THERE are some similarities between what is going on in Turkey and the Arab revolutions that have changed the face of the Middle East in the last two years. Yet it would be wrong to think of the events in Turkey as another chapter in the “Arab spring” movements.
Unlike most of the Arab countries, Turkey has a tradition of electoral politics that goes back to 1946. Even though they have faced restrictions in recent years, civil society and nongovernmental organizations have been active in Turkey’s political scene for a long time. In another important difference with the Arab world, the Turkish economy has been doing very well and was even left relatively unscathed during the Great Recession of recent years.
There are, however, a growing number of people in Turkey who are unhappy with the governing Justice and Development Party and the country’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Protesters occupied Taksim Square’s Gezi Park for more than two weeks, until they were forcefully ejected on Sunday. This is the largest protest in Turkey in decades. It started as opposition to a redevelopment project. But the unrest in the country goes far beyond plans to raze Gezi Park, and it has spread elsewhere.
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The old elite that is staunchly secular is alarmed because of the Islamist background of the Justice and Development Party, also known as the A.K. party in Turkish, and its leaders. Industrial classes of earlier decades resent being eclipsed by the much more dynamic and expansive provincial and conservative capitalists of recent years.
Kurds have remained on the receiving end of the punishing policies of the government for most of the past 10 years. Then, recently, when the government switched to a policy of accommodation with the Kurds, it attracted the wrath of the nationalists, who accused Erdogan of plotting to divide the country.
In Istanbul, the government has started several megaprojects that will not only alter the city’s skyline but also impact how people move, live and interact in a city that now contains more than 20 percent of the country’s total population. The frustration boiled over into Gezi Park.
In foreign affairs, as Turkey became a close ally of the Sunni states of Saudi Arabia and Qatar and interfered in Syria’s civil war, Turkey’s non-Sunni population started to feel vulnerable. The flow of large numbers of refugees into the border provinces undermined the social order in those parts of the country, creating a highly volatile situation.
Erdogan’s party passed and imposed many of these policies without meaningful discussion in the parliament, where the Justice and Development Party has a safe majority. Weak as they are, the opposition parties have also failed in proposing realistic alternatives that could have captured the imagination of the people of Turkey.
Outside parliament, Erdogan has marginalized civil-society organizations and silenced journalists by either imprisoning them or by co-opting the owners of major media outlets. He has been gleeful in imposing and defending a series of policies such as the restrictions on the sale of alcohol, strict regulations on abortion, and even curbing public demonstrations of affection.
Such policies are perceived as threats to the lifestyle of a significant segment of Turkey’s population, some of whom voted for the Justice and Development Party in the past. In fact, Erdogan’s style of governing may very well be the single and most important factor that is unifying the protest movement in Turkey.
The ongoing protests are an attempt to fill a void and restore substance to what has become a nonfunctioning democracy in Turkey. Groups with different interests have come together to push the government to be more inclusive and consultative in its decision-making. They have been extraordinarily courageous despite being repeatedly tear-gassed, pepper-sprayed and doused with water reportedly laced with chemicals.
During most of the past 10 years, the U.S. has been reluctant to criticize Turkey because of its extraordinary importance in the Middle East as a strong ally. It is time for the U.S. to ask the Turkish government to respond to the demands of its people who are defending their social, political and civil rights.
Resat Kasaba is Stanley D. Golub Chair and director of the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at University of Washington.