What is it about public squares – especially those that start with “T” – that draws people to protest against authoritarian rulers? China’s big protests in 1989 were in Tiananmen Square. Egypt had its 2011 protests in Tahrir Square. Now Turkey has seen four days of protests in Istanbul’s Taksim Square.
The Turkish protests, however, are quite different. They challenged a fairly elected government led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. And the spark was only a small sit-down against a planned destruction of a park. Yet that led to an explosion of peaceful demonstrations nationwide, fueled in large part by popular resentment against Mr. Erdogan’s crackdown on dissent since his party was reelected two years ago.
Dozens of journalists have been jailed under Erdogan, often without being charged. Civil society groups have been harassed. Human rights lawyers have been arrested or imprisoned. And the prime minister, who heads the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party, also appears to be maneuvering to alter the Constitution to keep him in power, perhaps until 2024.
Taksim Square became one of the few safe spaces to make a mass cry for freedom.
Turkey’s drift toward autocracy has been so worrisome that the protests didn’t require a leader. Twitter was the main organizing tool. This led Erdogan to criticize the social media as a “curse” – even though he tweets daily to more than 2.5 million followers.
Protesters also were quite fearless in the face of police brutality, revealing the depth of their resolve to fix a backsliding democracy. As is often the case, elected leaders like Erdogan mistakenly presume elections are sufficient for them to rule without shared governance. They don’t consult opponents, honor all minority rights, build a consensus, or operate in a transparent way.
Yet majority rule needs the checks and balances of a free press, independent judiciary, unfettered grass-roots activism, and other correcting mechanisms. Under representative democracy and a rights-ensuring constitution, sovereignty lies with the individual, not the state. Safeguards are needed to rein in the power of the state.
Turkey has found its democratic footing only in the past two decades after years of military meddling and coups. These protests reflect a real concern over the loss of outlets for dissent. They weren’t really directed at criticizing Erdogan’s best achievements – returning the military to the barracks, creating a healthy economy, and trying to end Kurdish militancy. Rather, they should be seen as demanding a corrective. After all, half of Turkish voters did not support his party.
The protests were also a pushback against Erdogan’s attempt to impose the religious practices of fundamentalist Muslims on the entire society. As well-meaning as Islamic-based restrictions may be, they are offensive to secular Turks and represent an arrogance of religious absolutism in a society that values tolerance, respect, and liberty as cornerstones for democracy.
The secular-Islam divide in mostly Muslim Turkey, however, is less important than the debate over keeping proper restraint and prudence in elected government. Many of the protesters were young people who, like their counterparts in the Arab Spring, have the courage and idealism to insist on being heard.
“Democracy doesn’t only mean elections,” stated President Abdullah Gul in a televised address that helped to distance himself from the prime minister. “If there are differing views, events, objections outside of elections, there is nothing more natural than those to be expressed in various ways. Naturally, peaceful demonstrations are a part of that.” He might have added that public squares are natural places to have dissent heard.