7 June 2013
It started off as a sit-in of merely 100 people in Gezi Park, a quiet corner of Istanbul’s bustling Taksim Square. Then came the brutal police crackdown that turned the sit-in into something big and unprecedented. A week, three deaths, and thousands of injured and arrested later, the mass protests in Turkey reveal many ironies about that country and its role in the Middle East.
The activists’ resentment seems to be directed primarily at Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his government. In a survey carried out by two academics with a sample group of 3,000 people, 92.4 percent of the protestors said they took to the streets because of Mr. Erdoğan’s authoritarianism. (A broader discussion of the survey is available in Turkish.)
It is ironic for Prime Minister Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has been in power since 2002, to animate so many people. Under Mr. Erdoğan, Turkey’s per capita income increased threefold, foreign trade more than quadrupled, and political and judicial reforms improved governance. The AKP’s initial zeal to lead Turkey into the European Union raised the standards of free speech and democratic expression. Furthermore, by ending civilian subordination to the country’s once all-powerful military, Mr. Erdoğan put a stop to one of the most stifling aspects of Turkish politics.
Despite these accomplishments, however, Mr. Erdoğan’s authoritarian tendencies cannot be overlooked. According to Reporters Without Borders, under the AKP, Turkey has become the “world’s biggest prison for journalists” and it is at the bottom of the World Press Freedom Index. Any journalist who rides roughshod with the prime minister is sure to lose her job or worse.
To be sure, Turkey is not Tunisia, Egypt, or Libya and certainly not Syria. Mr. Erdoğan – whatever his shortcomings (and he has many) – is no Zine al-Abidin Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak, or Muammar Qaddafi and certainly no Bashar al-Assad. He was reelected with close to 50 percent of the votes in the last election and he still enjoys popular support. That hardly makes him a dictator.
But neither are the protestors a handful of “looters and extremists” as Mr. Erdoğan and his allies claim. In fact, according to the survey mentioned earlier, the people participating in the protests are very much a product of the reforms that the AKP enacted. Close to two-thirds of the protestors are below the age of 30. 53.7 percent are taking to the streets for the first time in their lives. Only 15.3 percent have any partisan affiliation. 91 percent resent the government’s disregard for democracy and freedom. To make their case, the protestors point out how major news outlets in Turkey still remain silent on the protests lest they incur Mr. Erdoğan’s wrath. The demonstrators see an overbearing prime minister and a cowered media as an obstacle to their hopes for a more democratic and liberal Turkey. They worry that, if the prime minister becomes president next year with greatly expanded powers, he will become even more authoritarian.
Yet despite their qualms about Mr. Erdoğan, and unlike what AKP supporters claim, the protestors do not want the prime minister to be toppled in a military coup. Less than ten percent of the respondents believe that another coup would benefit Turkey. That’s a good sign: the country has experienced four of them since 1960 and military intervention in politics has always been a self-defeating game. Unlike Egypt, where people welcomed the military as a guardian against Mubarak in 2011, Turkish protestors want their soldiers to stay in their barracks. It seems that Mr. Erdoğan has really put the beast of coups d’état to sleep forever.
Another ironic element of the Turkish protests is that, although a majority of their participants do not identify as AKP supporters or conservative, nearly 10 percent of them apparently voted for the AKP. An even larger group of conservative Muslims (especially girls who wear the Islamic headscarf but do not identify with the AKP) are among the protestors.
In fact, images from the protests show how participants cut across every social, economic, and political divide in modern Turkey. Until the troubles, fights between the supporters of the country’s three largest sports clubs were the most serious public safety concern. Now, these fans march and resist the police together. Leftists and nationalists stand should-to-shoulder. The protestors – rich and poor, Turk and Kurd, straight and LGBT, women who wear headscarves and those who do not – reflect the richness of Turkey’s social fabric. For building such a diverse coalition of opponents, Mr. Erdoğan deserves much of the credit.
The way that the protests have played out so far – predominantly peaceful, politically pluralistic, and socially diverse – shows that a new generation of Turks is rising up against the tried and tired authoritarianism of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. If the protestors can continue to frame their demands in terms that would appeal to broader segments of Turkish society without antagonizing AKP supporters (which they seem to be doing), there is reason to hope that the new wine in Turkish politics will manage to change the old and crumbling bottle that contains it.
That would be the greatest irony of the current tumult in Turkey. Although the country has failed to offer a meaningful example to its region since the Arab Spring began, if the protests do succeed in expanding rights and liberties for the individual and in helping to consolidate a secular democracy with a free market economy in a Muslim-majority country, Turkey could truly become a model for the region.
Barın Kayaoğlu is finishing his Ph.D. in history at the University of Virginia and he is a visiting fellow in International Security Studies at Yale University. You can follow him from www.barinkayaoglu.com, on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu), and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).