Having witnessed the Egyptian uprising in Tahrir Square in Cairo in 2011, I was eager to compare it with the protests by Turkish youths in Taksim Square in 2013.
They are very different. The Egyptians wanted to oust former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. Theirs was an act of “revolution.” The Turks are engaged in an act of “revulsion.” They are not (yet) trying to throw out their democratically elected Islamist prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. What they’re doing is calling him out. Their message is simple: “Get out of our faces, stop choking our democracy and stop acting like such a pompous, overbearing, modern-day sultan.”
The Turks took to the streets, initially, to protect one of Istanbul’s few green spaces, Gezi Park, from being bulldozed for an Erdogan project. They took to the streets because the prime minister — who has dominated Turkish politics for the past 11 years and still has strong support with the more religious half of Turkey — has stifled dissent. Erdogan has used tax laws and other means to intimidate the media and opponents into silence — CNN Turk, at first, refused to cover the protests, opting instead to air a show on penguins — and the formal parliamentary opposition is feckless.
So in a move that has intriguing implications, Turkish youths used Twitter as their own news and communications network and Gezi Park and Taksim Square as their own parliament to become the real opposition.
In doing so they sent a message to Erdogan: In today’s flat world, nobody gets to have one-way conversations anymore. Leaders are now in a two-way conversation with their citizens. Erdogan, who is surrounded by yes-men, got this lesson the hard way.
On June 7, he declared that those who try to “lecture us” about the Taksim crackdown, “what did they do about the Wall Street incidents? Tear gas, the death of 17 people happened there. What was the reaction?”
In an hour, the US embassy in Turkey issued a statement in English and Turkish via Twitter rebutting Erdogan: “No US deaths resulted from police actions in #OWS,” a reference to Occupy Wall Street. No wonder Erdogan denounced Twitter as society’s “worst menace.”
Three Turks in the US responded to the events in Istanbul by starting a funding campaign on Indiegogo.com that bought a full-page ad in the New York Times supporting the protests. According to Forbes, they received donations “from 50 countries at a clip of over $2,500 per hour over its first day, crossing its $53,800 goal in about 21 hours.”
What’s sad is that Erdogan’s arrogance, autocratic impulses and, lately, use of anti-Semitic tropes, are soiling what has been an outstanding record of leadership. His Islamist party has greatly improved health care, raised incomes, built roads and bridges, improved governance and pushed the army out of politics.
However, success has gone to his head. He has been lecturing, or trying to restrict, Turks on where and when they can drink alcohol, how many children each woman should have (three), the need to ban abortions, the need to ban Caesarean sections and even what docudramas they should watch. The Turkish daily Zaman on Monday published a poll showing that 54.4 percent of Turks “thought the government was interfering in their lifestyle.”
While the parents were cowed, the kids lost their fear. I walked with protesters on the streets of Istanbul on Saturday last week when the police, armed with fire hoses and tear gas, cleared Gezi Park. The pavement literally shook with the energy of young people telling Erdogan to back off.