In both cases, initial demonstrations were small with specific objectives: to save the park and to obtain free public transport, respectively. And discontent in both countries reached a critical mass amid widespread perception that police used excessive violence to disperse the protesters. It was at that moment, on two continents, when tens of thousands of people mobilized in solidarity with the initial dissenters — and not just in Istanbul and Sao Paulo, the cities where the confrontations initially took place.
Given the relative indifference or initial hostility on the part of both public and private mainstream media, social networks are the preferred medium for protestors, and they serve as an effective space for coordination and decision-making. Of course, this preference to inform and organize is also dirven by the social and demographic profile of those involved. According to the polling institute Datafolha, the average protester in Brazil is relatively young with a high level of education, and the same is no doubt true in Turkey.
They also tend to be middle class, as measured by income level, and this segment of society has a disproportionately high level of Internet use. They are also more likely to belong to non-governmental organizations or to participate in new social movements, as opposed to having membership in more traditional, blue-collar organizations such as trade unions.
The same was true in the cases of Iran in 2009 and Egypt in 2011, but unlike them, Brazil and Turkey have democratically elected governments. These are societies in which the middle class represents the majority of the population. And that's the paradox. In a little over a decade under the Workers’ Party government, 40 million people emerged from poverty in Brazil. During the same time period under the government of the Party for Justice and Development, GDP per capita tripled in Turkey. And in both cases, a decade of relatively high growth rates came to an end in 2012. The economy grew just 3% in Turkey last year in contrast to 8.5% in 2011. In Brazil, growth last year was an anemic and 0.9% after the previous year's 4.5% before President Dilma Rousseff came to power.
When success breeds discontent
In both cases, the governments that contributed to the emergence of a strong, middle class are the targets of protests by this very population. Perhaps they fear for their economic and social well-being, and don't want to risk a return to the poverty they left behind after their countries' respective economic booms. History suggests that few things are more volatile than a middle class faced with the possibility of downward mobility.
Their decentralized nature, their disregard for traditional hierarchies, and their unwillingness to settle or even ally with political parties are often considered virtues of these new social movements. But these factors can also dampen their political effectiveness, which would be enhanced with organizational cooperation around shared priorities and a more diverse socio-ecocomic representation. The latter, in particular, is still missing in both Brazil and Turkey.
In terms of formulating shared priorities, when a correspondent for the Spanish newspaper El Pais asked the protesters in Brazil about their primary reason for being there, most hesitated before answering. And their ultimate responses were far from uniform. As far as I know, nobody asked the same question in Turkey, though in that case there seems to be an overwhelming and unmistakable common grievance: the growing authoritarianism of Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Recep Erdogan’s government.