It's tempting to see the protests as one more manifestation of "Arab spring," this time in a non-Arab context. Social media is being used to organize and report the troubles. and the official media has tended to downplay events; my link this morning dealt with that aspect of events, and also indulged in the temptation to link "Taksim" with "Tahrir."
But there are many differences as well as some obvious parallels. In Tunisia and Egypt (and Libya and Syria), unelected autocratic governments ruled; a wide range of social and economic classes opposed them. The AKP government in Turkey was elected, and enjoys a comfortable majority, as Erdoğan keeps insisting. Erdoğan supported the Arab uprisings, and sees no similarities to what is going on in Turkey. Turkey is much more polarized, more evenly divided, than the Arab cases were, except perhaps Syria.
But just because the AKP was elected does not mean it has not been behaving autocratically. Rather like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (and quite unlike al-Nahda so far in Tunisia), it seems to feel that its electoral margin made it unquestionable. High-handed (and heavy-handed) behavior is being met with resistance. Steven A. Cook and Michael Koplow's piece, "How Democratic is Turkey?" is a reminder that the AKP's formula for "Islamic democracy," much feted in the West (as in Erdoğan's recent, rather triumphant visit to Washington), is still being tested. Lately it has been pushing for rapid change: constitutional revisions, greater restrictions on alcohol, rapid development in a neoliberal economic system. It has more and more directly challenged the secular tradition of Kemalism, and with that, the urban middle classes and elites.
It has blundered on occasion. The third bridge across the Bosphorus, (another of the major development projects, along with a third airport some say isn't needed), dedicated on the 650th anniversary of the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, was named the Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge, after the Ottoman ruler known in the West as Selim I "the Grim" (Ottoman Sultan 1512-1520). Much of his reign was spent fighting the rising power of Safavid Iran, and in fighting the Shi‘ite movements known to the Ottomans as the Qizilbash ("red heads" after their distinctive headgear; Kızılbaş in modern Turkish); he ordered widespread killings of the Qizilbash after the Battle of Chaldiran in 1514. As a result, Turkey's Alevi Shi‘ite minority, who identify historically with some of the Qizilbash, have protested the naming of the bridge, and Alevis, along with Kurds and other minorities, have joined in the protests.
|Yavuz Sultan Selim|
|Taksim and Gezi Park (at center) (Google Maps)|
|Location in Istanbul|
Certainly many of Erdoğan's former admirers in the West may be rethinking their opinion, as the AKP seems to take a more and more authoritarian approach to its critics.