The continuing violence and protests in Turkey should not be interpreted as some kind of equivalent of the popular Arab protests that triggered the revolutions of the Arab Spring of 2011. Those were popular uprisings against long established dictatorships, which were backed by military establishments, and had long run out of any popular mandate that they might have had to start with. Turkey has been through a very different experience. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its predecessors have won powerful and overwhelming democratic mandates in several elections. Through the democratic process, AKP has successfully reduced the power of the military and effectively confined Turkish generals to their barracks. Erdogan’s mix of Islamic social conservatism with an open economy has been widely popular, although he may have just found the limits to his increasingly authoritarian style of governing.
The gross excess of police force used on protesters last week in Istanbul’s Taksim Square was wrong. It triggered a national wave of revulsion, and Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc apologised for the violent police response. Though Erdogan urged his supporters, on his return from a visit to North Africa, to remain peaceful and called for an end to the anti-government demonstrations that he termed as bordering on illegality, it is feared that his words may provoke further clashes and a hardening of position among the opposition. There is no doubt that Erdogan enjoys power, but he faces increasing opposition to his casual assumption of increasing authority. People have resented his expansion of government authority, including curtailing journalists who have queried his methods. This is why the protests over Taksim Square have spread with such speed.
Part of Erdogan’s problem is the way the police have arrested scores of people for tweeting “misinformation” and Erdogan has described Twitter as a “menace” being used to spread “lies”, because the protesters have turned to social media to spread their message and coordinate demonstrations. But this similarity in tactics to the protests of the Arab Spring does not mean that the root causes are the same. Turkish people will not accept gross abuse of power. This is an uncomfortable reminder to Erdogan of the power of Turkish democracy, which he himself has strengthened.