In the upscale Istanbul suburb of Bebek, at 9pm sharp, the diners began drumming on the tables or tapping their wineglasses with forks. The traffic passing along the Bosporus Strait chimes in with honking horns and flashing headlights.
It was a genteel symphony of solidarity with the protesters, whwere confronting fire hoses and tear gas in the heart of the city, and elsewhere around Turkey.
Those street battles that caught our attention this summer have mostly been policed into submission and the world’s cameras have moved on, but the afterlife is interesting.
What is happening in Turkey is not Les Miserables, or the Arab Spring. It is not an uprising born in desperation. It is the latest in a series of revolts arising from the middle class — the urban, educated haves, who are in some ways the principal beneficiaries of the regimes they now reject.
We saw early versions of it in China in 1989 and in Venezuela in 2002. We saw it in Iran in 2009, when the cosmopolitan crowds thronged in protest against theocratic hardliners, and we saw it in Russia in 2011, when legions of 30-somethings spilled out of their office cubicles, chanting their scorn for the high-handed rule of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
While Turkey was still percolating, the discontent bubbled up in Brazil, where yet another ruling party seems to be the victim of its own success.
The vanguard in each case is mostly young, students or relative newcomers to the white-collar workforce, who have outgrown the fearful conformity of their parents’ generation. With their economic wants more or less satisfied, they now crave a voice and respect. In this social media century, they are mobilized largely by Facebook and Twitter, networks of tweets circumventing an intimidated mainstream press.
The igniting grievances vary.
In Istanbul, it was a plan to build a mosque and other developments on a patch of the city’s diminishing green space. In Brazil, it was bus fares.
By the time the protests hit critical mass, they are about something bigger and more inchoate: dignity, the perquisites of citizenship, the obligations of power.
Because these protesters are by definition people with something to lose — and because the autocrats know it — the uprisings are eventually beaten into submission, at least in the short term. The authorities kid themselves that they have solved the problem. It reminds me of that old pirate joke: The floggings will continue until morale improves.
However, morale does not improve. There is a new alienation, a new yearning, and eventually this energy will find an outlet. In some way, different in each country, the social contract will be adjusted.
The protesters in these middle-class revolts tend to be political orphans, leaderless, partyless, not particularly ideological. To reach a new equilibrium, either the rising class must get organized, or the ruling class must get the message, or, ideally, both.
In China, Iran and Russia, where the regimes are more established in their ruthlessness, the discontented may have a longer wait, but watch Turkey. How Turkey, as a partner in NATO and a bridge to the tumultuous Islamic world, finds its new balance has both practical and symbolic significance for the rest of the world.
The US has long embraced Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the model of a modern Muslim reformer. During his decade in power, Erdogan has tamed the Turkish Army of its coup habit, raised the standard of living dramatically, offered an olive branch to the separatist-minded Kurds and demonstrated — alone in the region — that Islam is compatible with both free elections and broad prosperity.