Protests in Turkey: Will Taksim Become Erdogan’s Tahrir Square?

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Bulent Kilic / AFP / Getty Images

Protesters gather on Taksim a day after Turkish police pulled out of the Istanbul square following a second day of violent clashes with demonstrators over a controversial development project, on June 2, 2013.

Protests on Istiklal Avenue, the heart of Istanbul’s shopping and entertainment district, are nothing new. Over the past year, Turks have protested against the deteriorating state of press freedoms, a reckless construction boom, a draft law placing new curbs on abortion, the government’s response to the civil war raging in neighboring Syria, the jailing of hundreds of top generals on coup charges, the arrests of thousands of Kurdish activists accused of abetting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which Turkey labels a terrorist group, and, most recently, new restrictions on alcohol sales.

(PHOTOS: Protests in Istanbul After Police Crackdown on Activists)

But the mass protests against the moderately Islamist government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that have taken place over the past two days are different. For one, they are the biggest in years. On Friday evening, thousands of people streamed down Istiklal en route to Taksim Square, where the spark that ignited the ongoing unrest was first lit, before being beaten back by police units. The following day, as police abandoned the square, even more protesters arrived, their numbers in the tens if not hundreds of thousands. Protests and clashes have since broken out in a number of other cities across Turkey, including the capital, Ankara. As of Saturday night, 939 people had been arrested and 79 wounded in 90 demonstrations around the country, according to the Ministry of the Interior. Volunteer doctors around Taksim estimated that the number of injured exceeded 1,000.

It all began on May 27 in a small park right behind Taksim, where a number of activists converged to protest plans to turn the area — one of the few green spaces in the city center — into a replica of an Ottoman barracks and shopping arcade. Over the next few days, as construction workers began uprooting trees, police repeatedly raided the sit-in, dispersing the protesters with tear gas, batons and water cannons. Images of wounded young men and women immediately began making the rounds on TV and social media, sparking wave after wave of popular outrage, as well as condemnation from human-rights groups, which decried the excessive use of tear gas against unarmed protesters.

Things reached a boiling point on Friday morning after the police raided Gezi Park once again, burning the protesters’ tents, firing more tear gas and leaving dozens injured. By the end of the day, the streets that feed into Taksim were filled to the brink. The grievances of all groups opposed to the government seemed to have rolled into one. On Istiklal Avenue, Zeynep, a 21-year-old student who had taken part in the protests from Day One, complained about the closing of state theaters, police brutality and runaway development. “We don’t need any more shopping malls, we need trees!” she shouted, her words mixing with chants calling for Prime Minister Erdogan to step down. Nearby, a pair of teenage girls accused Erdogan of restricting free speech and steering Turkey, a secular but Muslim-majority country, toward Islamic rule.

On a parallel avenue, adjacent to Tarlabasi, a poor neighborhood that had been forcibly vacated to make way for an upscale development project, the protests had devolved into violence. Banners advertising the project smoldered. A group of young men were busy tearing down metal barriers raised around the construction site of a new tunnel, parts of which were also in flames. “We’re against the park project, we’re against Tarlabasi, the killings of Kurds. Erdogan doesn’t let people breathe!” one of them yelled. “We’re against everything.” A middle-aged man standing within earshot blamed the government for meddling in Syria. “They’re sending jihadists to Syria, they’re the ones responsible for Reyhanli,” he said, referring to a May 11 car bombing in Reyhanli, a Turkish border town, which left 52 people dead. Police helicopters buzzed overhead. A young man, having removed his shirt and wrapped it around his face, pointed his hands, middle fingers outstretched, toward the sky.

(MORE: Reports: Turkish Police Leave Istanbul Square)

On a small side street, a small group of protesters, partially sheltered by the high walls of the French consulate, were lobbing rocks at police trucks parked on the other side. At the other end of the street, near a small sushi restaurant, a young man, surrounded by others, including a female medic, lay motionless on the ground, blood seeping out of his forehead. Near him, Hasan Gumus, a bespectacled pensioner, quivered with rage. A cheap surgical mask dangled from his chin. “The police have no shame, look at what they’ve fired at me, me, a 77-year-old man,” he said, clutching an empty gas canister in his hand. “I’ll show this to my kids, my grandkids, I’ll even frame it.” He had come out to support the environmentalists, but he was fed up for a host of reasons, not least the new curbs on alcohol sales. Erdogan had justified the measure on health grounds, but opponents saw it as yet more evidence of Turkey’s creeping Islamization and the Prime Minister’s authoritarian turn. “I don’t drink alcohol,” Gumus said. “But who are you to tell me not to drink? Are you my father, my grandfather? You can’t tell me how to live.” As he finished speaking, the young man who had lain on the ground, his forehead now bandaged, struggled to rise to his feet.

