Unrest Among the Giants of the Emerging World: Contrasting the Brazilian and Turkish Protests

In a speech given on June 22, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan drew parallels between the current protests and social movements in Turkey and Brazil: “The same game is being played in Brazil … There are the same symbols, the same posters. Twitter, Facebook is the same, so are international media.” [1] Prime Minister Erdogan was referring to the protests that began in Turkey on May 28, and in Brazil on June 17. Both movements are now under international media spotlights, which have prompted even high-level policymakers like Prime Minister Erdogan to compare the two. Nevertheless, even though some features of these movements bear a resemblance to one another, a look at the underlying principles of these protests highlights their autonomous and distinctive characters.

Certainly, there are some basic similarities between recent events in both countries. The protests started with a small number of concerned citizens and quickly transformed their countries into states with a high degree of dissatisfaction. While protesters in Brazil called upon their government to shift its economic focus, protesters in Turkey called for less government control in the political sphere.

Turkish Disarray

In Turkey, environmentalists refused to allow the destruction of Gezi Park—one of the few green areas left in Istanbul—in order to construct Ottoman-style barracks. [2] Originally, only about 100 citizens participated in the peaceful protests, yet the government responded with tear gas and water cannons. [3] The public saw this hostile police reaction as a sign of Turkey’s democratic secularism being undermined by the Islamic nature of the Ottoman design of the barracks. [4] With the decline of the Ottomans in 1928, Turkey was declared a secular country, but conservative Islamist values remain influential in public and private life. [5] Istanbul is “the heart of the country’s secular life,” and the public views the destruction of Gezi Park as another effort by Prime Minister Erdogan to strengthen the religious nature of the state, such as when he banned alcohol in certain areas and at certain times. [6]

More generally, the Gezi Park project served as a trigger for the “young, jobless, and angry” faction of the Turkish population to demonstrate its growing discontent with the government’s behavior. [7] As a result of these unnecessarily repressive measures, more Turks felt the need to voice their concerns. The protests in Turkey have expanded vigorously and now include more than 2.5 million people. [8] The movement’s demands have broadened to a call for less government interference in private life. Some Turkish protesters are even calling for a resignation of Prime Minister Erdogan. [9]

Uproars in Brazil

In contrast to their counterparts in Turkey, Brazilian protesters have primarily objected to their government’s economic policies, as these policies tend to favor large corporations and do little to address staggering inequality. Increases in bus fares sparked the unrest in Brazil, but the protesters’ lasting frustration is inspired by what the costly transit fares represent. The widespread use of tear gas and rubber bullets by police in Brazil has infuriated the public, and, similar to Turkey, has brought more protesters to the streets. [10] As Brazil’s protests swelled from 2,000 to one million people, the rallies were transformed from outrage with the increased price of public transportation to a broad set of demands regarding the country’s social welfare system. [11] Furthermore, citizens were outraged that the government has spent vast amounts of resources building stadiums in preparation for the 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, while the average citizen still lacks adequate social services. [12]

Obstacles in Leading Economies

These protests are taking place in two of the world’s largest and most quickly developing economies. The “Agility Emerging Markets Logistics Index” for 2013—a measurement tool that calculates compatibility, market connectedness, market size, and growth attractiveness—ranked Brazil and Turkey third and tenth, respectively. Importantly, neither country was on the index in 2008, demonstrating the speed with which both nations have grown. [13]

The massive economic development that Turkey has undergone in the past decade has led to important societal transformations. For example, Turkey has a growing middle class with more access to education. Dorothée Schmid, a French researcher on contemporary Turkey, explained that there have been recognizable enhancements in education, which gives the youth the tools to look more critically at social issues, facilitating protests. [14] While the majority of protesters have benefited from Turkey’s recent economic development, they are now contesting the interference of the government in their personal lives—thus illustrating that increased incomes are often not enough to please populations.

Brazil has experienced significant economic and social changes in the past few years as well. Along with increased access to education, approximately 10 percent of the population rose out of poverty between 2005 and 2009. [15] These individuals that climbed out of poverty expected a better quality of life, but entered into the middle class only to face a higher cost of living due to the country’s inflation. [16] Their frustration was exemplified in the outrage over the increase in bus fares.

Therefore, in both cases, the protests occurred in countries that have experienced rapid development in the past decade; however, the role that the economy played in the causes is different in each case.

