In the past week thousands of people have mobilized across Turkey, protesting Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s efforts to consolidate power and impose his agenda. Erdogan’s heavy-handed response — he sent riot police in to disperse the largely peaceful protesters in Istanbul — led to widespread condemnation, and even bigger protests.
The facile interpretation of what’s happening in Turkey is that it’s the next stage of the Arab Spring, when the rage of a region spreads even to its most stable, democratic outlier. But that’s not the case here. There are real differences between what’s happening in Turkey and what happened in the Arab Spring — and they’re a testament to how successful Turkey has been as a nation, and how successful it will continue to be.
Arab Spring protests in a country like Egypt were an outcry against the political system as a whole. In Turkey, the anger is directed at one man, whose ouster would not topple the political system more broadly — and Erdogan still holds the key to mitigating the conflict if he can take a more conciliatory stance (though for him, that might be easier said than done.)
The Arab Spring was set into motion by poor, disenfranchised citizens who couldn’t find a job, and couldn’t foresee a time when they would. Self-immolation seemed a better bet than anything else.
In Turkey, we’re seeing a very different group of protesters. The conflict was started by the residents of a cosmopolitan city protesting the kind of issue that the cosmopolitan care about most — whether a park should be sacrificed for a shopping mall. Just look to the signature image of the protest, a woman being sprayed with tear gas despite looking like she’s dressed to stroll a boulevard.