What began Friday as a small environmental rally protesting plans to tear down a six-square-block city park has ballooned into what by nearly all accounts is the largest and most-direct challenge to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s regime since he came to power more than a decade ago. On Monday, the demonstrations entered their fourth day, with thousands of people gathering in Istanbul’s landmark Taksim Square to protest what they contend is Erdoğan’s ever-increasing authoritarianism. Erdoğan, meanwhile, has attempted to dismiss the demonstrations as the work of a vocal anti-Islam minority who have continually worked to derail his efforts to boost the Middle Eastern nation’s financial fortunes.
For those unfamiliar with the Turkish backstory—which, let’s be honest here, is most of us—here’s your cheat sheet to help you get up to speed. You’ll find some links to more-detailed reading at the bottom, but in the meantime we’ll paint largely with broad strokes for the sake of simplicity to get you started.
Who’s doing the protesting?
It’s a rather large group—most estimates peg the total in the “tens of thousands”—so it’s a little difficult to lump them all under any headline more specific than “protesters.” But the majority of those who have taken to the streets largely appear to be urban, secular Turks who, in the words of the Associated Press, are “frustrated by what they see as Erdoğan’s close ties to development interests and his alleged attempts to force his religious outlook on them.”
The prime minister, meanwhile, has focused on the latter half of that description while largely ignoring the former. As Reuters reported, Erdoğan on Monday blamed the widespread demonstrations on his secularist enemies who he says are out of step with the mandate of his political party, which has its roots in the nation’s old Islamist parties that were banned in the past. “This is a protest organized by extremist elements,” he said at a news conference before departing on a trip to North Africa. “We will not give away anything to those who live arm-in-arm with terrorism.”
What are they protesting?
A relatively small group of protesters last week gathered at Istanbul’s Gezi Park—what Foreign Policy’s describes as “an underwhelming patch of green space close to Taksim Square”—to protest plans to raze the green space to make way for a shopping center. The protest started as a peaceful sit-in, but quickly exploded into much more after police launched a pre-dawn raid Friday that involved tear gas and water cannons. The large-scale demonstrations that followed appear to be as much in response to that violent crackdown on a peaceful display of dissent as they are about underlying tensions that have long simmered in the region but are only now beginning to boil over.
For Erdoğan’s critics, the reaction to the park protest was a perfect microcosim for what they see as Erdoğan’s overreaching, opposition-quashing government. As the New York Times explains, the small fight over urban spaces—the park in question is the last green space in downtown Istanbul—is part of a larger one over Turkish identity. “The swiftly changing physical landscape of Istanbul symbolizes the competing themes that undergird modern Turkey—Islam versus secularism, rural versus urban,” the paper writes. “They highlight a booming economy and a self-confidence expressed by the religiously conservative ruling elite that belies the post-empire gloom that permeates the novels of Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate and most famous writer.”
So, is Erdoğan a dictator?
That’s a hard case to make. Turkey has a relatively stable democracy and Erdoğan has enjoyed the support of an almost-majority of voters in recent years. Erdoğan won his last two elections with 47 percent and 49.95 percent of the popular vote, the only two times in nearly two decades that any party had earned more than 45 percent of the vote in a parliamentary election. Based on those vote totals, Erdoğan’s backers say he has the closet thing to a political mandate that anyone has seen in Turkey in decades.
His time in office, however, has been marked by widespread changes that have alienated some of the nation’s old powers who thrived in a more secular Turkey. Perhaps most notably, Erdoğan has placed the military under civilian control, and broken down old rules to allow for wider public expression of religion, something that had been barred under previous secular governments. Those on the left, meanwhile, are largely more tolerant of Islam’s increasing influence in the country, but instead take issue with Erdoğan’s forceful leadership style that allows little room for opposing views.
Whose side is the United States on?
Somewhere in the middle but, at the moment at least, leaning toward the side of the status quo. At a White House briefing on Monday, Jay Carney voiced concern about the reports of a violent crackdown on the protests but said that the United States would continue to work with the Turkish government. “Turkey is a very important ally,” Carney said. “All democracies have issues that they need to work through. And we would expect the government to work through this in a way that respects the rights of their citizens.” Making things that much more uncomfortable for the White House is the fact that Turkey represents not only a relatively stable ally in an unstable region, but one that Obama trumpeted as a “model ally” in recent years, a view that was relatively widespread. That perception, however, is now up for debate as Erdoğan’s forces fire tear gas and water cannons at its own people.
What happens next?
While the Arab Spring may have conditioned many in the West to assume that wide-scale protest in the Middle East will lead directly to regime change, that appears to be a long shot in Turkey. As the AP explains: “Erdoğan is unlikely to fall.” Still, the massive protests have the potential to serve as a turning point for Turkey in general and Erdoğan’s moderate Islamist government in specific. The prime minister, long one of the more powerful men in the region, is set to leave office next year thanks to the current term limit. But it’s no secret that he doesn’t plan to ease into retirement. Most observers expect him to shift his attention to challenge current Turkish President Abdullah Gul, who has been much more sympathetic to the protesters.
- Foreign Policy: How Democratic Is Turkey?
- The Atlantic (from April 2013): Sultan Erdogan: Turkey’s Rebranding Into the New, Old Ottoman Empire
- The New Yorker (from March 2012): The Deep State: The Prime Minister is revered as a moderate, but how far will he go to stay in power?
- Slate: Why Isn’t Tear Gas Illegal?