Movements in the Media and the Media’s Role in the Movements

In both Turkey and Brazil, the younger generations have acquired skills that allow them to effectively organize social movements and to ensure that their voices are heard by policymakers and presspersons across the world. In Brazil, protesters have used Facebook and Twitter to spread ideas to both local and international populations. In Turkey, social media has also been used as a forum for ideas, but it has also been used at times as a defense mechanism, allowing other protesters to be informed of dangerous areas. [17]

Twitter and Facebook posts criticizing the Turkish government are in violation of Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code; however, despite threats of arrest, protesters have resorted to using social media. Article 301 prohibits insulting the Turkish nation, the Turkish republic, its government, or government institutions, and those who disobey could be imprisoned for a term of up to two years. [18] Due to this censorship law, all coverage of the movements in the mainstream media has been replaced with alternate programming. For example, while CNN was broadcasting Turkey’s protests, CNN Turk was airing a penguin documentary. [19]

Source: http://www.dailydot.com/news/cnn-turk-istanbul-riots-penguin-doc-social media/
Source: http://www.dailydot.com/news/cnn-turk-istanbul-riots-penguin-doc-social media/

Hence, social media is essential because it compensates for what the mainstream media lacks. It is therefore unsurprising that social networking outlets became the primary source of information on the movement as well as the platform for organization and debate. [20]

In Brazil, an alternative means of assembling the masses was needed because Brazil is known for lacking “media pluralism” (i.e., the media only covers one side of a debate). [21] For example, the media portrayed the protesters as “vandals” throughout the first few weeks of the protests, until the suppression of journalists began. Moreover, Facebook and Twitter users insisted that the movement was peaceful, and attempted to separate the social movement from allegations of violent action. [22] The social media users’ focus on decriminalizing the protesters has aided the shift in the television media’s stance according to a resident in São Paulo. Another example of the mass media lacking pluralism is that it now largely covers the protests as an educated middle class movement, but still largely leaves out the participants that come from lower socioeconomic classes.

Spotlight Significance

It is also imperative to consider the attention being placed on these countries due to globally relevant events, such as the World Cup and Olympics in Brazil and E.U. accession talks in Turkey. These international pressures will indubitably harm both countries’ reputations if the negative attention continues. In Brazil, the global community and FIFA have put pressure on the country to compromise with the protesters as quickly as possible to allow the World Cup preparations to continue. FIFA has not considered canceling the event or any of the games; however, the movement may harm the tourist boost that Brazil was expecting. [23]

Screen shot 2013-07-11 at 2.16.32 PM

The international community is putting pressure on the Turkish government to engage in more dialogue as well as to minimize violence. European governments and the United States have expressed concern regarding the repressive tactics being used by the ruling governments. [24] Moreover, the international reliance on Turkey as a crucial actor in the Greater Middle East will be further complicated by these protests. The E.U. discussions regarding Turkey’s membership were delayed until next fall due to the violent reaction to the protests. This delay stresses the need for transparency and democracy in the Turkish government’s further actions. [25]

As they currently stand, it is challenging to forecast how these movements will end. It will ultimately be necessary for protesters to focus on repairing political institutions by means of elections. However, both movements lack a pronounced leader, making them disjointed. The protesters represent a wide spectrum of views in both countries, which means that it will be difficult to satisfy all of the protesters’ demands. Regardless, both movements are legitimate and should be taken seriously by their respective governments.

Moving Forward

Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, is looking to compromise with the protesters; she recently stated that the demonstrations “show the energy of [Brazil’s] democracy, the strength of the voice of the streets and civility of our population.” [26] She gave some concessions to the protesters, reflecting the government’s intention to take its citizens’ needs into account. On the other hand, in Turkey, Prime Minister Erdogan refuses to consider the protesters’ demands. In order to accede to some of these demands, Prime Minister Erdogan could consider dissenting opinions as well as the voices of his supporters. [27]

To conclude, the protests in both Brazil and Turkey demand that the views of the populace be reflected in public policies. Brazilian and Turkish demonstrations have used social media to assemble and motivate protesters. The rallies are occurring in countries that have achieved substantial economic growth in recent years, and their policymakers feel the pressure of the international community. Given these similarities, Prime Minister Erdogan’s comparison of the two countries is not unfounded; however, it is clear that these movements should be evaluated within their own contexts and that any solutions need to fit the particular conditions of each.

The protests in the two countries transpired for distinct reasons, reflecting differing demands under substantially different circumstances. Brazilians want more government responsiveness, as well as the improvement of social programs and capital equality. Alternatively, the Turkish protesters want the preservation of a secular state, and ask for less government inference in private life. The distinct national contexts, with their unique history and laws, have driven similar responses from police forces, but have received different reactions from the government. Brazilian legislators have sought changes in policy, and the majority of the population does not seem to be looking for a resignation. President Rousseff has been attempting to satisfy the protesters, while Prime Minister Erdogan continues to condemn them. For now, it appears, protests continue in both nations, and no one can foresee when or how they will finish.

Mary Campbell and Sophie Mouline, Research Associates at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

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[2] Kiper, Cinar. “Muslim Light: What’s behind Turkey’s Islamization and the Protests Against it.” The Atlantic, June 5, 2013. Accessed June 25, 2013.  http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/06/muslim-light-whats-behind-turkeys-islamization-and-the-protests-against-it/276576/

[3] Uras, Umut. “What Inspires Turkey’s Protest Movement.” Al Jazeera, June 5, 2013. Accessed June 25, 2013. http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2013/06/20136513414495277.html

[4] Yeginsu, Ceylan. “Mosque Dreams Seen at Heart of Turkey Protests.” New York Times, June 22, 2013. Accessed June 25, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/24/world/europe/mosque-dream-seen-at-heart-of-turkey-protests.html

[5] Freedom House. “Turkey Strongly Urged to Liberalize Article 301,” June 2008. Accessed June 30, 2013.  http://www.freedomhouse.org/article/turkey-strongly-urged-liberalize-article-301

[6] Ibid.

