In the upscale Istanbul suburb of Bebek, at 9 p.m. sharp, the diners began drumming on the tables or tapping their wineglasses with forks. The traffic passing along the Bosporus chimed in with honking horns and flashing headlights. It was a genteel symphony of solidarity with the protesters who a few days earlier were confronting fire hoses and tear gas in the heart of the city and elsewhere around Turkey.
Those street battles that caught our attention this summer have mostly been policed into submission, and the world’s cameras have moved on, but the afterlife is interesting.
What is happening in Turkey is not “Les Miserables,” or the Arab Spring. It is not an uprising born in desperation. It is the latest in a series of revolts arising from the middle class — the urban, educated haves who are in some ways the principal beneficiaries of the regimes they now reject.
We saw early versions of it in China in 1989, Venezuela in 2002. We saw it in Iran in 2009, when the cosmopolitan crowds thronged in protest against theocratic hard-liners. We saw it in Russia in 2011, when legions of 30-somethings spilled out of their office cubicles, chanting their scorn for the highhanded rule of Vladimir Putin. While Turkey was still percolating, the discontent bubbled up in Brazil, where yet another ruling party seems to be a victim of its own success.
The vanguard in each case is mostly young, students or relative newcomers to the white-collar work force who have outgrown the fearful conformity of their parents’ generation. With their economic wants more or less satisfied, they now crave a voice, and respect. In this social-media century, they are mobilized largely by Facebook and Twitter, networks of tweeps circumventing an intimidated mainstream press.
The igniting grievances vary. Here in Istanbul it was a plan to build a mosque and other developments on a patch of the city’s diminishing green space. In Brazil it was bus fares. By the time the protests hit critical mass, they are about something bigger and more inchoate: dignity, the perquisites of citizenship, the obligations of power.
Because these protesters are by definition people with something to lose — and because the autocrats know it — the uprisings are eventually beaten into submission, at least for the short term. The authorities kid themselves that they have solved the problem. It reminds me of that old pirate joke: the floggings will continue until morale improves.
But morale does not improve. There is a new alienation, a new yearning, and eventually this energy will find an outlet. In some way, different in each country, the social contract will be adjusted.
The protesters in these middle-class revolts tend to be political orphans, leaderless, party-less, not particularly ideological. To reach a new equilibrium, either the rising class must get organized, or the ruling class must get the message, or, ideally, both.
In China and Iran and Russia, where the regimes are more established in their ruthlessness, the discontented may have a longer wait. But watch Turkey. How Turkey, as a partner in NATO and a bridge to the tumultuous Islamic world, finds its new balance has both practical and symbolic significance for the rest of the world.
The United States has long embraced Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the model of a modern Muslim reformer. The Turkish prime minister, during his decade in power, has tamed the army of its coup habit, raised the standard of living dramatically, offered an olive branch to the separatist-minded Kurds and demonstrated — alone in the region — that Islam is compatible with both free elections and broad prosperity. When civil war sundered neighboring Syria, Erdogan (braving the disapproval of an electorate that tends to be more isolationist) condemned the brutalities of President Bashar al-Assad and hosted camps for hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama have doted on Erdogan. The Islamist prime minister proudly sent three of his four children to universities in the U.S.
By fostering economic growth, by keeping the army in its barracks — and by not messing too much with secular lifestyles — Erdogan has won some grudging support from the worldly elite that originally viewed him and his more pious Islamic following as a lurch back to the Ottoman Empire.
Those days of urban skirmishing, which began at the end of May with a pointless and heavy-handed police crackdown on a sit-in at the disputed park, have opened many eyes to Erdogan’s intemperate and intolerant side — his tone-deafness, his tendency to regard any criticism as a grave insult, his conspiracy theories.
The surprise is that Erdogan’s darker instincts came as a surprise to anyone. Human rights organizations have long lamented the fact that Turkey, while it has a lively press, also has more journalists in jail than any other country on earth. If you troll through the American diplomatic cables divulged in the great WikiLeaks flood, you find abundant talk of how Erdogan has sometimes used police and courts as instruments of political control. But he was a friend in an unfriendly region. The American attitude was, to paraphrase a line F.D.R. supposedly said of another troubling ally: he may be a thug, but he’s our thug. And by regional standards, he wasn’t even that much of a thug.
With the important exception of police brutality, Erdogan’s latest affronts have been matters of speech and style rather than action. He has talked of outlawing abortion (as have some prominent American politicians), but he hasn’t tried to do it. He has described Twitter as “the worst menace to society” and suggested clamping down on social media, but he seems unlikely to have much success there even if he tries. He has conjured a dark conspiracy of secular subversives, bankers and Western media, but that is vintage Erdogan, and vintage Turkey — a country of intrigues that exemplifies the old line: even paranoids have enemies.
So the fact that the rising class has chosen this moment to run out of patience seems to be Erdogan’s bad luck. It may also be Turkey’s good fortune.
One possible outcome is that those unhappy with Erdogan will find an avenue into politics, and give Erdogan the challenge he deserves. The Turkish system (like the American, only more so) favors incumbency and makes it hard to form viable new parties, even if Erdogan’s foes could agree on what they are for. The most visible potential moderate rival to Erdogan, Abdullah Gul, who occupies the relatively powerless presidency, has shown little willingness to take on the prime minister.
But as Sinan Ulgen, the head of an Istanbul think tank, points out, Erdogan is more vulnerable than the autocrats of Iran or Russia, who have oil revenues to float them through a crisis. Turkey’s prosperity — and in large measure Erdogan’s popularity — depends on foreign investment and flocks of tourists. The crackdown on protesters dented Erdogan’s approval ratings; more threatening to his tenure, it spooked investors, emptied hotels and sent the Turkish stock market into a tailspin. “Yes, the protesters have something to lose,” Ulgen told me. “But so does Erdogan.”
In about a year his third term as prime minister is up, and the rules don’t allow for a fourth. He has been exploring options to prolong his time in power, but they require popular support, and Erdogan’s hovers precariously around 50 percent. So whether or not he has the ability to temper his intemperance, he has the incentive. A parliamentarian who is a moderate supporter of Erdogan and was with him during the protests insists, “He got the message.” We’ll see.
For the long-term stability of Turkey, it would be good to have a robust political opposition advocating a pluralism that protects both the devout and the secular. In the meantime, it may be up to Erdogan to save Turkey from himself.
"The New York Times," July 1, 2013