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.

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