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Occupy Istanbul? Turkish Spring? The Turkish protest name game

It’s hard to believe it all started over a park. With tens of thousands of Turkish citizens laying claim to the streets of Istanbul and several other major cities, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan faces the most serious challenge of his 10-year rule — and all of a sudden there is talk of a "Turkish ...

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

It’s hard to believe it all started over a park.

With tens of thousands of Turkish citizens laying claim to the streets of Istanbul and several other major cities, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan faces the most serious challenge of his 10-year rule — and all of a sudden there is talk of a "Turkish Spring" in the air.

Wait, a "Turkish Spring"? Really?

Welcome to the Turkish protest name game.

The comparison to the Arab Spring is itself tendentious — Erdogan is no dictator, and Turkey isn’t an Arab country — but the images of thousands of Turks in the streets of Istanbul hurling rocks at police, setting fire to cars, and chanting anti-Erdogan slogans recall similar scenes in Tahrir Square back in 2011. Outraged at Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies, crony capitalism, and moderate Islamism, members of the urban middle class have taken to the streets to protest a government and a leader they feel has betrayed the legacy of the country’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

These factors have been sufficient for some commentators to rush headlong into comparing Turkey’s protests to the recent uprisings in the Arab world. As Richard Seymour wrote in the Guardian:

Thus strengthened, the government is on the offensive. It has never needed the left or the labour movement, which it has repressed. It no longer needs the liberals, as its attacks on women’s reproductive rights, and its imposition of alcohol-free zones, show.

This is the context in which a struggle over a small park in a congested city centre has become an emergency for the regime, and the basis for a potential Turkish spring.

Given the wide variety of protesters in the streets — anarchists and communists have been spotted alongside nationalists and Kurds — no coherent political agenda has emerged from the protests (though the fact that they are demonstrating together under the same banner is itself remarkable). But amid that confusion, efforts to brand the revolution have continued apace.

 

Francois Heisbourg, the chairman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, took to Twitter to compare the protests in Turkey to unrest in Paris in 1968:

 

Supporters of Erdogan, however, can embrace an entirely different idea: that the prime minister is currently leading the country through a Turkish Spring. It’s an argument Erdogan himself has made. "Those in the foreign media who talk about a ‘Turkish Spring’, we are already going through a ‘Turkish Spring’, we have been living in it," he recently told reporters. "Those who want to turn it into winter will not succeed."

But with protesters arguing that they are "occupying" Gezi Park, the unrest in Istanbul has also been interpreted as the return of the Occupy movement:

Beyond the recent bloom of large banners all over the park – each one a different version of invective against Erdogan – the movement is showing its lasting quality with infrastructure. Over the last day, a fully operational kitchen and first-aid clinic have been set up, both of which were carved out of an abandoned concession stand in the back of the park. I was instantly reminded of some of the same support systems I found in New York City’s Zuccotti Park in the fall of 2011 during Occupy Wall Street.

The crossroads of empires, Turkey has always baffled analysts trying to place it in the context of European, Asian, and Middle Eastern affairs — a neither-here-nor-there quality that lies at the heart of the confusion over just how to classify the most recent unrest in the country. The May 1968 comparison misses the fact that the protests are largely a secular response to a non-secular government; the Arab Spring label conjures up a dictatorial enemy that does not exist; and the "Occupy" brand conveys an anti-capitalist ethos that only captures one element of the protests.

That’s what makes Turkey so interesting — that because of its unique position on the map it will always be an entity unto itself. Giving the protests their own name would solve the problem entirely.

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace. @EliasGroll

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