It should be noted that not every group that hit the streets are as liberal-minded as the initial "Occupy Taksim" group. Erdogan has enemies from all walks of life, including Turkish ultra-nationalists who despise him for granting too many rights for Kurds and initiating a historic peace deal with armed Kurdish separatists. Some left-wing groups despise him for making Turkey too "capitalist," and bash him for opposing the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who they see as an "anti-imperialist" hero. Some of these more ideological protesters also engaged in vandalism in the second day of the protests, including the arson of the headquarters of Erdogan's political party in the city of Izmir.
But still, the overwhelming majority of the protesters were peaceful, and their basic demand was just: a more liberal and participatory democracy than what Erdogan has constructed. They want the government to stop manipulating the media, restrain the police, and try to build consensus with the opposition on major political issues.
The tension between Erdogan's moral conservatism -- which some call "soft Islamism" -- and the more secular part of Turkish society is also a component of this whole story. Erdogan did not turn Turkey into an "Islamic state," and he probably never will impose sharia, or Islamic law. But he asserts religious values and symbols all the time, and recently pushed through a law that places new limitations to alcohol consumption. In a recent TV program, he defended such measures by saying, "I love my nation, and I want to protect them from bad habits." But there are many Turks do not want to live under such a "loving," and imposing, national father.
The big question is where Turkey will head from here. There is no reason to think that Erdogan lost too many votes in the face of these protests -- some even argue that his voting base is even more intact. But he, and his party, should now see that ballots are not the only thing that counts. In the several speeches he made after the beginning of the events, Erdogan remained defiant, while still acknowledging "mistakes" in police behavior. Meanwhile President Abdullah Gul, who comes from the same political camp as Erdogan but has repeatedly proven more moderate and liberal, declared, "in a democracy, elections are not everything" and "the messages [of the protesters] have been taken."
The optimistic view is that these protests will be watershed event that will help shape a more mature Turkish democracy. Erdogan and his political allies will restrain their hubris and seek more consensus than confrontation and imposition. The other alternative is that Erdogan, as his instincts and his hardcore supporters demand, will maintain his intimidating style, turning Turkey into a fully illiberal democracy -- and putting it on the path to be shaken again and again by massive protests.
Sadly, that would result in the destruction of the success story Erdogan has created in the past decade by his own hands.