Another year, another country, another square: After Wenceslas in Prague, Independence in Kiev, Azadi in Tehran, Red in Moscow and Tahrir in Cairo, there’s now Taksim in Istanbul.
Each square reaches the world through totemic photographic images. Here, it is that young woman in a red dress – Ceyda Sungur, a young academic at Istanbul’s technical university – being sprayed with tear gas at close quarters by a riot policeman. A young, modern, urban, probably secular young woman faces the armed, helmeted, faceless man. He represents the forces of reaction, authoritarianism and domination, whether in the service of the ayatollahs, Vladimir Putin or this would-be sultan, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
We see this iconography of peaceful protest, and we know at once where we stand. We stand with them. They are our people; we are their people. Influenced by the suggestive power of the images and the spontaneous group preferences of social media, we somehow half-consciously feel it is the same long struggle.
In one way, this feeling is not entirely wrong. All over the world, there is now a kind of Fifth International of young, better educated, mainly urban men and women who recognize and relate to each other everywhere from Shanghai to Caracas and Tehran to Moscow. Like the generation of 1968, but this time across the globe, they have something in common. That’s partly because they move around a lot, live and are educated in several places.
In another way, this feeling can lead us dangerously astray. Each of these squares marks a different moment, in a very different context – and the outcomes have been starkly contrasting, too. On Taksim Square (until it was brutally cleared) there were also people from the country’s Alevi minority, “anti-capitalist Muslims,” football fans from three rival clubs, Sufis, anarchists and yogis. All were united in one cause: to stop Mr. Erdogan from becoming the new sultan, were he to take over next year as a strengthened, executive president.
When the Prime Minister returned to Turkey from a foreign trip, he mounted his double-decker bus and declaimed to supporters: “From here, I greet Istanbul’s sister cities, Sarajevo, Baku, Beirut, Cairo, Skopje, Baghdad, Damascus, Gaza, Ramallah, Mecca and Medina.” Phew. Most political leaders succumb to hubris after more than 10 years in power. Mr. Erdogan, always an authoritarian personality, has done the same since his re-election in 2011, after which he cast aside his more independent-minded advisers, but this is hubris on a grand scale. Even if he stays in power, his international reputation will never recover. Ranting about “an end to tolerance,” about “vandals,” “provocateurs” and “terrorists,” he has gone from being a regional beacon of hope to a symbol of fear.
We must also be clear what this was not. An improvised sign in what demonstrators called “Resistanbul” read “Now Tahrir is Taksim.” But Taksim was never Tahrir, let alone Tiananmen, because Turkey is not a dictatorship. It is an electoral democracy – a very imperfect one, to be sure, with an eroded rule of law, inadequate minority rights, an intimidated or manipulated mass media – but still a democracy. In the most recent election, Mr. Erdogan won 50 per cent of the popular vote.
This is also definitely not some kind of Western plot, as Mr. Erdogan darkly suggests. The protesters we like to focus our cameras on may embrace what we regard as Western and European values, but not as a result of any Western or European policy. Ten years ago, when people in Turkey still believed that the European Union seriously meant its promise of negotiations leading to Turkish membership, one could view such manifestations as part of a larger national journey “toward Europe.” But now that belief has largely faded. So Turks are plainly embracing those values in and for themselves – not as the means to any geopolitical or economic end. This is a Turkish battle for Turkish freedoms, nothing more, nothing less.
Last week, I asked an astute Turkish political observer, fresh from Istanbul, what European leaders should say in response to Taksim. His answer was: Nothing. Leave it to the Turks. I agreed then, but I cannot now. Faced with such arrogant bullying, European leaders must speak out.
Yet we do have to strike a balance. We need to show complete solidarity with those who are standing up for values we share, with those young women in the photos whom we instinctively recognize as “us.” But we have to acknowledge that they did not win the last election and are unlikely to win the next one.
Politically, a realistic outcome is that the current president, Abdullah Gul, and his now more moderate tendency in the ruling party, could gain the upper hand. Even in a more genuinely liberal democracy, the “Turkish model” would not be some French Republic in the eastern Mediterranean. It would, in the best case, combine secularism and democracy with recognition of Islam as the religion of the majority.
As such, it could again become a magnet for much of the wider Middle East, as well as a serious candidate for EU membership. If Turkey moves in that direction over the next few years, partly as a result of this Taksim moment, the tear-gassed protesters will not have cried in vain.
Timothy Garton Ash is professor of European Studies at Oxford and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford.