06/07/2013 02:20 pm ET Updated Aug 07, 2013

Taking Back the Square

By Ali Breland and Bassam Gergi

Istanbul, Turkey - As the battles in Istanbul's central Taksim Square, and across Turkey continue to grow, it is clear that what began as a relatively isolated protest intended to stop the demolition of trees and halt the construction of a shopping center has far deeper roots.

The images of Turkish protesters waving flags, carrying banners, chanting slogans, all while facing down water cannons, pepper spray and riot police are eerily familiar. Just over two years ago we watched these same scenes unfold, first in Tunisia, then Egypt, then Libya, with the tactics and symbols spreading to protests as varied as the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement in the United States to the student led civil movements in Chile and Spain.

Yet the individual social movements that compose this global wave are often depicted as isolated incidents. The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt are seen as movements to remove dictatorial governments, OWS as a movement to heighten awareness of inequality, and in Spain as a reaction to the staggeringly high youth unemployment. The protests unfolding in Taksim Square are already being portrayed by Prime Minister Erdogan as a mainly ideological struggle between staunch secularists and his Islamic identity.

These popular struggles are explained away as economic, localized struggles. The political and far-reaching nature of the popular uprisings is denied in an attempt to deny agency to the "little people." According to the traditional understanding, the protesters act out defensively to respond to existential threats such as food shortages or economic pressures, but rarely as a reflection of political will.

While each movement possesses its own specific set of economic and social grievances, each of the struggles seems to unfold along similar political lines. They are an attempt by a broad coalition of protesters to gain a place in their society's politics through the physical occupation of public space and the utilization of street action.

Environmentalists, communists, secularists, progressives, students, and other groups have formed a modern coalition of marginalized peoples who are breaking out of the narrow confines of the political system which has restricted what types of demands they can make, and how they can make them. Often faulted for lacking a set cohesive of policy goals or aims, these groups have come together not for any single policy, but for the right to affect policy.

The 'square' has thus become a resonant symbol of the repressive relationships that deny a free and open space for these groups in politics. Taking back the public space represents more than a movement to save trees or demand jobs or to overturn a solitary dictator. Opening the Square is a direct attempt to force the closed systems of elite governance to pay attention to the suffering, sacrifice, and pain of ordinary peoples.

What Taksim Square symbolizes, once more, is that leaders like Erdogan, Mubarak, or Ben-Ali ignore the political grievances of their society at their own peril. Likewise, the coercive mechanisms of the state are no longer enough to maintain an outworn status-quo in the face of popular rebellion. Barricades and water cannons cannot hold back the waves of thousands of people who demand entree into the public and political life of their nation.

On Sunday, Turkish police had temporarily withdrawn from Taksim Square. The square lay littered with broken glass kiosks, destroyed police transporters, and the frames of cars that had been lit on fire. Graffiti covered the French Consulate and those businesses that had refused to take in wounded protesters.

Despite the scene of desolate destruction, the protesters saw the police withdrawal as a victory. Some stood on the tops of abandoned trucks and buildings, shouting freely to thousands of their compatriots. For the moment at least, Taksim Square was no longer a symbol of government repression but another indication that governments who continue to deny their peoples space in the public and political sphere, will witness more movements and further revolutions unfolding in many more squares.

Bassam Gergi is a Dahrendorf Scholar at St. Antony's College, Oxford, where he works on issues of free speech. He is currently studying for a master's degree in comparative government.