The Middle East is pregnant with surprises, and many incidents have taken place without warning, similar to how volcanoes and earthquakes erupt. A series of social and political explosions have shaken several Arab republics since 2011, to the confusion of political analysts, politicians, and regimes that had to change their attitudes several times.
The same thing has happened in Taksim Square: the small protests against the ripping up of trees and the Gezi park redevelopment, which is a normal thing in all large metropolitan cities, quickly escalated into massive protests, with Erdoğan’s government facing the biggest political crisis since taking office 10 years ago.
With Turkey playing an ever-increasing role the heart of the Middle East and the whole world, no one predicted this would happen. Had it been a member of the EU, Turkey would have seen a more developed economy with higher growth rates. In Western eyes, Turkey is a model of democracy in an Islamic country led by a party which has its roots in Islam. Hence, it serves as a role model for all of the Islamist movements that recently came to power in several Arab republics.
This is not the first time a country or a government that a country viewed positively from the outside has suffered from internal dissent. People in any country have different priorities, concerns and fears than international powers, which order their priorities depending on their regional and international interests.
What began as protests against the destruction of trees in a recreational park and a public square turned into a conflict among the political powers in Turkey over the identity of the country. Protestors fear that Erdoğan is imposing Ottoman values on the country, contrary to the aims of Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey. On the other hand, government loyalists consider the protests an attempt by the opposition and radical leftist parties to use a normal, beneficial development project to serve their political aspirations.
Such accusations might hold some truth; however, according to journalists covering the protests and witnesses to the protests, many protestors are neither politicians nor affiliated with any party. Rather, the protestors are people, young and old, from all walks of life who found in the protests an opportunity to voice their fears and objections to some policies.
Figures from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) are right to dismiss any comparison between what happened in Tunisia and Egypt’s Tahrir Square on the one hand, and the protests in Taksim Square on the other. They have a convincing case, if only because Turkey holds regular elections. But the occupation of Taksim Square and the protests taking place there have at least one thing in common with what has been happening in several squares in Egypt and Tunisia—including the participation of football fans in the protests.
No one can argue against the AKP’s landslide victory in the last elections; however, the elected majority cannot force its will on the entire society. This became obvious in Egypt and Tunisia. The solution is not in staging massive protests and counter-protests: this will bring about destruction, rather than progress.
Among the clearest lessons of the events of Taksim Square is that the tide of change in the region has not come to an end yet. The process of transformation resulting from the conflict between Islamist movements and their opponents, two of the most prominent movements in the region, will take years until a final stage—probably a moderate one—is reached.