Let’s start by calling it what it is: Taksim Square, and not Tahrir. Yes, much of what is happening on the streets of Turkey looks similar to the Egyptian uprising: peaceful protesters refusing to be intimidated by police brutality, insisting on their own individual power to question authority; the role of social media; the way a protest about one issue comes to reflect widespread discontent. But however tempting it may be to cast the protests as the latest (non-Arab) chapter in the Arab spring, they’re different in many ways. What’s more, the governing AKP stands to gain from them, if it pays close attention. Only if it ignores the message of the protests could the Turkish spring label become self-fulfilling.
The Arab uprisings were not simply about discontent. They were, and remain, revolts against despotic rulers with no democratic legitimacy, whose violent response led to thousands of deaths. That can’t be likened to Turkey, whose democratic experiment is decades old, and whose prime minister won free and fair elections, three times over – increasing his share of the vote every time while his rivals’ dwindled.
However, there is much for the government to learn from the past few days. Winning elections is not the sign of a healthy, pluralistic democracy – it proves only that you can win elections. A party that has won elections with a landslide is still vulnerable to abuse – indeed, the lack of a strong opposition makes that almost inevitable. Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s party has done many great things for Turkey, but a disturbing pattern is emerging of intolerance towards criticism, rejectionism towards any participation from other camps and a dismissive response to these protests.
In Egypt, a similar majoritarianism continues to fail abysmally, as the Muslim Brotherhood’s competence in governance is less than admirable. While the AKP has proved more capable than not only the Brotherhood but also many Turkish parties, there are genuine, non-partisan grievances among many protesters. These include naming Istanbul’s new intercontinental bridge after an Ottoman sultan seen by the Alevi minority as a bloody tyrant; and implementing controversial limitations on alcohol consumption. There are also nationalist groups who loathe the peace process with Kurdish separatists, and communist ones who support Syria’s Assad regime, which the AKP opposes.
It’s possible that all this might have mattered little in bringing people on to the streets – but the lack of police restraint made that inevitable. Their brutality brought many normally apolitical Turks out, and that is something the Turkish government has to realise. The first death of a protester in Hatay – an unarmed citizen expressing his opinion in his own country – is one death too many; the government has to take that seriously, and act accordingly. On the other side of the coin, excessive vandalism by some who joined the protesters not only puts things in perspective, but affords a glimpse of what might come to pass if the tension goes on.
The events of the past few days do not mean Erdogan has to resign – but it does suggest he ought to try to be a force for reconciliation. A good step was taken on Tuesday, when Bulent Arinc, Erdogan’s deputy, gave a press conference in which he promised police restraint, dialogue with the opposition, and “self-criticism” within the cabinet. Erdogan will do a great service, to himself and his country, if he uses similarly calming language on return from north Africa. His visit to that region ought to remind him that the best governments listen seriously to the demands of all citizens, not just those who voted them in. Erdogan’s accomplishments are so significant that the alternative route – of further confrontation and crisis – would be a great pity.
Mustafa Akyol is a columnist for Turkish newspapers Hürriyet Daily News and Star. Dr HA Hellyer is a non-resident fellow of the Brookings Institution, and ISPU.