The Revolt of the Global Middle Class

Here's what protests in Turkey and Brazil have in common.
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Brazilians hold a demonstration with a banner that reads, "Villainous politician. Lower your salary," in Sao Paulo on June 22, 2013. (Reuters)

Alper, a 26-year-old Turkish corporate lawyer, has benefited enormously from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's rule. He is one of millions of young Turks who rode the country's economic boom to a lifestyle his grandparents could scarcely imagine.

Yet he loathes Erdogan, participated in the Taksim Square demonstrations and is taking part in the new " standing man" protests in Istanbul.

"The prime minister is continuing to blatantly lie about the demonstrations," said Alper, who asked that his last name not be used because he feared arrest. "People are actually scared that if they stop this momentum, then the government will feel free to exercise more force."

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From Turkey to Brazil to Iran the global middle class is awakening politically. The size, focus and scope of protests vary, but this is not unfolding chaos -- it is nascent democracy. Citizens are demanding basic political rights, accountable governments and a fairer share of resources.

The movements may lose their way. The demonstrations will have a limited long-term impact if they fail to become organized political movements. And the violence and criminality that erupted during some protests in Brazil have prompted a popular backlash.

Overall, though, Americans jaded about world affairs should see the activism as positive. The protesters are performing the same role as middle classes have in developed nations. As their standard of living rises, so do their expectations of government.

The political dynamic in each country is different, of course. In Turkey, the protests are not the equivalent of the Arab Spring demonstrations that toppled governments across the Middle East. Nor are they simply a pitched battle between religious conservatives and secular liberals. Instead, they are deeply Turkish -- and hugely important.

After decades of the Turkish state reigning supreme, young Turks are demanding pluralism and basic individual rights. The Turkish state should be accountable to the people, they argue, instead of the people being accountable to the state.

"Basic freedoms such as the right to peaceful assembly are undermined by police and government," Alper said in an email. "There have been no significant repercussions for police officers and their superiors."

For years, Soli Ozel, a professor of International Relations and Political Science at Istanbul Bilgi University, scoffed at Westerners who viewed Turkey as a model for the Middle East. The new protests, however, make him feel the label may apply.

"After this unprecedented mobilization," he said in a telephone interview, "we now have a very vibrant and very much alive civil society."

Brazil presents a different dynamic.The ruling Workers' Party is left-leaning and its economic reforms have helped the poor and middle class. But now a souring economy, corruption scandals and $12 billion in government spending on 2014 World Cup stadiums has sparked one million people to take to the streets.

Presented by

David Rohde is an investigative reporter for Reuters and a contributing editor for The Atlantic. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, he is a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. His latest book, Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East, was published in 2013. More

He is also the author of Endgame and, with Kristen Mulvihill, A Rope and a Prayer. He lives in New York City.

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