Over the past five days, Turkey has been taken aback by mass protests in most of its major cities. They were sparked by plans to redevelop Gezi Park in Istanbul, but considering protests have since erupted in Ankara, Antakya, and other cities, it is clear that this has developed into something larger. Tens of thousands of protesters have been out on the streets, day and night, in what appears to have become general anti-government protests against Prime Minister Erdoğan, who has been in power since 2003. Unions have also called for strikes in solidarity with the movement.
I was rather surprised when I first heard the news of this – I’d always thought Turkey to be a fairly democratic country. Sure, mass protests do happen in democracies – just look at Greece, or Italy, or Spain – but they never seem to have quite this level of intensity, or when they do the government usually swiftly resigns. Democratic countries also tend not to react so violently – tear gas and water cannons have been deployed, resulting in many clashes between protesters and the police in which several people have been injured and even, I think, a couple of deaths. That said, Turkey appears to be showing some restraint – they have allowed protesters to gather inside Gezi Square, who have set up a barricade around it and now effectively govern themselves, and also the Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc has apologised for the use of excessive force.
If I understand it correctly – and I know very little about Turkey – the protestors are mainly young, liberal, secularists who oppose the creeping Islamisation of Turkey under Erdoğan, which they argue is against the principles established in the 1923 constitution when the country gained independence. An example of this is his crackdown upon alcohol consumption. The protests are also against his increasing authoritarian nature. There are fears that he seeks to change the constitution to a Presidential system in order to increase his own powers, and he has also been criticised for his power over the media. It’s no wonder he hates Twitter so much.
I’ve seen a few comparisons between Turkey and the Egypt Revolution in 2011 since the protests began, but I’m not sure how comparable the countries are. Egypt certainly was far more authoritarian than Turkey is now, with Mubarak having led the country for three times the amount of years Erdoğan has led Turkey. FreedomHouse gave Egypt a freedom rating of 5.5/10 in 2011, whereas Turkey in 2013 has 3.5/10 (with 7 being ‘not free’). There may be similarities, but my guess would be that Turkey’s future will not be as dramatic as Egypt’s.
Incidentally, one of the most ironic points to come out of this is the advice Syria has given Turkey over the issue, urging Erdoğan to resign. Turkey doesn’t seem to have taken Syria’s advice (which I can’t blame them for; Syria’s not exactly who I’d ask for advice to successfully stop protests).
It is impossible for anyone to predict how this situation will end, particularly not someone as misinformed as I. But I think the protests will result in concessions from the government, and perhaps even Erdoğan’s resignation, though that’s not hugely likely. He is still believed to have the majority of the country behind him. The protests could fizzle out, but I think they will have some lasting impact upon the country.