Turkey Protests: Has the Arab Spring Finally Reached Turkey?


Protests in Turkey were violently dispersed on Friday as demonstrations initially focused on public opposition to a development project in central Istanbul grew into a broader protest against an increasingly authoritarian state.

At least 60 people were detained and 100 injured, with reports of hospitalizations and serious head injuries. Protests spread to the capital Ankara where another 5,000 demonstrated.

Protesters reported the arbitrary use of tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowds in Gezi Park, where there have been Occupy-style camps since May 28. The Turkish government's proposed development will turn Taksim Square, one of Istanbul’s few remaining green spaces, into a new shopping mall complex.

Is this an indication that the wave of global protest, beginning with the Arab Spring and spreading to Europe as Occupy and the Indignados movement, has arrived in Turkey?

Prime Minister Erdogan, who enjoyed a relatively popular first term resulting from his reforms of Turkish laws to EU standards and promises to amend Turkey’s military-era constitution, may be sowing the seeds for such unrest. His ruling APK party, in addition to its unpopular infrastructure projects, has recently passed unpopular legislation controlling the sale of alcohol without public consultation.

Ignoring his critics, Erdogan insists the government will go ahead with its plans "no matter what they [the protesters] do". And while his repression is not as severe as that of a Mubarak or a Gaddafi, Erdogan’s preference to exclude his opposition so blatantly gives disparate opposition groups a new cause to rally behind. 

Even though the AKP’s existence is in no way threatened by the unrest like its Arab neighbours to the south were, the broad participation in these protests should give Erdogan cause for concern.

These so-called "Occupy Gezi" protests are an interesting change in Turkey. Its members, who interestingly named their protest after a Western movement rather than the Arab Spring, are drawn from many sections of society. There was young and old, right and left, even Turks and Kurds taking to the streets.

A broad opposition such as this is what made Egypt’s January 25 revolution so unpredictable. Because so many groups who were once politically separate chose to unite under one cause, ousting Egypt's decades-old dictatorship became possible.

And even though the Gezi protests are small compared to those of Tahrir Square, attracting just a few thousand people, such minor demonstrations have a habit of inspiring future discontent.

Egypt’s revolution did not arise in a vacuum. It was preceded by many smaller, unsuccessful actions that laid the groundwork for later changes. Back in 2008 the April 6 movement organized industrial action in the city of El-Mahalla El-Kubra that was violently repressed.

However the April 6 movement's wide support, from trade unionists, to secular liberals and even members of the Muslim Brotherhood, became the model for what began in 2011.

The Arab Spring has not arrived in Turkey, but Erdogan’s government would be wise to tread carefully. The last two years of global rebellion have shown that ordinary people, tired of authorities meeting legitimate grievances with violence, are capable of shifting the status quo.