Is Turkey experiencing its own Arab Spring?

Violent protests have raged in Istanbul for four days in a row

Turkey has been wracked by violent protests for four days, in what has quickly become the most significant public challenge to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's 10-year rule.

The scenes on the streets of Istanbul and elsewhere — featuring rock-throwing protesters pitted against riot police armed with tear gas — bear a striking resemblance to the Arab Spring riots that have toppled regimes across the Middle East.

Erdogan, for his part, has adamantly rejected comparisons between the Turkish protests and the Arab Spring movement. "We already have a spring in Turkey," said Erdogan, referring to the fact that Turkey boasts one of the most successful democracies in the Muslim world. "But there are those who want to turn this spring into winter."

Indeed, many commentators say it would be foolish to stick Turkey under the same umbrella as Egypt, Syria, Libya, and Yemen.

However, the Turkish protests do appear to reflect wide dissatisfaction with Erdogan's rule, with liberals claiming that the unapologetically Islamist leader has become increasingly authoritarian and strayed from Turkey's secular identity. What started off as a minor act of disobedience over plans to turn Istanbul's tiny Gezi Park into a shopping mall has exploded into a larger conflict that reflects tensions between Turkey's cosmopolitan elite and conservative population — the backbone of Erdogan's political support.

Islamic conservatives helped Erdogan win election three times, the second with 47 percent of the vote. As Foreign Policy's Steven A. Cook and Michael Koplow point out, no candidate has garnered more than 45 percent of the vote since 1983, when democratic rule was restored after years of military rule.

Another reason for Erdogan's popularity at the polls has been Turkey's economic boom, resulting in the country becoming the 17th biggest economy in the world. However, Erdogan's critics complain that only developers and well-connected businessmen are benefiting from Turkey's economic good fortune.

Turkey was also rated the world's worst jailer of journalists in 2012 by the Committee to Protect Journalists. And secularists have pointed to new conservative laws, including one passed last week to limit the sale of alcohol, as evidence that Erdogan is pushing to make Turkey a more Islamist state.

Still, the protests are "far from a death knell," writes TIME's Piotr Zalewski. But they might prevent Erdogan from executing a power grab. He can't run for another term as prime minister, but is believed to be running for president in the next election — a largely ceremonial position he is planning to bolster with additional powers with changes to the constitution.

"The ongoing protests, more than anything that’s preceded them — including the efforts of a largely impotent political opposition — threaten to derail such plans for good," writes Zalewski.

The political turmoil could also threaten Erdogan's standing in the foreign community. Turkey has become a magnet for significant foreign investment, as well as a major vacation destination for European tourists. Already, the protests have caused the Turkish stock market to tumble by 10.5 percent.

Hopefully all of these factors will cause Erdogan to reconsider the trajectory his government has taken, writes The Economist's Charlemagne columnist:

Mr Erdogan has grown overconfident, alienating his liberal supporters, and seems increasingly out of touch. The protests are a wake-up call and there are hopeful signs that Mr Erdogan is paying heed. On the second day of the protests he ordered the police to pull out of Taksim Square, admitted that police had overdone it with tear gas and allowed tens of thousands of demonstrators to gather peacefully.

Above all, the protests suggest that Turkey’s democracy is maturing and that civil society has taken root. The protesters are determined not to allow their movement to be hijacked by mischief-makers. Pro-secularists seem to have cast off their dependency on the army. A sense of solidarity and confidence prevails. Mr Erdogan may well be wondering whether he is the victim of his own success. [The Economist]

In the end, "Turkey is not on the brink of a revolution," writes Al-Monitor's Tulin Daloglu. "As Erdogan himself acknowledged, his fate will be decided at the ballot box, not in the streets."


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