The sudden and unanticipated uprising that began in Istanbul’s Taksim Square last Friday has some obvious parallels to the protests that arose in the Arab world two years ago. Similar to the protests that began in Tunis, Cairo, Tripoli, and Damascus, seemingly small, ineffectual, and localized expressions of discontent in Istanbul suddenly hit critical mass last week and became game-changing confrontations between popular will and governing authority.
But there are also critical differences—at least on the surface. The Arab Spring drew heavily on poor economic conditions in countries in which the demonstrations occurred. Turkey, however, has a per capita gross domestic product, or GDP, that is more than twice that of Tunisia and more than three times that of Egypt or Syria. And under the leadership of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the country’s economy has expanded by more than 50 percent in the past decade—a pace matched only by China among the major G20 economies.
Everywhere you travel in Turkey, massive numbers of new apartments are under construction, infrastructure is being improved, and there is a general sense of expanding prosperity.
A second theme in the Arab Spring was democracy, or lack thereof. Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria all lacked any real semblance of functioning democratic institutions. Turkey, on the other hand, has ended the cycle of military involvement in civil authority since the ascendance of Prime Minister Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party, or AKP, in 2002. The AKP government has been re-elected twice since then, and each time with a larger plurality in the Turkish parliament.
Furthermore, Turkey has made real headway in solving a number of the most pressing issues affecting human rights and the status and rights of minority communities. Most significant has been dramatic progress in terms of the deep and dangerous divisions between Turks and the Kurdish minority.
But below the surface, there is much about which Turkey, as well as its friends and allies, should be worried. And those problems explain why the confrontation between police and demonstrators over the future of a park in central Istanbul resonated so broadly with people in communities all across the country.
While the AKP has been remarkably sensitive to solving some of the nation’s minority issues, it has been remarkably insensitive to solving others. This is particularly true when it comes to minority groups that have aligned with the political opposition. The largest of these groups is the Alevi, a religious group more closely related to the Shia branch of Islam and long persecuted by Sunni Muslims under both the Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Turkey. Estimates as to the number of Alevi in Turkey range widely because surveyors believe many of the faith are unwilling to openly divulge their beliefs out of a fear of retribution. Some estimates are as high as 40 percent of Turkey’s 80 million inhabitants, while others are as low as 10 percent.
While the government supports the mosques and pays the salaries of the imams of the nation’s Sunni majority, it has refused equal status to the Alevi. More problematic is the generalized feeling that the AKP government has deliberately fanned the bigotry and hatred toward the Alevi that is present in certain parts of the Sunni community. In the 1500s there were full-scale programs against the Alevi that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of the followers, who at that time represented half or more of the population of Anatolia. As recently as 1993 a gathering of Alevis at a hotel in the city of Sivas, Turkey, was attacked; the hotel burned and 37 Alevis were killed. This followed an attack in 1978 in which more than 100 Alevis died.
Inexplicably, Prime Minister Erdoğan and his party have not only dragged their feet on securing legal rights and protections for the Alevi, but they also recently announced that they will name the planned third bridge in Istanbul crossing the Bosporus strait from Europe to Asia after Yavuz Sultan Selim, known as “Selim the Grim,” who is widely credited with the mass killings of the Alevis in the 16th century.
Although the Alevi issue is not frequently mentioned in U.S. or European coverage of the confrontation at Taksim Square, the Erdoğan government’s insensitivity regarding the naming of the bridge is seen as closely related to the government’s insensitivity exhibited in failing to seek community input and consensus on the future of one of the few remaining green spaces in central Istanbul.
Prime Minister Erdoğan, who previously served as mayor of Istanbul before becoming prime minister, seems to share a trait with many politicians: He does not like to give up one hat simply because he has gotten a larger one. Bulldozing the trees in Gezi Park in order to build a shopping mall in the style of the Ottoman military barracks that once occupied the land is clearly an issue that the prime minister has taken an active interest in and does not feel that local objections should deter the plans he and his party have concocted.
His attitude on the park and the bridge denotes a majoritarian and unilateralist style of governance that does not consider consensus building an important concern in developing policy at either the community or national level. In what might be viewed as a veiled criticism of the decision-making process leading to the park and bridge confrontations, Turkish President Abdullah Gül commented, “Democracy is not only about elections.”
But what seems to have been most troubling to a broad segment of the Turkish population was not the decision made by the government on either the bridge or the park but rather the response the government made when those decisions were peacefully challenged. There seems to be a growing feeling that a man who has contributed much to the country’s political and economic development has gotten too big for his britches—that he is not only unilateral in his approach to policymaking but is also authoritarian in its implementation and in dealing with anyone who gets in his way. It is that perception that turned a demonstration of 5,000 people at a park in central Istanbul into nationwide demonstrations attracting huge numbers of protesters in more than 80 locations.
Prime Minister Erdoğan pulled back the Istanbul police on Saturday when things appeared to be spinning largely out of control but has since returned to his typical hardline approach of blaming his political enemies and insisting that the rule of law depends on his moving forward with the plans that he and his party appear to have concocted with little real input from the people whose lives those plans would impact. In the meantime his country has taken a black eye in the international press, the Turkish stock market has suffered a serious setback, and many of the retailers who were interested in leasing space in the new mall have said they would locate elsewhere.
We live in a world in which social cohesion is a necessary condition for sustained economic progress. Prime Minister Erdoğan should either redirect his policies toward building cohesion or turn the reins of power over to someone who can.
Scott Lilly is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, who spent the last two weeks traveling in Turkey.