In a speech on Saturday, Erdogan struck a defiant tone. The Taksim redevelopment project would go ahead, he said, referring to the protesters occupying the square as “marginal groups.” “If you gather a hundred thousand people,” he said, addressing the opposition, “I will gather a million.” It was the kind of rhetoric designed to rouse the party faithful, not to appease the protesters. As such, it was symptomatic of precisely what brought people to the streets in the first place — the arrogance of power. Within hours of Erdogan’s speech, the crowds once again descended on Taksim.

For a government that enjoys the support of nearly half the population, plus a seeming monopoly on power, and which has presided over a decade of unprecedented growth — the economy has roared ahead at an average of 5% per year since Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) took the reins in 2002 — the protests are far from a death knell. They are, however, a wake-up call. Erdogan, who cannot run for a third term as Prime Minister, is believed to be planning on being elected President in 2014, but not before using constitutional changes to endow the post with executive powers, as in the U.S. or France. The ongoing protests, more than anything that’s preceded them — including the efforts of a largely impotent political opposition — threaten to derail such plans for good.

So far, the protests have included mostly young leftists, environmentalists and secularists, all of them core government opponents, but very few religious conservatives. For Erdogan, the greatest danger is that conservative Muslims, who form the AKP’s base, will flinch at the images of police brutality and begin to join the protesters’ ranks. That may be one reason why the government has pulled police forces out of Taksim and clamped down on the media harder and more visibly than ever. Many press outlets are downplaying the protests. On Saturday, one of the country’s leading papers, owned the Prime Minister’s son-in-law, buried the story. Later that evening, as clashes between police and protesters continued around Istanbul and other cities, CNN Turk, a leading news network, aired a cooking show, plus documentaries about a 1970s novelist, dolphin training and penguins.

MORE: Turkey’s Massive Military Trial Opens Old Wounds and New Anxieties

194 comments
JacobCollier
JacobCollier

govement should be know the problem of common man

ececan
ececan

You only wish that it will be Tahrir!

You will see Turkey will be even stronger after this game planted based on lies and anti government anti muslim ideologies!

Government and PM is loved and elected by free Turks. It will stay that way. International media will be ashamed once the fog is clear!

Police and government is doing fantastic job compare to the fact that all the terror lovers got together.

ismi_Fadhil
ismi_Fadhil

@AbdulahAlshamri Dr, as an expert on Turkish affairs, what is your professional opinion on the root cause of the ongoing event? Thank you

Alper
Alper

wow the whole news about government killing kurds and supporting jihadists is based on only one 21 yeasr old student? THe Gezi parki was nothing but a gattering place of people using drugs and gettting drunk and have sex. It was the most unpleasent area of the city. As for the protests, the police is using extreme force against protesters which must be stopped! However, the protesters are not angels. If you brake into buildings and destroy everything on your path, the police will take actions. As the use of alcohol, nearly 10 to 20 people are dying DAILY! in Turkey because of traffic accidents, where 54% is caused because of to much consumption of ALCOHOL! To decrease this percentage, there has been a restriction where no sale of alcohol is allowed in some places after 10pm. 
You have lots of political parties in Turkey. The biggest opponent of the current government is the CHP (Republicans party) Most of the violent protesters are supporting this party and trying to overthrow the government because they think there is no democracy. CHP are the biggest thiefs of this country. They are the reasons why Turkey had so much depth to other countris. They were the ones who banned the use of Kurdish language, they were the ones who did not allow women wearing headscarves in Universities, courthalls and in many more places. And now they are talking about democracy? If you want democracy, you should wait for 10 months and vote for your party adn not destroy streets, buildings, busses or any other public transportation vehicles. 

BashyQuraishy
BashyQuraishy

As I follow since days, there are many misunderstanding concerning the events in Turkey. A close friend of mine from Turkey has done a lot of digging in to the latest disturbances in Istanbul and has made some comments. I am very happy to share these views with the readers of this thread so that people can get two sides of the story and make up their own mind.