[7] Nolan, Rober. “Turkish Protesters: Young, Jobless and Angry,” June 13, 2013. Accessed June 29, 2013. http://www.usnews.com/opinion/blogs/world-report/2013/06/13/turkeys-taksim-square-protesters-young-jobless-and-angry

[8] Rosan, Robab. “2.5 Million Attend Gezi Protests Across Turkey.” Bangla News 24, June 23, 2013. Accessed June 25, 2013. http://banglanews24.com/English/detailsnews.php?nssl=0c6c9dde084b5ca02cce126444a60771&nttl=2306201372313

[9] Press TV. “ Turkey Protesters Call for Resignation of Prime Minister Erdogan, June 1, 2013/ Accessed June 29, 2013. ”http://www.presstv.com/detail/2013/06/01/306619/turkey-protesters-call-for-pm-resignation/

[10] Ibid.

[11] Agence France-Presse. “Brazil hit by Protests Over Rising Mass Transit Prices.” The Nations, June 9, 2013. Accessed June 25, 2013. http://www.nation.com.pk/pakistan-news-newspaper-daily-english-online/international/09-Jun-2013/brazil-hit-by-protests-over-rising-mass-transit-prices

[12] Sandy, Matt. “Is This the Samba Revolution? Brazil Leadership in Crisis as one Million Take to Streets.” The Independent, June 22, 2013. Accessed June 26, 2013. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/is-this-the-samba-revolution-brazils-leadership-in-crisis-as-one-million-take-to-streets-8667839.html

[13] Ibid.

[14] Alice Milot, “Turquie/Brésil, la révolte des classes moyennes?”, rfi, June, 24, 2013. Accessed June, 25, 2013. http://www.rfi.fr/emission/20130624-1-turquiebresil-revolte-classes-moyennes

[15] CIA World Factbook. “Historical Data Graphs Per Year.” Accessed July 2, 2013. http://www.indexmundi.com/g/g.aspx?c=br&v=69

[16] New York Times. “The Coat of Living in Brazil,” Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics. June 18, 2013. Accessed July 3, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/06/18/world/americas/19Brazil-graphic.html?_r=0

[17] Selbert, Thomas. “Social Media Fills the Vacuum in Turkish Medias Coverage of Protests,” June 6, 2013. Accessed June 20, 2013. http://www.thenational.ae/news/world/social-media-fills-the-vacuum-in-turkish-media-s-coverage-of-protests

[18] [19] Bulent, Algan, “The Brand New Version of Article 301 of Turkish Penal Code and the Future of Freedom of Expression Cases in  Turkey”, German Law Journal, vol 09, n°12, 2008. http://www.germanlawjournal.com/pdfs/Vol09No12/PDF_Vol_09_No_12_2237-2252_Developments_Algan.pdf

[20] Kates, Glenn. “In Turkey, Penguins Become Symbol of how Media Missed the Story,” June 5, 2013. Accessed June 29, 2013. http://www.rferl.org/content/turkey-protests-penguins-symbol/25008120.html

[21] Joshua, Tucker, “A Breakout Role for Twitter? Extensive use of Social Media in the Absence of Traditional Media by Turks in Turkish in Taksim Square Protests.”, The Monkey Cage, June 1, 2013

[22] Reporters Without Borders. “Press Freedom Index.” Accessed June 23, 2013. http://en.rsf.org/press-freedom-index-2013,1054.html

[23] Reuda, Manuel. “Why are Brazilians Angry About World Cup?” ABC News. June 19, 2013. Accessed July 1, 2013.  http://abcnews.go.com/ABC_Univision/brazilians-angry-world-cup-spending/story?id=19440162#.Ud7WHj7wJhg

[24] Agence France-Presse. “Kerry Concerned Over Excessive Force in Turkey.” Hurriyet Daily News, June 3, 2013. Accessed June 28, 2013.  http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/-kerry-concerned-over-excessive-force-in-turkey.aspx?pageID=517&nID=48152&NewsCatID=358

[25] Stroobants, Jean Pierre, «l’UE rouvrira à partir d’octobre les négociations sur l’adhésion de la Turquie », Le monde, June 25, 2013. http://www.lemonde.fr/europe/article/2013/06/25/l-ue-prete-a-de-nouvelles-negociations-pour-l-adhesion-de-la-turquie_3436110_3214.html

[26] Press TV. “Turkey protesters calls for resignation of Prime Minister Erdogan,” June 1, 2013. Accessed June 30, 2013. http://www.presstv.com/detail/2013/06/01/306619/turkey-protesters-call-for-pm-resignation/

[27] [28]  Billion, Didier, « Quelques réflexions de Paris d’un ami de la Turquie», Observatoire de la Turquie et de son environnement géopolitique, June 3, 2013, IRIS. Adressed July, 1, 2013. http://www.iris-france.org/docs/kfm_docs/docs/2013-17-06—ami-turquie.pdf.