The recent protests in Istanbul are being compared to Arab spring. Let’s see if the analogy with the recent developments in the Arab World is right. It all began with a small-scale demonstration in Taksim Square, Istanbul. Less than two hundred people gathered to save Gezi Park, a small park near Taksim Square, Istanbul that was to be demolished due to new construction plans by the government, part of urban development plant. The park is the only green place in the central Istanbul. The security forces cracked down on these peaceful environment saviours. And what started as a green movement turned into nationwide protests and demonstrations in few weeks.
Apparently small-scale protests have the potential to snowball into a popular movement. This was recently witnessed in the Arab world where the regimes that were hitherto considered so durable were toppled down within few weeks and not to forget with much ease. Similar to the Arab uprisings, majority of the protestors fall under the age group of 19 to 30. They have utilized social media and mobile technology to spread the word and coordinate their actions. The protestors have also camped down in the Taksim Square like their counterparts in the Arab Spring.
The protestors do not reflect any specific political ideology. People of various leanings, liberal and socialist, nationalist and supporters of Kurdish rights, are all there. They belong to rich and urban and also to the poor and rural classes. They do not want to bring down the government. They just want to employ their basic and democratic right i.e. freedom of expression.
This is common with the Arab protests where people from all walks of life participated in the protests. But unlike the Arab Spring, the divisions among the protestors are becoming evident. As days passed, more and more people have poured into the streets. Differences with the government on other issues were also instrumental in bringing people to the streets. Recently, regulations have been passed on alcohol consumption that did not sit well with the liberal section of the Turkish society. More importantly, protestors reacted to the way government has handled the situation. Allegedly thousands of protestors have been injured in nation-wide protests. Probably the reaction of Turkish government was shaped by the uprisings in the Arab world too.
The revolutionary literature considers the reaction of the regime significant in make or break of revolutions. There is no ideal response by the regime that can prevent a revolution. Sometimes the concessions by the regime can be interpreted a sign of weakness and can strengthen the resolve of the anti-regime forces. At other times repressive measures can actually speed up revolutions. The response of Turkish government to these protests has invoked criticism from the West. The European Union has come hard and sated that excessive use of force on protestors must be investigated by the government. Prime Minister Reccep Tayyip Erdogan has responded by saying that governments in Europe and the US have been harsher to their citizens in similar situations.
Erdogan has met the occupying protestors to hear out their demands. There were talks on holding public referendum on the issue, the demolition of Gezi park, mind it not the rest of the issues. He has requested the ‘genuine environmentalists’ to pull back. At the same time, the government has made it clear that it would not tolerate any ‘illegal acts’. The government is not entirely wrong in denouncing ‘vandalism’ in the streets. As certain elements among the protestors have resorted to violent tactics and damaged public and private properties. A lady with a head scarf has also been attacked by protestors.
By holding talks with the protestors Erdogan has proved that he is no autocrat. Neither Turkish society can be compared to Syrian or Libyan societies. Erdogan has come to power through free and fair elections and his last victory has come with a clear 50 percent electoral support. Turks have much more freedom than their Arab counterparts. Turks appreciate the economic growth that has been achieved under Erdogan. The positive change has also been felt by common people in their day to day lives such as education reforms etc. Turkey’s credential as an Islamist democracy and economic and regional power cannot be written off as yet. Democracy is a process. There are some downturns and certainly challenges along the road. This does not mean that democracy should be given up for lost or a verdict should be given against the government. While democratic glitches must be pointed out and rectified lest the government deviates from democracy. Yet the achievements of the government must also be remembered to highlight the merits of democracy.
The writer works for IPRI.
The article was published in, Pakistan Observer, June 19, 2013.