The protests that begun in reaction to a development project in Taksim, Istanbul turned into nation-wide demonstrations against the AK Party Government on June 1st and 2nd. Dozens have been injured in the clashes with the police and hundreds have been arrested. The following points may help contextualize the events.

The decision for the Taksim Gezi Parki Project in the Taksim Square was taken at the municipal level several months ago. AK Party announced the project during the 2011 elections. The project includes the expansion of pedestrian roads and the re-building of an old military barrack called the Topcu Kislasi. The new project will not decrease but increase green areas in the Taksim area. The automobile traffic will be taken underground and the entire Taksim Square, one of the largest squares in Istanbul, will be reserved to pedestrians only.

The Topcu Kislasi was originally built in 1780 and remained in Taksim until 1940 when the governor/mayor of the time had it demolished.

On June 1st, Kadir Topbas, the Mayor of Istanbul, called for a meeting with the representatives of the Taksim Gezi Park Platform and the Chamber of Architects to discuss the project. But under pressure from the protesters, they have declined to meet him. (A meeting may still happen).

Contrary to some reports, there is no intention to build a shopping mall in the Taksim Gezi area. Even though PM Erdogan has said this on several occasions, the protesters have refused to hear it.

What begun as an issue-based opposition with a specific purpose and demand (Taksim Gezi Parki Project) turned into an ideological opposition against the Government without a specific goal and demand.

Two groups have emerged in the course of demonstrations: those who went to Taksim to support the halting of the project and those who wanted to manipulate this into an ideological uprising against the AK Party Government and the person of PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

While the first group is composed of people of various backgrounds, the second group is mostly a combination of leftist, Marxist-Leninist and neo-nationalist groups. Their only common point – the unifying cause-- is their hostility towards AK Party. The second group includes such well-known radical groups as TKP (Turkey Communist Party) and the outlawed leftist organization DHKPC, which carried out the attack on the US Embassy on February 1st, 2013.

In his two speeches on Sunday, June 2nd, PM Erdogan distinguished the first group from the second and acknowledged their right to dissent and protest. Government officials including Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister confirmed citizens’ right to protest in a peaceful manner.

The first group includes people who feel isolated and marginalized by the successive electoral successes of AK Party and some of its policies such as the recent alcohol bill, which regulates the purchase of alcohol. The Government is reaching out to these people in an effort to respond to their concerns.

The second group is largely responsible for clashes with the police. They have attacked public buildings, police cars, media buses, private shops and other places after the police have been ordered to withdraw.

On the first and second days of the events, the police have tried to manage the crowds through conventional methods. PM Erdogan has criticized the excessive use of tear gas/pepper gas in Istanbul and Ankara. The Interior Ministry has launched an investigation. The investigation is underway.

On Saturday, June 1st at 16.00, the police have been ordered to withdraw from the Taksim Square and protesters and citizens have been allowed into the Gezi Park.

This has brought down the tensions in the Taksim area. But certain militant groups have attempted to march to the Prime Minister’s Office in Besiktas with sticks, rocks, etc. They have caused damage to both public and private property along the way.

The camera recordings show flags of various Marxist-Leninist organizations. The police have not allowed these groups to attack the PM’s Office and other buildings.

In Ankara, protesters have been allowed to protest in Guven Park, Kizilay. Some individuals have tried to storm the Prime Ministry’s main building. The Police have intervened to stop them from attacking ministerial buildings. Most clashes have happened here. The camera recordings show the crowds attacking police and public buildings without any provocation.

Peaceful protests have also been held in Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and other cities. There have been few clashes in most of these demonstrations on Sunday, June 2nd.

As of Monday June 3rd, there are 64 injured civilians with one person in critical condition and 244 police injured.

There has been a large amount of fake information and false pictures circulated over Twitter and other social media to provoke the masses in an irresponsible manner. International media have bought some of these false stories and reported, for instance, that a number of people have been killed, that the police have used orange gas, that some protesters have been tortured, etc. The Amnesty International, which announced the death of 2 people in the demonstrations, issued a correction on June 2nd Sunday and apologized for reporting this claim without verifying it.

The claim that the mainstream Turkish media didn’t report the demonstrations under Government pressure is totally false. All national channels reported the events live, had reportage, commentary with visuals, etc. for hours.

The comparisons with the Arab Spring event and the so-called Turkish Spring analogy are totally out of place. Turkey is a parliamentary democracy and the last elections were held in 2011, which brought AK Party into power with about 50 % of the votes. The percentage of participation in elections in Turkey is above 80 %. There will be municipal and presidential elections in 2014 and parliamentary elections in 2015 in Turkey. Those who oppose AK Party and Government policies can exercise their democratic right by voting for other parties.

