to avoid the outburst of opposition like the one occurred in 2009. New regulations tightened the clerical control over the election, prominent politicians were deleted from the list of hopefuls, including, for instance: former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, the leader of reformist movement, who enjoyed the support of outgoing Iranian President, and Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, Ahmadinejad’s Chief of Staff. Overall six candidates were given the go-ahead to stand – each of them approved by Tehran’s Guardian Council. That is something even outgoing President Ahmadinejad has voiced objection to. The voices are raised saying the whole presidential election process was illegitimate. With the downfall of long-ruling leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, there is a chance of public outcry to what some may view as foul play. Even at that, Mr. Rouhani, a 64-year-old cleric, although known as conservative, has been reaching out to reformists recently. The result shows that among the candidates left in the race, the vote went to the one backed by them. It reflects the general public support for changes no matter what the clerical leadership does or says. Around 70% of the Iranian population are under the age of 30, the majority living in cities and are strongly politicized.
In the context of the Arab Spring little attention has been devoted to a large and populous regional power. Algeria has remained largely unaffected by the Arab Spring with the history of civil war behind. The government tries to prevent challenges to domestic and regional stability. It supported the Gaddafi regime, opposed the NATO intervention and never recognized the Libyan new transitional government. The leaders of Algeria were perspicacious enough to see the events in Libya would create instability in the Maghreb and the Sahel, the fears vindicated by following events.
Algeria has also taken a similar stance towards the uprising in Syria taking the side of the government. It fears the chain reaction spreading across its borders would embolden local dissidents and jihadist factions. For instance, it opposed an Arab League decision to support Arab states that armed opposition groups in Syria. As the goings-on in Mali showed, Algeria acts as a reliable counter-terrorism actor and partner being a relatively wealthy and stable country with well-equipped military boasting experience in counter-terrorist activities. It has large energy reserves, a relatively growing economy. The state coffers boast $200 billion in foreign-exchange reserves to bank on addressing the economic and social problems. The 1988 protests made leave behind the single-party rule opening the way for multi-party elections, something few states in the region have gone through. At that, Algeria’s revenues of oil and gas don’t seem to alleviate the problem of unemployment, especially among youth. About 23 per cent of the population lives below the national poverty. Officially the unemployment rate stands at 10 percent, but it rises to 22 percent for those between 18 and 24. Algeria's economy is almost entirely based on oil and gas, an industry that is lucrative but does not produce large numbers of jobs. So the problems of poverty, unemployment and grass roots discontent remain to be burning issues. Localized protests that have become a familiar feature of Algerian life for over half a decade. Liberal social spending has temporarily persuaded protesters to shy away from staging a full-fledged revolt in 2010-2012. But Algeria's overwhelmingly young population is increasingly vocal in its demands for jobs and housing that its oil-dependent economy cannot provide. Adding to the mix, the recent reports that President Bouteflika is seriously ill, while there is no clear successor in sight, point to the fact that political struggle at the top is a possibility. The upcoming departure of Bouteflika underlines the political void and uncertainty. Lahcen Achy, the author of recent Carnegie Endowment report «The Price of Stability in Algeria» (1) says «To stave off collapse or violent regime change, Algeria needs deep political and economic reforms conducive to sustainable and equitable economic expansion, increased public participation in politics, and effective accountability of political leaders». In the issue of El Moudjahid on May 19, Amar Ghûl, the Algerian Minister of Transportation known to be close to Bouteflika, warned the Algerian people of possible attempts to destabilize the country (2).
Chafiq Mesbah, a former member of Algeria's intelligence service and now a political analyst, said Bouteflika's mini-stroke should mean that Algerians in 2014 will finally get to truly elect a leader. He said Bouteflika's insistence on going for another term and growing reports of corruption in his entourage have aggravated Algeria's powerful military and intelligence circles (3).
The country is looking forward the next presidential election in 2014. President Bouteflika may not run this time putting an end to the 15-year rule. Algeria may be heading for a new turn in its history and a chance for change. But the country is not immune from uprisings.
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The Arab Spring has turned to be a broader Middle East destabilization tendency with unpredictable results. When people say they want freedom and democracy, the West rushes to lend a helping hand betraying old friends like Tunisian Ben Ali, Egyptian Mubarak, Yemeni Saleh. Then incomplete secular democracies become states ruled by radicals, suppressing all vestiges of democracy, or plunge into turmoil and chaos governed by impotent quasi governments, like in Libya, which exercises little control. The EU lifts arms embargo on Syria rebels when it perfectly knows the radicals are on the rise among the Syrian opposition ranks. German «Die Welt» daily has recently said that only 5% of the armed terrorists in the so-called Free Army are Syrians, while 95% of them are extremist groups which came from several African countries to jihad in Syria backed by the Gulf and Arab countries. (4) The US President has just approved military aid to the Islamist-dominated rebel armed formations. If the radicals win in Syria, the first thing they’ll do is to introduce the very same Shia laws that the French have just fought against in the north of Mali and oppress Syrian Christians and other minorities. They will use the arms against Israel. They will plunge Lebanon in the quagmire of conflict. The fire will spread. Then someday, somewhere, there will be a terrorist act committed by terrorists with links to Syrian radicals, like the Boston bombing perpetrated by people with links to those, whom the US and West Europeans defended as freedom fighters in the 1990s (at present they have found safe haven in Finland, the Western country notorious internationally for supporting terrorists and their bloody activities). Promoting freedom values and pushing for gradual democratic reforms has nothing to do with providing support to extremists. The chances are high they’ll turn the weapons against the providers and their allies pretty soon. Will this evidently erroneous policy be remedied in view of recent bitter setbacks is anyone’s guess. What is clear now is the so called Spring has crossed the Arab world borders and keeps on spreading to change the world we once knew.