The incredible chutzpah of Turkish, Iranian leaders

When Erdogan pretends to show concern about events in France it comes across as a joke in poor taste.
Friday 14/12/2018
Protestors react after Turkish police used tear gas against rights activists in Istanbul, November 25. (AFP)
Turkish police in action. Protestors react after Turkish police used tear gas against rights activists in Istanbul, November 25. (AFP)

Suddenly, France is getting lessons in democracy and human rights from Turkey and Iran.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan lambasted France over the riots in Paris and several other cities by demonstrators protesting government plans to raise taxes on fuel.

Denouncing what he called “disproportionate violence” by French authorities towards protesters, Erdogan said he was concerned and was following the situation closely.

You would think the Turkish president had become the great democrat of the hour, a defender of human rights. Erdogan’s role in this crisis, that of trying to pass himself off as a credible judge of political behaviour, would be comical if it wasn’t downright sad.

Such rhetoric from practically any other respected world leader would merit pause, reflection and consideration but when Erdogan claims he is concerned about the mistreatment of French demonstrators, this needs to be taken in with large doses of salt.

It wasn’t too long ago, in July 2017, that tens of thousands of Turks marched in Istanbul and Ankara demanding justice. Erdogan’s reply was to send more police and, a few days later, the army.

The irony is that Erdogan did far worse things to his people that what is transpiring in France. During the Istanbul demonstrations, his forces arrested thousands of people, including hundreds of journalists who were jailed for reporting the truth. Anyone who disagreed with him, from the military, politics, academia to human rights activists — anyone opposed to his diktat — was thrown into overcrowded jail cells. Many went for months without seeing a judge and thousands remain locked up to this day.

So when Erdogan pretends to show concern about events in France it comes across as a joke in poor taste.

“Chaos reigns in the streets of many European countries, starting with Paris. Television channels and newspapers are full of photos of burning cars, looted shops and the most violent police crackdowns on protesters,” said Erdogan.

Turkey is “against both the scenes of chaos brought about by protesters and the disproportionate violence that greeted them,” he said in a speech in Istanbul.

The demonstrations were widely reported on by Turkish media, which repeatedly broadcast the video of high school students forced to kneel with their hands behind their heads by police officers in Mantes-la-Jolie, a suburb of Paris. “Ah! Look at what police officers are doing to those who criticised our police,” said Erdogan. He declared that Europe had “failed in terms of democracy, human rights and freedom.”

Ankara has come under fire from European countries and rights organisations for human rights violations and the erosion of the rule of law in Turkey.

The French protests started as a demonstration against President Emmanuel Macron’s carbon tax policy and planned fuel tax increases but they morphed into wider anti-government protests and discontent of Macron’s leadership, rising living costs, economic reforms and what many protesters say is Macron’s neglect of the working and middle classes.

In Paris, 10,000 demonstrators were said to have taken to the streets. Some threw stones, torched cars and vandalised shops and restaurants. More than 1,000 people were taken into custody and 264, including 39 police officers, were injured, the Interior Ministry said.

The government warned of slower economic growth as a result of the protests and French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said the protests were an “economic catastrophe” for the eurozone’s second-largest economy.

“It’s a catastrophe for business. It’s a catastrophe for our economy,” he said December 9 as he visited damaged shops in Paris. He said the government would show the “greatest firmness” towards vandals and looters.

Meanwhile, the other “great democracy,” Iran, wasted no time in jumping on the bandwagon, warning its citizens to avoid protest-hit areas in France, while its judiciary chief said the international response to the “yellow vest” unrest was proof of Western hypocrisy.

“If these protests had happened anywhere but a Western country, you would have already seen the United Nations and many foreign ministries get involved,” said judiciary chief Sadegh Larijani, as reported by the conservative Fars News Agency.

He contrasted the international response with the reaction to protests in dozens of Iranian cities a year ago, sparked by a range of political and economic issues.

“In the protests in Iran last year, the officials of European countries, including France, made such a din and uproar and repeatedly ‘expressed concern’,” Larijani said. “Now look how French police treat people.”

Yes. Please do and then look at how police treat people in Turkey and Iran. I am not saying the French riot police are angels — as a student in 1968 in Paris, I had a front-row seat to police action — but Turkey and Iran are in no position to give advice. Their great chutzpah is no substitute for credibility.