Anti-government protesters bang on kitchen utensils during a demonstration… (Adem Altan / AFP / Getty Images )
How to interpret the recent unrest on the streets of Istanbul and about 50 other Turkish cities? Specifically, is it comparable to the Arab uprisings over the last 2 1/2 years in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain?
On one level, they appear unrelated, for Turkey is a far more advanced country, with a democratic culture and a modern economy. But two connections — autocracy and Syria — do tie them together, suggesting that the Turkish demonstrations could have a potentially deep importance.
The rebellion did not come out of nowhere. I was in Istanbul last fall, and it was clear then that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's dictatorial tendencies worried Turks more than his Islamic aspirations. I heard unceasing criticisms about his being "intoxicated with power," an "informal caliph" and "Turkey's elected chief social engineer."
Turks enumerated to me a lengthy list of authoritarian symptoms they suffered from the decade-long rule by Erdogan's Justice and Development Party, or AKP: suppression of political criticism, crony capitalism, manipulation of the judiciary, unjust imprisonment, show trials and a disregard for the separation of powers. In particular, they evinced annoyance at the way Erdogan seeks to impose his personal tastes on the country.
The demonstrations since Friday are protesting these actions and more. What began as a localized dispute over the uprooting of a small park at Taksim Square in the heart of modern Istanbul has rapidly grown into a national statement of defiance.
Erdogan is no Moammar Kadafi or Bashar Assad, and he will not massacre peaceful demonstrators, but heavy-handed police operations have reportedly led to 1,000 injured and, according to Amnesty International, two deaths. Further, the prime minister has reacted defiantly, not just insisting on his original plan for the park but announcing he can do whatever he pleases.
As paraphrased by Hurriyet Daily News: "A mosque will be built in Taksim, Erdogan said. He added that he did not have to take permission from the main opposition leader or a 'few marauders' for the projects, noting that the authority had already been given by people who voted for the AKP."
Erdogan is saying, in other words, that having voted the AKP into office, Turks have given him authority to do anything he wants. He is the elected, unaccountable padishah. Well, the demonstrators and those hitherto eager foreign investors will have something to say about that, perhaps putting the country's China-like economic growth at risk.
Significantly, Abdullah Gul, the president of Turkey and increasingly Erdogan's rival, adopted a very different approach to the protests. "Democracy does not only mean elections," he said. "The messages delivered with good intentions have been received." By distancing himself from the prime minister, Gul exacerbated Erdogan's isolation.
As for Syria, after a charmed near-decade in power, Erdogan made his first major miscalculation by intensely involving Turkey in the Syrian civil war. He acted with pique when Assad, the Syrian despot and a onetime buddy, ignored his (sound) advice to make reforms. Not one to take well to being rebuffed, Erdogan responded emotionally and thrust his country into the civil war, hosting the rebels, provisioning and arming them and trying to guide them.
The results have been close to disastrous from Turkey's viewpoint. The country has experienced new hostilities with Moscow, Tehran and Baghdad, lost both overland trade routes to the Persian Gulf and trade with Syria, suffered terrorism on Turkish soil (in Reyhanli) and — perhaps most ominous — witnessed tensions surge between its stridently Sunni government and heterodox Muslim populations.
Thanks to the Syrian imbroglio, Turkey has lost its enviable position of strength and popularity — its "zero problems with neighbors" policy that brought with it real accomplishments — in favor of being surrounded by foes. If President Obama once bragged of his "close working relationship" with Erdogan, last month's White House meeting between the two showed neither the personal chemistry nor the practical results vis-a-vis Syria that Erdogan had sought.
In short, it appears that a decade of electoral calm, political stability and plentiful foreign investment has come to a halt and a new, more difficult era has begun for the AKP government. The moribund opposition parties may find their voice. The antiwar faction may feel emboldened. The secularists may be able to tap the wide unhappiness with the regime's efforts to corral citizens into becoming more (Islamically) virtuous.