While the images of smoke and the grievances of protesters appear to be similar, the demonstrations in Istanbul this week have not turned into a re-run of the Arab Spring. Istanbul's Taksim Square is mostly empty on Wednesday as riot police spent the night scattering protesters with tear gas and water cannons. The protesters never got the chance to turn the area into a revolutionary city the way Egyptians did in Cairo's Tahrir Square in 2011. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan won't be stepping into exile like Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali or Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh. And there won't be a violent overthrow of the government like in Libya (or currently being attempted in Syria.) And it's not just because Turks aren't Arabs.
There are plenty of other reasons why Turkey is not like those other countries — size, location, demographics — but the biggest reason of all is that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is first and foremost a politician. He may run his country like a authoritarian, but that's only because the politics of his country have thus far allowed him to.
Erdogan has been elected three times by legitimate nationwide elections, each time with a bigger vote total than the last, and part of the reason for his success is a divided parliamentary system that gives his party a slim, but powerful majority. As Jenna Krajeski explains at The New Republic, there's no need to be conciliatory and reformist in the face of growing protests, because a divided nation works in his favor. Turkey is big enough to hold a large vocal contingent of protestors and a even larger segment of society that just wants calm and order. Speaking of himself in the third person, Erdogan says, "The prime minister is firm. I'm sorry. This prime minister is not going to change," because from an electoral standpoint, he won't have to.
At the same, because he is still a politician, Erdogan's crackdown on the protesters has been harsh, but not overtly brutal. Tear gas, water cannons, and the occasional baton charge have injured thousands of demonstrators, but most of the injuries have been minor and there have only been three deaths (compared to hundreds in Egypt and elsewhere). There are no thugs on horseback walloping protesters, no gunshots, no women being stripped and beaten in the Square for the CNN cameras to capture. And because of accusations (on both sides) that many of the demonstrators are simply agitators hijacking peaceful protests (or trying to discredit them), there's been less sympathy than you might otherwise expect for those getting pummeled by water jets.
To be sure, there has been a heavy hand and some abuse in Turkey, but the most shocking image (a woman being pepper-sprayed in the face) is no more harsh than what Americans saw at the height of the Occupy Wall Street movement. That isn't meant to dismiss the violence, but the police have shown just enough restraint to avoid the appearance of another Hosni Mubarak, and certainly nowhere near the crimes of his rival to the south, Bashar al-Assad. Erdogan will be just harsh as the situation allows him to be.
The protesters will almost certainly be back, and perhaps the volatile Prime Minister might eventually go too far. But real change in Turkey is going to have to come from the polls, and task of the demonstrators now is not to change Erdogan's mind — it's to change the minds of the voters.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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