Are the anti-government protests rippling across Turkey the country’s version of the Arab Spring that uprooted Hosni Mubarak from power in Egypt? Are the events unfolding in Istanbul’s Taksim’s Square equivalent to Egypt’s Tahrir Square? Not so, according to the Turkish Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdogan.
“The main opposition party CHP [Republican People’s Party] has provoked my innocent citizens. Those who make news [and] call these events the Turkish Spring do not know Turkey,” Erdogan told reporters during a press conference.
Erdogan is not alone in arguing against drawing similarities between the protests in Turkey and those that rippled through the Middle East in 2011.
“The Arab uprisings were – and are – revolts against dictatorships that responded to protests with iron fists leading to hundreds, thousands, and even tens of thousands of deaths. Entire generations of Egyptians in Tahrir Square in 2011 had never known free and fair elections,” write Mustafa Akyol and H.A. Hellyer for the Tahrir Squared, an online news source for the Arab uprisings. Turkey, on the other hand, has engaged in the democratic experiment since 1950. Erdogan was elected in “free and fair “elections three consecutive times over the past ten years—the 2011 elections being the most recent.
How the protests began
The protests began when a small group of activists tried to stop the demolition of Gezi Park—one of Istanbul’s few remaining green spaces—on May 27. Around 50 people set up a camp in the park. While these protesters were successful in stopping the demolition, riot police moved in using teargas to disperse the protesters. News of the attacks spread rapidly via Twitter and other social media. In response, thousands of people flooded into the park and the adjoining Taksim Square. High-level representatives of the Justice and Development Party’s main opposition, the secular Republican People’s Party (known as CHP) also joined the protests. The protests have since spread to more than 70 cities in Turkey, including the capital, Ankara and the city of Izmir. Three people have died, 4000 hurt, and 900 arrested.
The role of social media
For the protesters, social media has proven to be an important tool for their movement, just like in Egypt in 2011. Like the protests of Tahrir Square in Cairo, tens and thousands of protesters used social media networks to organize demonstrations.
However, the events unfolding are different from those in Tahrir Square. Twitter is being used to spread information about the demonstrations on the ground. According to an Al Jazeera report, unlike the Arab Spring tweets, 90 percent of the tweets are coming from within Turkey and 50 percent from within Istanbul.
In comparison, a University of Colorado Boulder study estimated that only 30 percent of tweets during the Egyptian revolution came from within the country. Furthermore, the Al Jazeera report argues that around 88 percent of the tweets coming from within Turkey are in Turkish, which suggests that the intended audience of the tweets are other Turkish citizens, not the international community.
Part of the reason that protesters have turned to social media is a result of a perceived lack of coverage in Turkish media.
Dissatisfied with the mainstream media’s coverage of the event, the protesters are live-tweeting the protests, using smart-phones to live stream videos of the protest. Protesters are encouraging people in Turkey to not rely on television for news about the protests using the hashtag #BugunTelevizyonlarKapat, which means “turn off the TV today.”
The protesters’ grievances
Initially, the protesters only wanted to save trees in Gezi Park. Since the police crackdown, the protestors have demanded that the senior officials implicated in the crackdown be fired. Some protesters have demanded Erdogan’s resignation. Aside from a stance against the demolition of Gezi Park, the protesters are also expressing their dismay towards Erdogan’s neo-Islamist policies and ruling style, which they view as a threat to their lifestyle. Since being reelected in 2011 with a majority, Erdogan has passed new laws which have infuriated Turkey’s secular middle class. Erdogan has restricted the sale of alcohol between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. and banned it from the vicinity of schools and mosques.
Protesters are also unhappy with the rapid pace of urbanization in Turkey’s metropolitan cities: Erdogan plans to build a third airport, another Bosphorus bridge, and a canal linking the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara. These plans will likely destroy millions of trees and disrupt the delicate ecosystem in northern Istanbul.
