It’s been a rough few weeks for heads-of-state the world over. In America, Obama faces a growing list of infractions, any one of which would have been campaign killers nine months ago. In much of the Europe, administrations continue to struggle to justify austerity that has yet to fully jumpstart most economies, and more often than not, appear to have quite the opposite effect. Here in the UK it seems like it is only a matter of days before the government is further entangled in America’s biggest political fiasco, the PRISM scandal, which has already implicated the US government and numerous top tech multinationals in a massive, legally dubious intelligence data mining programme.
As we look eastward, the situation is no better. Protests in Turkey continue to test the patience of the PM, a self-identifying “servant of the people”. And poor President Morsi, in the midst of dealing with the blasted Ethiopian dam, gets smacked with calls for early elections. It seems like the man simply can’t get a break lately. One thing has certainly been illuminating about headlines of late: they read like a veritable how-to for leaders interested in ruling with impunity.
What started as a minor environmental protest in Istanbul rapidly evolved into sprawling anti-government demonstrations. However, the catalyst of this evolution appears to be in many ways the unrestrained reaction to what could have been a non-event for the country. Indeed, there surely has been a slowly filling powder keg that was only just sparked, but the spark itself came from the government’s own bungling hand. In their severity and swiftness of cracking down on those in Gezi Park, the Turkish regime may have inadvertently brought about the seeds of their own demise.
Compare these events to the slew of recent scandals facing the US government. It is appropriate that as Bradley Manning, the 25-year-old US soldier who passed data to WikiLeaks, goes on trial, the US is slammed with the revelation of the PRISM programme. Any word of widespread demonstrations followed by disproportionate government reactions? Not one. There were, of course minor demonstrations around the Manning trial that were as ignored by the government as they were by the media. The PRISM scandal has thus far been met with equal parts shock and disbelief by most media outlets. In all of this, the government remains notably calm. President Obama has thus far been dismissive of PRISM’s significance, and rather than apologising or trying to downplay the situation, the US Director of Intelligence has actually condemned the media for publishing the leaked material without appropriate “context”.
Egypt and Turkey take notes: this is leading with impunity at its finest. The Middle East may be the region most commonly associated with approaching opposition too heavy-handedly, but the real lessons for aspiring autocrats are elsewhere. Would the Turkish government not be more successful if they give the protesters in Gezi Park the same fate Occupy Wall Street faced in Zucotti Park: a slow legal suffocation. The efficacy of such responses makes one wonder, if Morsi had chosen a subtler path after his election, would he face the same increasing resistance that confronts him today?
What this underscores is the real danger that faces the Egyptian revolution and the rest of the so-called “Springs”: silence and bureaucracy. In some ways, it is fortuitous for Turkey that its government reacted as foolishly harsh as it did. Such a reaction showed the administration clearly for what it is. Moreover, when you can so readily point to repression on the part of the government, it makes it clear for all what is being opposed.
With calls for demonstrations on President Morsi’s one-year anniversary of election, it will be interesting to see how the situation is handled by the administration. In the past leading up to the constitutional referendum last December, they reacted with varying degrees of severity. Those who plan to take to the streets come the end of the month must be vigilant of a shifting response.
If the administration learns a lesson or two from the west, their handling of opposition may become quiet over time. If the situation passes in this manner, it will be critical to not become complacent with a sense of success. On the contrary, it will mean the work of the revolution will be twice as hard and half as clear.