The eyes of the world are beginning to focus on what’s happening in Turkey. The events unfolding there are of crucial importance to the region, as well as to the United States. What began as a peaceful protest against the closing of Taksim Gezi Park has transformed into riots in cities across Turkey and the burgeoning of a nationwide anti-government movement. The riots and protests have shoved Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan into the global spotlight.
Erdogan has been one of the most impressive politicians that Turkey has seen in generations. He is extremely popular, having a long list of economic and political achievements to point to as proof of the success of his policies. However, at the same time, Erdogan is a polarizing figure. Since he took power in 2003, his critics complain that he has accumulated more and more power. For a democratically elected leader, he is becoming more and more authoritarian. Dissent against him and the government is dealt with swiftly. Turkish prisons are filled with journalists who spoke out against him and his policies.
The government’s reaction to the riots lends credence to the argument that Erdogan is somewhat authoritarian. Police have used tear gas and water cannons against the protesters in Istanbul and other cities across the nation. Erdogan has gone as far as to insult the protesters in numerous speeches. Instead of seeking resolution, his actions and words are adding fuel to the fire.
The Arab Spring has shown us how a minor protest in a square can take on a life of its own. The Middle East is already a powder keg. Turkey has been a major player in attempts to wind down the Syrian civil war. It is a key nation in the region and a valuable ally of the United States. Erdogan needs to recognize that his response to the protesters has to be measured and effective at the same time. Water cannons, and patronizing speeches will only strengthen the resolve of the protesters.
The coming week will be interesting. Will Turkey become the next Egypt? Or can Erdogan stop his nation from becoming a cauldron of instability.