The peppery smell of tear gas hung in the air of Istanbul’s Gezi Park when I walked through with my family just after midnight on Wednesday.
It was relatively quiet under the sycamore trees, a fleeting interlude between episodes of turmoil. On Tuesday, police gassed the park and cleared surrounding Taksim Square with the help of water canons, scattering thousands of panicked protesters and sending many to take refuge in the nearby Divan Hotel. Wednesday morning, defiant demonstrators would again fill the park — some objecting to a government plan to replace the trees with a shopping mall, others protesting the violence used by police, all united in their anger at Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian style of ruling.
Now, after Erdogan softened his stance on redeveloping the park — while police buses lining the streets of Istanbul backed his threat of further confrontation — the protests that have unsettled Turkey since the end of May appear to be abating. But this outcome is not the end of the country’s unrest.
Efforts to explain what happened in Turkey these past few weeks have sought various historical analogies. Is this like France in 1968? Or the American Occupy Wall Street movement? Or is it another Tahrir Square, an extension of the Arab Spring? Is the state that was supposed to be the model for the new Arab world instead modeling itself on the regimes of that world’s ousted leaders?
I see a different parallel: Iran’s “Green Movement” four years ago. As in Turkey, the majority of Iranian protesters were educated, middle-class urbanites. The regime attacked peaceful demonstrations with the full range of brutal means at its disposal, ultimately crushed the movement and held onto power. It wasn’t until this Friday that Iranian voters got to elect a successor to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and even then the choices were limited to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei loyalists.
Turkey, of course, is different from Iran in that it is an open society with free and fair elections. Its government depends on popular support. But it appears that Erdogan will emerge from the protests with the approval of his core constituency intact, and there is no viable challenger to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). They are certain to maintain their grip — at least for now.
The Gezi Park protest and the demonstrations it prompted in other Turkish cities have diminished the AKP’s legitimacy abroad and at home. The AKP can no longer present itself to the outside world as a party intent on establishing a liberal democratic order based on the rule of law. And within Turkey, it has lost credibility in the eyes of those who supported it in the past against the military and the middle class it nurtured.
Capitalizing on Turkey’s decades-long economic liberalization and the European Union accession process, Erdogan significantly raised the national income and the Turkish population’s prosperity. He also pushed reforms that made housing, health care and education more accessible. Turkey saw a veritable middle-class explosion — with its attendant consumerism and individualism.
It is a segment of this middle class, mainly secular, that has been most incensed at other aspects of the ruling party’s agenda. Long quiescent and atomized, the urban public revolted against the arbitrariness of the government. The anger blows against the increasing authoritarianism and discursive brutality of the prime minister, against efforts to keep citizens from taking part in decisions that affect their lives.
The discontent also has roots in the social costs of the AKP’s economic policies and its construction craze. In fact, the participation of groups from the more impoverished areas of Istanbul, as well as the involvement of soccer club fans, gave the movement a cross-class identity.
Finally, the movement reflects resistance to attempts to regulate social and private life — for example, imposing further restrictions on alcohol and on abortion and calling for women to have at least three children each.
With their protests, Turks have shown that they seek to redefine citizenship and to enlarge the liberal-democratic space in the nation’s politics. The demonstrators, especially those in Taksim Square, have defied Erdogan’s strictly majoritarian understanding of democracy. Their extraordinarily pluralist makeup runs counter to the ruling party’s restrictive religious and cultural definition of citizenship and society.
This civil, spontaneous, politically unaffiliated movement on a massive scale is unprecedented in Turkey. It reflects deep-seated social impulses that won’t go away even if, for the moment, they have been suppressed. And sooner or later it will find a political outlet.
After all, this upheaval is about Turkey’s future identity. And that identity is much better represented by the humor, pluralism and liberalism of the protesters than by the dour disciplinarianism and provincial conservatism of the ruling party.
Soli Özel is a professor of international relations and political science at Istanbul Kadir Has University and a columnist for Haberturk, a Turkish daily.