What's Behind Turkey's Unrest

A large segment of the population is infuriated by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's attitude.

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(Thanassis Stavrakis/AP)
High school students hold up a Turkish flag during a protest at Gezi park of Taksim square, in Istanbul.

Claire Berlinski is senior fellow for Turkey at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C. She resides in Istanbul.

ISTANBUL – By now, the media coverage of the upheaval in Turkey has been extensive, but certain points have been insufficiently emphasized.

The story began as a peaceful sit-in in a park near the city's central Taksim Square. It was slated to be demolished and replaced with a shopping mall. The protesters wanted to preserve it, but Ankara disagreed. Riot police raided the protesters at dawn, using unbelievably excessive force – hundreds of people wound up in local hospitals, and the police then proceeded to tear gas the hospitals, too. People lost eyes, suffered severe brain injuries and an opposition party member of parliament who had come to show his support suffered a heart attack. As of today, following demonstrations and clashes with the police around the country, at least two people have been confirmed killed; at least six people have lost their eyes and many more have been terrorized and suffered severe injuries.

Yet the highly excessive use of police force happens quite often in Turkey. It happens so often, in fact, that Turks on Twitter use the hashtag #dailygasreport. But never, in the decade that I've lived here, has this prompted a national reaction. Never has it triggered outrage on this level.

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So why now? What was the real trigger? Briefly, it is this: A large segment of the population is infuriated by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's attitude. To wit: The people who didn't vote for me don't matter – screw them. This is not new; he has always been this way. But the constraints upon his authoritarian impulses – the army, the independent judiciary, the opposition press – have systematically been eroded over time, leading to ever more authoritarian policies.

One can see how this could push people to the breaking point. So the issue wasn't the park, which is not particularly attractive and in truth will probably be a perfectly agreeable shopping mall. The point is that Turkey has been on the verge of exploding over something and this happened to be that something.

It's worth stressing, too, that this country has never been a social libertarian paradise. Indeed, they are still discovering mass graves in the southeast, filled by rogue factions of the army in the 1990s during the height of the country's war with the terrorist PKK movement. No one here has ever experienced a truly free press. Turkey's authoritarianism now has a more pious character, but it's not vastly different: it is still under the thumb of "devlet baba" – the daddy state. It's just a new crowd running the show.

The part that's different, though, is that "same as before" is no longer good enough. Expectations have risen precipitously. Turkey is now being advertised internationally and domestically as a beacon of "freedom and democracy." There's a widespread perception among Turks that the government has cut a deal: in exchange for being a "Muslim role model" to vastly-more-screwed-up Muslim countries, it has been given a free pass by the West to do as it pleases at home. After all, Westerners who once fussed about Turkey's rights and liberties – and who did so constantly when Turkey was under military rule – are largely silent about what this government has been doing since it came to power. This perception is pushing ordinary Turks, who know full well the government's faults, toward a nasty anti-Western nationalism.

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So what do these protests portend? No one knows at the moment. Before the protests, Erdogan's AKP was polling at slightly over 50 percent in terms of popularity. In the last general election, they came just short of taking home 50 percent of the vote. It's impossible to say how many of those who voted for them are angry about this melee, particularly since the hallmark of AKP governance has been to ignore or belittle those who don't support them, but to lavishly reward those who do.

Turkey is a large country, and Istanbul is a huge city – by some estimates, there are as many as 20 million people here. Infuriating even a small fraction of its residents to the point that they take to the streets will produce the scenes that you saw on television. But remember this: following huge rallies against the AKP in Istanbul in 2007, the government only months later won more than 45 percent of the vote in the provinces. Then again, this time the protests have spread to the provinces themselves, and even to Konya, the heartland of the AKP base.

We'll find out for sure what this means in local and presidential elections next year, and parliamentary polls in 2015. As much coverage as the current unrest is getting, a great deal could happen by then, especially considering the volatility of the region that Turkey inhabits.

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