According to a report in Jadaliyya, the infrastructure plans are part of the Erdogan government’s neoliberal turn and are central to the gentrification process that Istanbul is undergoing; these plans have hit hardest the neighborhoods which house the poor, immigrants, Kurds, and the Roma. The goal of Erdogan’s plan is to make room for tourist attractions. The Jadaliyya report notes that, “the idea is that this new and improved city centre will attract foreign investment in Istanbul, which is to be further developed into a financial and cultural hub at the crossroads of Europe and the Middle East.” To this end, the Jadaliyya report warns against framing the protests as a cultural war between the secular youth and Erdogan’s government.
“The government wants to build up the capital for the bourgeoisie, and to send the workers out of Taksim and the other squares of the city,” one protestor told The Globe and Mail newspaper. “The people have responded against the government and taken Taksim Square for themselves.”
Importantly, many people in Turkey argue that Erdogan is becoming intolerant of criticism, particularly from the media and the diversity of lifestyles. At the present, Turkey has more journalists in jail than any country in the world and the media has been forced into self-censorship.
Erdogan is also seen as becoming rejectionist of participation from other camps of major political decision. Akyol and Hellyer argue that Erdogan’s “approach has been to ‘sell’ the final decision after it has been taken, rather than try to build buy-in from the start. The unspoken logic seems to be: since he won a majority at the ballot box, he has the right to call the shots unilaterally, without due regard for other groups in Turkey.”
Support for Erdogan remains strong
Some analysts point to Erdogan’s strong support base as one explanation for the difference between the Turkish and the Arab Spring protests. Despite demands for his resignation, Erdogan still enjoys support from large sections of the population, as his political opposition is widely seen as weak and ineffective. Mubarak did not enjoy such a support.
In Istanbul’s Uskudar district, Erdogan has both supporters and critics. A BBC report relays a conversation taking place between locals at Uskudar’s market.
“’No-one is infallible,’ says man, who works in the tourism industry. ‘Erdogan has some good policies, and some bad policies. 90% of what he does is good for the country. There are people that love him and people that hate him. People shouldn’t burn police cars, throw stones.’”
“’Erdogan is the only leader there is,’ insists another man. ’He’s the greatest leader in the world after [Turkey’s founder] Ataturk. The police don’t attack people if they’re doing nothing. What is the job of the police? To protect [sic] people.’”
“An older man sees the conversation and walks straight over to make his point.”
“’Tayyip Erdogan is a dictator and I’ve had enough of him. He doesn’t care about our founder Ataturk or the republic. He’s tried to get rid of our republican identity. The public is fed up with him. They’ve had enough. Tayyip is not good for this country.’”
Polls show that Erdogan’s Justice and Freedom Party (AKP) has around 50 percent of votes; that is double of his closest rival, the leader of the secularist-nationalist People’s Republican Party. Erdogan has pushed a number of social policies that many lower-to-middle class Turkish people support, including increased access to healthcare and housing, according to an op-ed by Bessma Monami for the Canadian International Council.
The economics of it all
The Turkish economy also serves as evidence for differences between the protests in Turkey and the Arab Spring protests.
“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,” Tuna Kuyucu, an assistant professor of sociology at Bogazici University in Istanbul told Al Jazeera.
Turkey’s lower and middle classes attribute the economic growth to Erdogan’s leadership in the past decades. Since Erdogan took office in 2002, the GDP growth has averaged over five percent. Furthermore, the Turkish economy grew by 8.5 percent in 2011 and is expected to continue growing, though at a slower rate until 2017. According to the International Monetary Fund, Turkey’s unemployment rate remains stable at nine percent. A Forbes report argues that for many Turks “Erdogan might not be perfect…but the successes outweigh the drawbacks.” Erdogan’s Justice and Freedom Party’s massive infrastructure projects were also seen in a positive light. Plans for the construction of the new metro lines, the rail tunnel underneath the Bosphorus, and a new airport in Istanbul are looked at as helpful solutions to Istanbul’s traffic problems.
While the economic growth experienced during Erdogan’s time in office illustrates the differences between the Arab Spring and the protests in Turkey, as noted before, the demonstrators are, in part, protesting against Erdogan’s neoliberal economic policies that involve gentrification of the public spaces and destruction of the environment.
The protests do not indicate that Erodgan’s party is at serious risk of losing its grip on power like Hosni Mubarak did in Egypt; however, they do reveal the limits to his political ambitions.