The charges of authoritarianism and dictatorship have been made without any substantial evidence. One cannot call a government `authoritarian` that has come to power with 50 % of the votes and won three successive national elections.

The Government can certainly do a better job in terms of communicating its policies to the people, supporters and dissenters alike. But one should also keep in mind that certain groups will never under any circumstance accept AK Party.

The radical groups that have tried to manipulate the peaceful demonstrations in Istanbul are not the forces of democracy in Turkey. They have supported military coups and interventions in the past, opposed the resolving of the Kurdish issue, refused the rights of non-Muslim religious minorities in Turkey, advocated a crude form of Turkish nationalism, supported the oppression of freedom of speech and religion, etc.

 One example of the western media manipulation is this video from Reuters News Agency with its own spin on the story!

 http://uk.reuters.com/video/2013/06/04/demonstrations-coninue-in-istanbul?videoId=243129821

KillananKadin
KillananKadin

@TIME @TIMEWorld most of the enemies of Turkey would be very happy if it happens. NO IT WONT, WE DONT NEED A SPRING! We are just protesting!

dennis.uzun
dennis.uzun

The pollice may be pulled out of Taksim, but their brutal actions continue in Beşiktaş (İstanbul), Kızılay/Tunalı/Tunus (Ankara), İzmir, Adana and many other cities in Turkey. It shouldn't be represented like it has come to en end.

SultanSelim
SultanSelim

there is big difference between taksim and tahrir. in tahrir, majority of egyptian people protested the dictator and dictatorial regime. but in taksim, minority of people is trying impose their ideas to community, using violance, trying recover dictatorial times. in tahrir, people has no other choice than protests, but in taksim they are tryin do that, what they can not do in free elections.

sampa1961atyahoo
sampa1961atyahoo

Will Taksim Become Erdogan’s Tahrir Square? I certainly hope so!

edk
edk

"So far, the protests have included mostly young leftists, environmentalists and secularists, all of them core government opponents" THIS IS ABSOLUTELY NOT TRUE. The protests not only include students, leftists and intellectuals but mothers and grandmothers, shopkeeps, taxi drivers, old and young, people from every walk of life with no affiliations who are merely fed up and want to be heard. It's true that there are few religious conservatives taking to the streets but not in any way true to characterize the remainder, as Erdogan has, as zealots and looters.



Ulaj Sansi
Ulaj Sansi

Whaaaaaat? Are you drunk or somethin?

TC İlker Karacalar
TC İlker Karacalar

Dear People of the World, We are under the attack of Government Police forces in Istanbul. As you are aware there is a continuing passive resistance started in the center of Istanbul, Taksim Gezi Park. But all of the Mass Media (TV, Newspapers,Radio, etc.) is under the control of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Goverment, which aims to silence all opposing ideas. There is Police violence, occurring every night, but there are no news in Media, they are influencing that either there is nothing unusual, and some some government officials making totally false declarations. The resistance consists of well educated young people even with masters and doctoral degrees, and nobody wants a fight but only our freedom of living and freedom of speech. We are the people who have been fed up with living under political pressure of a Government for more than a Decade, which USES religion as their strongest weapon to dictate. This resistance has quickly spread around the country, an even house women and children has started joining and supporting the resistance by making sounds using their kitchen tools, spoons, pans etc. People are driving cars with flags while honking their horns, trying to show that we want our freedom back! Nobody wants to live under dictatorial like government anymore. Government is attacking the protesters by using extreme amounts of tear gas, and Police is terrorizing even residential areas. Yesterday night, a very close friend of mine, have been coincided a “fake” resister, who was throwing Stones to billboards on the street, and after arguing, they have started fighting, and my friend has beaten the guy until he has showed his Police ID, and told that “Leave me, I am a Secret/Civil Police Officer”. The Government is trying to manipulate the Passive Resistance using civil Police spies, to be able to get the rights to use more power over innocent people, who has no aim but to get their Freedom of living back! Please help and support us at least by LIVE BROADCASTING and sharing these facts in Istanbul, Izmir, Ankara, and all around Turkey, to the rest of the World. We need your support to get back our freedom! We need our freedom back! A Proud Turkish Citizen

21stcentury
21stcentury

The Erdogan government may well go down in flames due to the ferocity of the police response. I wonder whether the son-in-law is a pawn or a power player in the greed-grab.

