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.”
Three Turks in America responded to the events in Istanbul by starting a funding campaign on Indiegogo.com that bought a full-page ad in The New York Times supporting the protests. According to Forbes, they received donations “from 50 countries at a clip of over $2,500 per hour over its first day, crossing its $53,800 goal in about 21 hours.”
What’s sad is that Erdogan’s arrogance, autocratic impulses and, lately, use of anti-Semitic tropes, are soiling what has been an outstanding record of leadership. His Islamist party has greatly improved health care, raised incomes, built roads and bridges, improved governance and pushed the Army out of politics. But success has gone to his head.
I walked with protesters on the streets of Istanbul on Saturday when the police, armed with fire hoses and tear gas, cleared Gezi Park. The pavement literally shook with the energy of young people telling Erdogan to back off. Or as Ilke, 30, an aerospace engineer standing next to me remarked — before we were scattered by tear gas — “They are trying to make rules about religion and to force them on everyone. Democracy is not just about what the majority wants. It’s also what the minority wants. Democracy is not just about elections.”
Erdogan (like Russia’s Vladimir Putin) confuses “being in power with having power,” argued Dov Seidman, whose company, LRN, advises CEO’s on governance and is author of the book “How.” “There are essentially just two kinds of authority: formal authority and moral authority,” he added. “And moral authority is now so much more important than formal authority” in today’s interconnected world, “where power is shifting to individuals who can easily connect and combine their power exponentially for good or ill.”
Any leader who wants to lead just “by commanding power over people should think again,” he added. “In this age, the only way to effectively lead is to generate power through people,” said Seidman. Can Erdogan learn these lessons? Turkey’s near-term stability and his legacy hang on the answer.