The Turkish protests against the development of Gezi Park near Taksim Square are somewhat reminiscent of the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York City’s Zuccotti Park in 2011. Leftists, anarchists, environmentalists and secularists are successfully staring down security to reclaim the park as their own.
Those who presume the protests will fade away need to understand why they began. There is rapid urban development now occurring throughout the Middle East with little and often no public consultation or participation. The Turks have had enough.
There are undoubtedly many citizens who celebrate these developments as signs of progress, but too many others are starting to question such rapid modernization and the autocratic-lite style of the Turkish government’s decision-making process.
Erdogan commended many of the Arab Spring uprisings that have challenged autocratic rule, so it must come as somewhat of a surprise to him that his own people harbor similar frustrations. Turkey’s poster-boy image of what a successful democracy can be in the Middle East is suddenly being challenged.
It’s too bad, because the Erdogan government is still very much a democratic and legitimate one, and analogies to Arab dictatorships are unjustified. Nevertheless, the uprisings in Taksim ought to remind us that successful, sustainable economic development depends on an open decision-making process. No leader can count on the loyalty of his citizens just because he is the nicest autocrat in the region.
Erdogan’s statements thus far suggest that he understands this, so I think that the international community should give him a chance to address the protestors’ grievances. Turkey’s government deserves the opportunity to truly embody the spirit of compromise it seeks to stand for. Other international leaders would want the same space to respond if (or rather when) their citizens next take to the parks.