Tens of thousands of Turks have joined anti-government protests expressing discontent with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s 10-year rule.
Joshua Landis, the Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, says the protests started over green space in the middle of Istanbul’s Taksim Square. Developers, with the backing of Erdoğan, want to build a large shopping mall.
“Very quickly political parties and the opposition parties joined in,” Landis says. “But much more than that, lots of middle-class people and particularly young students began to crowd into the squares.”
Erdoğan has been in power since 2003, and there’s growing concern that he’s pushing back against Turkey’s decades-long secular tradition, and moving toward more authoritarian leadership.
“He has begun to act as an Ottoman sultan, rather high-handed, and people are worried,” Landis says. “Almost everybody we've spoken to [in Turkey] has said, ‘This is an important marker. The people need to push back and we need to confirm that this is a democratic system.’”
Landis says many Turks also are concerned that Erdoğan is jeopardizing Turkey’s security by taking a strong stand against the Assad regime in neighboring Syria. But many Turks describe the Erdoğan government as “authoritarian neoliberals” whose first priority is capitalism and making money.
“There's not one leader, and I think many middle class people are beginning to get tired of it,” Landis says. “The merchants don't like it. It's beginning to scare away tourists. This country is all about development and moving forward. They don't want too much disruption.”
Landis calls the protests a “hiccup” on the road to greater democracy, and says the grievances of Turks in the streets have little to do with the 2011 Arab Spring.
“He's been very smart, sort of like the Clinton or Reagan revolutions in America," Landis says. "He reached out, and he's brought in a big middle class, and undoing that and attacking him is going to be very difficult for the opposition which is fragmented."
Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul has taken a more conciliatory line, celebrating protests as a democratic right.
“Erdoğan has been the bad cop saying ‘We're going to crush this, and I could bring out tons more people than these demonstrators represent,’” Landis says. “And you've had the president who's taken a soft side. ‘We hear you, we're going to make changes.’ So this seems to be a vibrant democracy that's all about capitalism and growing, and they do not want political violence."