Middle East

Comment: Are Iran and Turkey moving in opposite directions?


Dancing in the streets: Iranians and Turks are voting with their feet, but are these countries moving in opposite directions, asks Barbara Slavin.

Finally, Iranians got the chance to party in the streets.

The solid election victory on Friday of the least hard-line candidate -- moderate cleric and former nuclear negotiator Hassan Rowhani -- touched off spontaneous celebrations in the major squares and avenues of Tehran that authorities did not try to stop.

Women whipped off head scarves and drivers honked their horns in an emotional release after a largely bottled-up election campaign in which carefully vetted candidates had been forbidden from holding big outdoor rallies. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, despite his stated desire for a large turnout, had not wanted people to get too excited for fear of a reprise of the mass demonstrations that followed the last presidential elections in 2009. Now, those repressed four years ago have gotten some of their own back.

In far more democratic neighboring Turkey, meanwhile, riot police on Saturday again blasted protestors in Istanbul's central Taksim Square and a small park nearby with water cannons and tear gas trying to definitively end two weeks of demonstrations that have convulsed the country. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed to have reached an agreement with the protestors to reconsider plans to build a replica Ottoman barracks in Gezi park and wanted the area emptied so he could stage a more congenial rally of his own on Sunday, one led by conservative Muslim supporters.

What unites these incidents in Istanbul and Tehran is not just the fact that it's early summer and that, as the old song goes, the time is right for dancing in the streets.

From the earliest days of recorded history to today's Twitterverse, people have come together in central places to express their views and gain strength and comfort from the presence of like-minded others. Every culture has had its agora, forum, maydan, square or park -- a place where people can literally vote with their feet. The leaders of both Turkey and Iran sought to choke off this fundamental form of expression -- and both have paid a price.

After skillfully pushing a narrative of Turkey as a modern meld of Islam and democracy, Erdogan and his AKP officials have been doing damage control this week. Besir Atalay, a deputy prime minister who happened to be in Washington for a conference, met with D.C. Turkey hands and U.S. officials to convey the message that Turkish democracy is still alive and well.

Although sparked by a small environmental rally, the Taksim demonstrations reflect pent-up anger by Turks upset by creeping Islamization, a neo-Ottoman foreign policy that inserts Turkey into conflicts in Syria and politics elsewhere in the region, and the prime minister's growing arrogance and micro-managing.

“This is the first time we have seen massive grassroots protests in Turkey,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish research program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He predicted more such demonstrations by Turkey's middle class -- a rapidly growing population which, Cagaptay said, is demanding “respect for the right of assembly and association,” freedom of the press, and a focus on the environment. Perhaps as damaging as the images of tear gas and water cannons turned on peaceful protestors in Taksim was Erdogan's initial dismissal of protestors as hooligans and agents of foreign powers instead of citizens with a right to express their views. Just yesterday, he blamed Jews.