Images of bloodied protesters scrambling past burning makeshift defenses, shrouded in thick suffocating clouds of tear gas, and being chased by heavily clad special units brings back memories of the chaos of Tahrir Square two years ago. Of people rising up against years of oppression. Of a sense of wild desperation that would no longer be bottled up. And yet, these protests are far different from the ones that gripped the Arab world. They were supposed to be far more civil. Far more peaceful. After all, they were never connected to the Arab Spring. They began over a struggle not to free a nation, but to save a measly park.
That the riots of the past months are taking place in Istanbul is unimaginable. Not because of how the protests started or why they have swelled, but rather because of the arrogance of Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan's totalitarian response (which coincidentally answers why they've swelled).
For the past two years Erdogan has chided the Arab leaders, ridiculing their lack of restraint and harsh authoritarian tactics. Evidently, judging by his boorish and overbearing response, Erdogan himself suffers from the same deep fears of a popular uprising, so much so that the prime minister has clearly lost his bearings and doesn't understand that the protests rocking the heart of Istanbul share few if any similarities their Arab brethren. Erdogan would be wise to take a step back, consult his economic data, and review his old psychology 101 notes on Maslow's famous hierarchy of needs as a reminder why.
American psychologist Abraham Maslow broke down the human psyche into a five-tiered pyramid towards which humans could fulfill the ultimate goal of self-actualization. As humans fulfilled more of their needs, the closer they grew to a more complete life and satisfaction.
Sadly, millions in the Arab world have spent decades relegated to the bottom levels of Maslow's pyramid. Denied the most basic needs of food, (suitable) shelter, safety, and the prospect of dignified employment, the youth took to the streets in revolt.
But that same sense of despair doesn't exist in Turkey. Thanks largely to many of Erdogan's earlier economic and diplomatic reforms, Turks as a whole have graduated beyond Maslow's lower levels in search of the values on the pyramid's third and fourth tiers: Belonging, self-esteem and respect by and for others.
It is this quest for respect and belonging that Erdogan has so underestimated. The hopeless misery that blanketed huge swaths of the Arab world has been lifted in Turkey over the past 15 years. Erdogan's economic policies that opened and launched Turkey's booming markets are the envy of the region (Europe too for that matter). All of which has made Turkish citizens feel entitled to respect and the freedom to engage in proper democratic processes. For years they have been steadily climbing the ladders, moving higher and higher up the pyramid toward self-actualization. Suddenly, the protesters are being denied. Erdogan has shown disregard for the very systems of checks and balances to power that he installed, a thought terrifying to Turkey's liberal and secular elite.
The protesters took to the streets to defend a park. To show love for their culture, the environment and their city. Now they are fighting for respect. Fighting not to be knocked down on the pyramid. Fighting to maintain their dignity.
Erdogan has unwittingly awoken a deep fear inside of thousands of Turks who long to be moving forward not back, and now has a fight he never wanted on his hands. A fight he could have easily avoided (and still may) if he can grasp the psyche of his people.
For the protesters this is no longer about a park. Until their prime minister can admit this, Taksim Park will join Tahrir in looking like a battleground and Turkey will inch ever closer to wiping away a decade's worth of progress.