Perhaps Turkey did not serve as a model for the Arab Spring. Perhaps the rise of the AKP in 2002 was not the watershed moment that marked the beginnings of a Post-Kemalist era.
The anti-government protests in Ankara and Istanbul suggest that like Tahrir Square, most people didn’t see this coming. In 2011, when the Arab Spring went into full bloom and protests against regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon began, some claimed the source of inspiration for this wave of political Islam was the so-called “Turkish Model.”
Since 2002 the conservative AKP (Justice and Development Party) and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had achieved successive parliamentary majorities, enjoyed unprecedented economic growth, and balanced relationships with European and Middle Eastern states while simultaneously advocating for a greater acceptance of Islam in the public and political realm.
There was much to admire with how gracefully a country scarred by military coups and deep political divisions was able to transition from Kemalism to seemingly something different.
Yet this weekend’s events in Taksim Square, the cultural heart of Istanbul, suggest a different narrative. Perhaps Turkey did not serve as a model for the Arab Spring. Perhaps the rise of the AKP in 2002 was not the watershed moment that marked the beginnings of a Post-Kemalist era. The only lesson we can seemingly come away with is, like Tahrir Square, most people didn’t see this coming.
Istanbul is an exception to many of the realities in Turkey today
It is cosmopolitan; enjoys an almost liberal (as opposed to secular) atmosphere; and the mega-city operates in its own bubble, much like New York or Los Angeles.
There are other pockets of staunch secularism bordering on liberalism along the Aegean coast – typically regions that do not vote unanimously for the AKP – but are not exclusively representative of Turkey’s 70+ million citizens.
Despite being an Istanbul native – Erdoğan was born the poor neighborhood of Kasımpaşa – his policies over the past decade have driven a wedge between him and many of the city’s residents. Stricter alcohol laws, endless construction projects with no regard for the surroundings, and the arrest of countless journalists gradually wore down arguably the only city in the country that cannot be slighted.
Istanbul, though not the political capital, is the cultural and commercial capital of Turkey. It is the historic capital of the Ottoman Empire, whose legacy has been reexamined and extolled during the years of AKP governance. Try as Erdoğan may, it will be impossible for him to dismiss the thousands in his hometown chanting for his resignation, calling him a “sultan.” His personality, wrought by the city itself, will not allow it. The question is what model will he employ in the smoky aftermath?
Gabriel Mitchell is an Israel Research Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem, Israel. He holds an MA in Political Science from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and can be followed on Twitter at: @GabiMitch.