In recent weeks there has been a deluge of coverage and analysis of Istanbul’s Taksim Square protests. These events have typically been framed as another case of a popular and peaceful youth movement being crushed by an authoritarian dictator; often pundits have gone so far as to label these protests as the beginning of a “Turkish Spring,” drawing on the same utterly false frameworks which have dominated the public discourse throughout the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. However, this caricature of the current (and probably future) struggle in Istanbul ignores a number of inconvenient facts:
First, the protests were not as peaceful as the narrative suggests. While the media has given a good deal of coverage of riot police deploying tear gas, water cannons, rubber bullets, stun grenades and batons on the crowds, from the beginning of the protests there have been contingents who fought with and taunted the police, to include launching stones, Molotov cocktails, and fireworks at the authorities. In fact, by some accounts the water cannons and tear gas were deployed in response to this initiation of violence by the protestors. Either way, once that door gets opened, it is easy for the innocent to be punished along with the guilty. This is indeed, what some of the provocateurs may have been seeking: it is a common tactic in protest movements for activists to goad the authorities into an overly-forceful response in an attempt to build international sympathy for their cause and grow their numbers domestically.
However, when incendiary devices are being deployed in the heart of major metropolitan areas at the height of tourist season, when there are incidences of vandalism, arson, and looting—once certain lines are crossed, the state has an authentic responsibility to bring an end to these behaviors for the sake of public safety. There are certainly some among the protestors who went way too far in their attempts at instigation—and the Turkish authorities were all too eager to take the bait—and the entire (mostly peaceful) movement paid the price for this game.
Second, the protests were not popular. While it is true that tens-of-thousands took to the streets of Istanbul, this number does not seem as impressive when one considers that we are discussing a city populated by 14 million (similarly, it is important to note the distinction between “diversely-comprised” and “popular.” Many erroneously conflate the former with the latter). There is no reason to believe that the protests represent the popular will; in fact, as we will see, there are plenty of reasons to doubt this.
Erdogan is not a dictator—he is a democratically elected Prime Minister serving his third and final term, following the AKP’s decisive victory in the 2011 elections—his party’s electoral success has been unprecedented, and has been growing with each election. There should be little doubt that if it came to a referendum, the AKP and Erdogan would maintain their impressive majorities (conveniently, the media failed to cover the large counter-rallies in support of the prime minister). In fact, the narrative of “Islamist tyranny” is ironic in this context:
Since the founding of Turkey in the aftermath of WWII, the state has always been a military autocracy. While there was a “democratically elected” government, these officials could be removed from office at the pleasure of the military if they stepped out of line. Over this time, despite the fact that Turkey is overwhelmingly Muslim, religious expression was mercilessly purged from the public sphere. Erdogan himself spent months in prison for having the audacity to read an anti-secularist poem during one of his speeches. The military has yielded to the civilian government in recent years only due to Erdogan’s deft maneuvering in the wake of a coup attempt against him. Similarly, Turkey’s rise in the global scene owes much to Erdogan’s suite of reforms.
That said, there should be little doubt that Erdogan is driven by a raw ambition which gives rise to authoritarian impulses—as he is unable to serve as PM again, he is currently pushing through a constitutional referendum which will give enormous powers to the executive branch in anticipation of running for president of Turkey in 2014, with designs for the country which stretch to 2023. His response to the Taksim protests has exposed him as a hypocrite in light of his loud and frequent critiques of Mubarak, Ben Ali, and most recently, al-Asad. But as has recently been argued vis a vis Syria’s al-Asad and Mursi of Egypt, authoritarianism is not necessarily incompatible with democracy (neither is hypocrisy).
It is also critical to bear in mind that, commensurate with Erdogan’s aspirations, Turkey is well on its way to becoming a regional geopolitical and economic superpower. There are many in the region and around the world who are uncomfortable with Turkey’s growing influence, de-secularization, and geopolitical autonomy (especially when paired with Erdogan’s ambition, consolidation of power, and increasingly authoritarian tendencies). Erdogan has claimed that these protests were inflamed by foreign powers; while it is true that this is precisely what all of the dictators have claimed over the course of the so-called “Arab Spring,” it is also true that the U.S. government and institutions played a significant role in organizing, funding, promoting, and supporting the movements in Tunis, Egypt, Libya, and Syria (while suppressing them in the monarchies)—efforts which date back to the Bush Administration and were continued under Obama. Regardless as to whether one views this intervention as essentially beneficent or malignant, it cannot be overlooked. That is, Erdogan’s suspicions may not be unfounded (for its part, the White House has denied any involvement in fomenting unrest).
Of course, these considerations neither entail nor imply that the protest movements in Turkey and across the region were nothing more than a plot by outside powers; nor is it to say that the Taksim protestors do not have legitimate grievances, nor that the government’s response to this protest has been appropriate. In fact, Erdogan would be well-advised to learn from his frenemy in Syria and avoid escalating the conflict or feeding into the media’s narrative. There are indications that he is beginning to get this message, at least; hopefully he remembers it for future confrontations (which are increasingly likely as a result of his clampdown, which at the end of the day, sends signal of vulnerability rather than strength).
What these inconvenient facts do suggest is that the worldwide enthusiasm and blind support for these protests is problematic. Under all of the rhetorical and ideological flourishes, no action occurs in a vacuum, and all social movements are always and only about one thing: restructuring power dynamics. Accordingly, it is important to ask a number of critical questions about any social movement: which internal and external actors are involved? How are they involved? What are the relations between these actors? What, specifically, is each party after? Why?
Additionally, in the case of ostensibly democratic movements like the Taksim protests, one must ask if the demands of the protestors are actually commensurate with the will and interests of most citizens, if the parties who stand to gain from these movements are really concerned with the popular will and interest, and if they will be able to effectively promote these ends were the movement to succeed at increasing their influence. The answers to these questions must never be taken for granted, as they have been in Taksim. Due to their scale and complexity, the aftermath of social changes is often difficult to predict; one must be wary of getting carried away, euphorically supporting rebellion (under the oft-mistaken belief that one is “sticking it to the man”)—lest the intentions, efforts and sacrifices of activists be manipulated in such a way as to give rise to even greater injustice, oppression, and misery, as is often the ultimate fate of revolutions.