Nkurtar
Nkurtar

Look what pm Erdogan says upon a question by Reuters journalist who becomes a hero to dare to ask :

Journalist: did you get the message of the public?

Erdogan: what message I'm supposed to get?

(Journalist hasitates)

Erdogan:I got 50 percent of the voters and I'm having hard time to keep them at their home..

Can you imagine a statesman mentally in good shape would say this?

sridhar.sid
sridhar.sid

Erdogan has run out of ideas and events are catching up! A man who rode genuine dislike for the Military, came into power as a saviour but soon became an egotist with an agenda to change the Turkish society. A country that has steadfastly been un-Islamic for many decades, was realigned to the Middle East and any dissent was not permitted. In short, Erdogan became another Mubarak. The fear is that, he has polarized the country and the fight will be bitter and no clear winners, like in Tunisia. It is sad that life will not be normal again in Turkey!

LibertineWriter
LibertineWriter

@HazzyDee - that a two way thing? That conflict has been going on for years. Where both sides have suffered at the hands of it.

LibertineWriter
LibertineWriter

@HazzyDee -police brutality, I mean come on.. look what mubarak and assad did to their people.. and as for the kurdish issue, we'll isn't

LibertineWriter
LibertineWriter

@HazzyDee - On the country. Tourism is sky high in Turkey, alcohol is served. Women are able to dress as they please. I've never come -

LibertineWriter
LibertineWriter

@HazzyDee - Against the government. So its not I'm in denial, I just have never come across Erdogan dictating or forcing religious beliefs-

AbdulahAlshamri
AbdulahAlshamri

@ismi_Fadhil The main cause is : The political tyranny and the feeling that Turkey is turning from a Republic to a monarchy

Alper
Alper

@sampa1961atyahoo Then you have no clue what is going on in Turkey. The country is experiencing its most glowing years since the republic of TUrkey was founded. People should put down their ideology glasses down and see what is happening for real. Please do some research before you come to a conclusion. 

LibertineWriter
LibertineWriter

@HazzyDee I generally don't know, it's not that I have an opposing view lol I just have to research on the matter before I have an opinion.

dos360
dos360

@Nkurtar Yes, certainly. Whay about you? Can you imagine sane people clashing with riot police, setting fire to buses or driving up and down the main street beeping their horns?

RamonRoman
RamonRoman

@LibertineWriter @HazzyDee Your are soooo smart. So, you see, Assad is a Secular dictatorship where all type of religions cohabit in peace, and up to now, Assad has never dictated or forced religious beliefs on anybody, but your government is supporting terrorists to overthrow this government. Now, the Erdogan government is a democracy but with Islamic elected officials that is being Arab Springed by his people that see the Islamization little by little of their country. Do you think that your government is going to organize and arm the opposition like is doing overtly in Syria? Do you think that mr Mac Cain is going to travel to Turkey and promise them the help of the powerful American government to overthrow this butcher? The only way that the American government could support the rising of the people would be if the people against Erdogan promise and swear that they are going to keep on supporting the policies of the unruly Israelis and censure any move by the horrible Iranies and their desire to reach the nuclear technology that the Zionists own for so many years with the help of your government.

Kemalist
Kemalist

@BashyQuraishy Who let the spinners out? Is that you, Prime Minister? Let me give you an advice, subtlety....

Nkurtar
Nkurtar

@dos360 @Nkurtar I's very interesting to see you trying to make a new definition of what would a responsible and accountable statesman look like. According to your definition, please correct me if I get it wrong, a prime minister may have the same attitude and approach to the problems of a country with the protesters in country's streets. If this has to do with sanity then there are plenty of things he gets to do. As an example just you gave, he can get into his limousine and drive it as he beeps the horn along the main streets of the major cities. 

BashyQuraishy
BashyQuraishy

@Kemalist @BashyQuraishy 

Dear Kemalist

As a person with Pakistani roots, I am great fan of Kemal Ataturk and how he saved TUrkey from the foreign powers. In Pakistan he is considered a great hero.

Having said that, it is a fact too that AKP government has donne wonders to uplift the socio-economic situation and make TUrkey a premium Muslim country  If you can not appreciate or acknowledge it, then you are not fair or informed.

By the way, I am not a religious person and hate extremist Mullahs and zealots but Erdogan and his associates can not be called Islamists, Islamic or given any other title.

Kind regards