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U.S. congressional hearing surprised at Turkish crackdown on protestors

Published: Updated:

The government’s response to the protests in Turkey came “not only as a disappointment but as a surprise,” a senior democrat at a congressional hearing on Wednesday said as they examined Turkey’s latest crackdown.

William Keating, the most senior democrat on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said the U.S. as well as the rest of the world was surprised by the Turkish Prime Minister’s sanctioning of brute force by the police against peaceful protesters.

The recent demonstrations in Turkey were “of greatest concern” to those who worked with and follow the country closely, said James F. Jeffrey, former American Ambassador to Turkey, who testified at the hearing.

While some speculate the protests were similar to those taking place in the Arab world, Kadir Ustun who also testified, compared it to Occupy Wall Street.

“The basic dynamics of the protests are fundamentally different from the Arab revolutions where there was no meaningful representation of the popular will,” said Ustun, Research Director of Foundation for Political, Economic, and Social Research.

Soner Cagaptay, Turkish Research Program Director echoed this statement.

“The developments in Turkey do not constitute an episode of the Arab Spring,” said Cagaptay. “The country is and remains a democracy.”

The hearing looked at whether Turkey can meet the challenges that face it at home and abroad. It also sought to find out what the Turkish government’s ambitions were and how this could potentially impact U.S. interests and values.

Jeffrey suggested the U.S. aids and fully cooperates with Turkey in “private conversation,” adding that publicly condemning Prime Minister Recep Tayib Erdogan would be “counter-productive” and will not push the Turkish government to tailor its response.

Chairman Dana Rohrabacher, who is a Republican, said Turkey is a NATO ally that is a strategic partner and whose geography is as important as ever. However, he noted, “over the past decade, the orientation of Turkish foreign policy under Prime Minister Erdogan has been troubling.”

The mass protests that started more than four weeks ago have shaken the Turkish administration and have brought domestic politics to center stage.

Keating said given Turkey is a longtime U.S. ally the political stability and economic strength of the country is a matter of importance to many American policymakers, analysts and businesses.

He added the electoral dominance of Erdogan’s AK Party for more than a decade has led to the emergence of a seemingly one party system.

“Other parties have little-to-no ability to influence decision making, and that has left many Turks feeling frustrated and powerless,” he said.

All parties involved in the hearing aimed to answer questions about the latest Turkish protests.

Jeffrey said the demonstrations and the government’s reaction show Turkey is splitting into two quite different political groupings, with the government contributing to a further polarization of society.

In response to Jeffrey’s remarks about Turkey’s political stability, Ustun said the country is going through the “growing pains” of democracy.

He added Turkey’s most successful political party has been in power for more than a decade and people are growing increasingly frustrated with the policies and “cannot express their discontent through the regular channel of formal politics.”

Cagaptay said protests in Turkey did not stem from an Islamic divide, adding it erupted from more of a democratic and liberal family. The research director said protestors were demanding freedom of the press and were fighting for both their individual rights and democracy.

The hearing was not on whether Turkey should have a democracy but rather on how to create a better democracy that takes into consideration all segments of Turkish society.

Hillel Fradkin, Center on Islam, Democracy and the Future of the Muslim World Director, also said a fair portion of the public does not share the same vision as Erdogan and do not see what it has to do with building a healthy democracy.

Describing the protests as a “social eruption,” Kadri Gursel, contributing writer to Al-Monitor, noted that a more oppressive and more authoritarian regime cannot maintain stability in Turkey.