A small-scale demonstration that started with a dozen people has morphed into a nationwide protest, with violent clashes in many Turkish cities and major streets in Turkey’s financial center İstanbul.
The saga started when several people gathered in Gezi Park of Taksim Square at the heart of İstanbul, protesting the demolition of trees in an area authorities earlier said will become a venue for a shopping mall. As the police violently dispersed the protesters for three days, the group swelled further and has gone beyond what was a modest protest earlier this week.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his advisers obviously misread the situation, believing that the protest was a marginal rally staged by those who already have distaste for many of the government’s policies. “We decided to do this and we will move forward,” Erdoğan said on Wednesday, further escalating tensions.
Non-lethal irritants such as tear gas and pepper spray used by police to break up the protests had a reverse effect: They only helped others join the cause.
Most revolutions in the Middle East in the past two years have started with small incidents and gatherings. When faced with brutal government response and excessive use of force, the protests mushroomed. Yet it is naive to suggest a similar scenario for Turkey, a democratic country where people can peacefully change their elected leaders if they don’t like their misguided policies. Undoubtedly, however, these protests are a major source of unrest and instability in a country claiming to be a safe haven for foreign investors and an emerging, vibrant economy.
Protests in Turkey are an ideal laboratory for how small-scale dissent can be transformed into nationwide protests. Erdoğan is a popular figure and this is exactly what makes him stubborn in not yielding to the demands of the protesters.
If the government comes out as soon as possible and steps back from its earlier position by announcing that it has abandoned the demolition of the green area in central İstanbul, the protesters could leave the streets. Current attempts to silence the crowds by using the excessive force will only bring many others into the protest ring.
You can follow the author on Twitter @MahirZeynalov (English) and @MahirZeynalov_ (Turkish).