The world’s eyes are on Turkey this week. While we see images of tear gas drenched streets, armoured policemen, headscarfed protestors, charred vehicles, banners and flags and a humiliated president, the world thinks “Arab Spring”. Such are the parallels that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was forced to announce this morning that the protests that stopped Turkey over the weekend were “not Turkish Spring”.
But comparing protest with protest is not really very helpful. Turkey’s Taksim Square, where protesters gathered last week, is not Tahrir in Egypt and neither is it Deraa in Syria (where the Syrian uprising began), Syntagma in Athens nor Wall Street, where Occupy emerged. These comparisons can be dismantled by their causes – Turkey is not a dictatorship, children were not imprisoned for anti-government graffiti, the country is not going bankrupt and nor is it symbolic of greed and capitalism.
Actually, it appears that one uniting current of all these protests is absent from Turkey’s – employment. Turkey’s protests are strange enough when you think that they arose out of an opposition to the development of Taksim Square into a shopping mall. But throw in a few stats about the Turkish economy and they seem even more incomprehensible: Since Erdoğan was elected ten years ago in 2003, per capita income and GDP have both at least doubled. Infrastructure, schools and healthcare have weaved their way out of Istanbul and Ankara and wealth has risen too – the number of millionaires in Turkey has risen by 7.4 per cent since 2007 and Istanbul is the world’s seventh most popular city for billionaires according to WealthInsight. All this has been achieved despite problematic neighbours in Syria, Greece, Iraq, Georgia and Iran.
You would think Erdoğan’s achievements deserve national applaud, but people abhor him instead. Progress, it seems, is not progress in everyone’s eyes and Istanbul’s controversial shopping centre is not the only symbol of this. Plans for a new airport, a new bridge spanning the Bosporus and an immense hilltop mosque to shadow Istanbul’s ancient minarets are other projects of hullabaloo. This is not to mention anger about new alcohol restrictions and associated Islamic laws.
So, although Turkey’s protests appear similar to the Arab Spring in image (nearly all modern protests seem visually unanimous), it appears to be oppositely motivated. Rather than protest against the incompetence of their leader, many in Turkey’s cities today are calling for an end to over competence. As David Gardener writes in today’s FT, “Mr Erdogan’s critics insistently accuse him of aspiring to become a neo-Ottoman sultan, but Pharaoh would be just as near the mark”.