From Tahrir to Taksim Square

Recent events in Turkey share interesting similarities with Egypt’s 2011 uprising – but they are not yet a “revolution”.

What began as protests against an urban development project has become generalised protests against the government's heavy-handed style [AFP]

As Istanbul’s Taksim Square clears up a bit after days of intense protests, other confrontations have erupted elsewhere in the city – and across Turkey.

With the rhythm of demonstrations building up in the evenings and clearing out when people go to work, the protest movement has also gained some clarity. These protests stand as a siren against Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s governance style – a style increasingly perceived as dismissive of the opposition’s concerns, overly eager to implement controversial laws aimed at changing the social culture of Turkey, or outright authoritarian in its political behaviour.

However, the events in Turkey during last week are not a “revolution” – not yet, anyway, for those making the comparison to Egypt’s Tahrir Square. It also does not have to become a revolution, for those wishing to usher in the so-called “spring” into Turkey.

What is going on then? These are serious protests in a country that takes itself seriously. And that is what really seems to matter for the Turkish people right now. Yet the question remains: Could this movement keep building?

The demographic profile

On comparisons to the Arab Spring, Tuna Kuyucu, assistant professor of sociology at Bogazici University in Istanbul, told me: “The similarities are very small. Arab uprisings were mass events preceded by massive economic crises. In Turkey, this is an upper-middle-class movement, mostly about people defending lifestyle matters.”

True. But don’t we recall that Egypt’s revolution started precisely this way – with the upper-middle-class coming together on Police Day to “celebrate” it in their own way, screaming a collective “enough” to police brutality? The demographic metamorphosis that occurred in Tahrir Square over time is a sociopolitical phenomenon, whose characteristics we may start witnessing here in Turkey.

Like Tahrir, the protesters are diverse. They are the youth, the elderly and the in-betweens. They are environmentalists, football fans, young Ataturk supporters, intellectuals, workers, artists, socialists, professionals, anti-capitalism Islamists, the old elite, and more. How could all these people converge?

I met a young doctor who told me he is in Taksim because he saw firsthand the burns of some protesters in Gezi Park as he treated them. “But that’s not all,” he said. “I am against ozellestirme – the privatisation of the health care system. They are selling everything.” This was revealing, given that weeks earlier, I had heard some contrary views about welfare state policies creating successful public-private partnerships in the health sector.

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There seems to be an unsettled debate here. Perhaps that is the crux of the matter: Whether it is an Istanbul urban development project or healthcare reforms, it seems that the Turkish people are demanding a level of participatory democracy, currently not on par with what they aspire to. How close are we getting to Tahrir’s slogans: bread, freedom, and social justice? If we are not that close, perhaps we’re not that far either.

Bread was the first word in Tahrir. Although the economic dimension seems to be significantly different in Turkey’s case, the protests seem to be shaking some truisms regarding the miraculous Turkish economy. A microbus driver told me two weeks earlier: “For 11 years, the rich have been getting richer. Or maybe there is an entirely new group getting newly rich! But I am not one of them.”

Professor Kuyucu explains, “The economy has been giving alarm signals for some time. It has the biggest account deficit. The credit ratings Turkey has been receiving reflect the government’s ability to pay back its debt. But the real problem is the soaring private sector debt. People live on credit.” He warns that with a “huge confidence loss in Turkish economy’s stability, these protests might very well turn into something else”.

Perhaps these economic nuances explain why the baker, the grocer, and fruit seller in my neighborhood joined the protests, when many had not expected them to.

Unfolding demands

The mechanism of “unfolding demands” could turn these protests into something else. After all, the slogan “Erdogan Resign!” cannot be ignored. For anyone who has theorised about Tahrir Square, the notion of “the ceiling of demands has just been raised” sounds all too familiar. In other words, we must pause and reflect on mobilisation strategies.

What started out as protests against a capitalistic urban development project has become generalised protests against the government’s heavy-handed style – from police brutality to what is seen as the prime minister’s unreconciliatory attitude in handling the crisis itself. That is significant.

Once chanted, a demand gains attention, regardless of whether it was made in the heart of the square, on the spur of the moment, or how representative it is of the protesters. The demand gains its own momentum.

On the boat from Kadikoy to Taksim, I met Melih, a 20-year-old fluent in English and passionate about the future of his country. “Ataturk called on me today. I’m answering the call,” he said. What are Melih’s demands? “Bring down the government.” He listened attentively when I cautioned him that the Tahrir Square protests started with unity and evolved into “power snatching”. But he still had faith that Taksim is different with its special cohesion. He recognised that the opposition does not have a leader and acknowledged Erdogan’s charisma. Yet that did not seem to lead him to fear a potential power vacuum.

Another young man on Bagdat Street told me, “The police are the state. But the army is the people. We hope the military will step in after the government goes down.” The biggest question here is: Is there any recognition that that the military is much weaker than it was before? Perhaps comparative notes from Egypt could be helpful here. The Egyptian army will not come to such “political rescue operations” anymore. This era of military coups seems to be passe for both countries.

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On the other hand, violence seems to scare opponents of the protests. Ilkay, 30, who works in the cinema industry, told me, “I saw the scenes of burnt tires in front of the US embassy in Ankara, where protesters clashed with the police. I don’t approve of violence.” She didn’t vote for this government. But she doesn’t believe that’s the way to change it. “Not on the street! Let’s wait for the next elections and vote him out if we want to,” she said.

Surprisingly, an AKP supporter told me: “I first saw the protests as [an] old, bitter elite trying to regain their power. But now I think it’s a good lesson to the government. Most of the protesters are my friends. They have legitimate worries. I think this will end when Erdogan comes out and says he understands the people and that the park will stay as it is. But I am afraid he will not, when he really should.”

Regional politics

If Turkey is complex domestically, the regional situation is even more convoluted. Anti-Muslim Brotherhood groups in Egypt and Tunisia are hoping for Erdogan to fall in Turkey, because they believe this will weaken the Brotherhood in their own countries. “The so-called Turkish Model brought the Islamists to our countries. Let Erdogan reap some of what he sowed,” a Tunisian writer told me. 

Yet some Egyptians are cautioning Turks from replicating a scenario that could usher their country into needless instability “Aren’t they grateful for what Erdogan achieved for their country? One day they will regret such attempts to bring him down,” said an Egyptian disillusioned with all things Tahrir.

In the meantime, Syria, Iran, Israel as well as the United States and the European Union are paying close attention. Regarding the Syria conflict and Turkey’s role in this civil-war-turned-regional-proxy-war, if anything, Erdogan has perhaps comprehended by now that no international influence or support is guaranteed if domestic fears and worries are not fully attended to. Current demonstrations against his visit to North Africa are a case in point.

Finally, while some elements of the 2011 Egyptian revolution are comparable to the Turkey uprising today, the movements are not the same. Perhaps the Turkish people are rising up against the AKP government now, so that they do not have to have a revolution against AKP rule 20 years from now. In this view, the uprising represents a needed dose of opposition for a healthy and viable democracy.

Marwa Maziad is a columnist at Egyptian newspaper Almasry Alyoum. She is a specialist on Middle East media and politics and is currently a visiting researcher at Istanbul Sehir University.

You can follow her on Twitter: @marwamaziad