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FRIEDMAN: The message from the streets of Turkey

  • Anti-government protesters gather in Istanbul's Abbasaga Park. (ED OU / The New York Times)

ISTANBUL

Having witnessed the Egyptian uprising in Tahrir Square in Cairo in 2011, I was eager to compare it with the protests by Turkish youths here in Taksim Square in 2013. They are very different. The Egyptians wanted to oust President Hosni Mubarak. Theirs was an act of “revolution.” The Turks are engaged in an act of “revulsion.” They aren't (yet) trying to throw out their democratically elected Islamist prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. What they're doing is calling him out. Their message is simple: “Get out of our faces, stop choking our democracy and stop acting like such a pompous, overbearing, modern-day Sultan.”

The Turks took to the streets, initially, to protect one of Istanbul's few green spaces, Gezi Park, from being bulldozed for an Erdogan project. They took to the streets because the prime minister — who has dominated Turkish politics for the past 11 years and still has strong support with the more religious half of Turkey — has stifled dissent. Erdogan has used tax laws and other means to intimidate the media and opponents into silence — CNN Turk, at first, refused to cover the protests, opting instead to air a show on penguins — and the formal parliamentary opposition is feckless. So in a move that has intriguing implications, Turkish youths used Twitter as their own news and communications network and Gezi Park and Taksim Square as their own parliament to become the real opposition.

In doing so they sent a message to Erdogan: In today's flat world, nobody gets to have one-way conversations anymore. Leaders are now in a two-way conversation with their citizens. Erdogan, who is surrounded by yes-men, got this lesson the hard way. On June 7, he declared that those who try to “lecture us” about the Taksim crackdown, “what did they do about the Wall Street incidents? Tear gas, the death of 17 people happened there. What was the reaction?” In an hour, the U.S. Embassy in Turkey issued a statement in English and Turkish via Twitter rebutting Erdogan: “No U.S. deaths resulted from police actions in #OWS,” a reference to Occupy Wall Street. No wonder Erdogan denounced Twitter as society's “worst menace.”

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