Since last week, anti-government protesters have filled the streets of 67 towns and cities across Turkey. The protests began when, last Monday, a group of peaceful protesters occupied Gezi Park, the last green space in the center of Istanbul.
The park has been slated for demolition under Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s urban redevelopment plan, to ease traffic around the iconic Taksim Square (in the photo above) by turning it into a pedestrian space and building a shopping center. According to Erdogan, this would not be a “traditional mall” but include a cultural center and a mosque; an Ottoman-era military barracks has also been planned.
However, the reason that a demonstration in Gezi Park with people doing yoga, barbecuing and holding informal concerts has turned into violent clashes that have left 20-year-old Mehmet Ayvalitas dead, more than 1,700 arrested and scores injured from water cannons and tear gas deployed by police stems from anxieties about Erdogan’s “growing autocratic ambitions.”
Growing Authoritarianism of Turkey’s Government
Many protesters say they fear that, under Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey (a secular republic) is increasingly havng conservative Islamic values imposed on it. The week before the protests, Erdogan had passed anti-alcohol laws. Journalists have repeatedly been sued for defamation by politicians and jailed; on Friday, CNN Turk aired a cooking show while CNN International showed footage of protesters in the streets of Istanbul.
Backed by a “pious capitalist class” — many of whose members have moved into Istanbul from places such as rural Anatolia, says the New York Times — Erdogan has maintained his hold on power for a decade. During that time, he has established civilian control of the military, which had been behind three past coups of the government; more than 300 army officers are now in prison after show trials. Turkey’s secular opposite has found itself sidelined even as, under Erdogan, the public expression of religion has grown, with more women wearing headscarves.
Other landmarks in Istanbul that have been bulldozed to make way for malls include the city’s oldest movie theater, the Emek Theater. The destruction of this landmark occurred even over the objections of Turkey’s first lady, Hayrunnisa Gul, the wife of the Turkish president, Abdullah Gul. To renovate a port, a 19th-century Russian Orthodox Church could be torn down.
The government is proceeding with plans for a controversial third bridge over the Bosporus River. The bridge is to be named after a sultan who some Turkish Alevis (members of a religious minority blending aspects of of Shi’ia Islam and Sufism) consider an “Alevi slayer.”
Turkish President Contradicts Prime Minister Erdogan
Erdogan is blaming “extremist elements” fueled by his political opponents as behind the protests and has denounced them as being any kind of “Turkish spring.” But President Gul has defended the right of the protesters to demonstrate, saying that “democracy does not mean elections alone. There can be nothing more natural for the expression of various views, various situations and objections through a variety of ways, besides elections.”
Erdogan’s “hubris” seems quite apparent in his decision to continue with a state vision to Morocco, Tunisia and the Maghreb. Meanwhile, “nearly every slogan chanted on the streets right now addresses Erdogan by name, and Erdogan hasn’t been talking back much,” says the New Yorker. Turkey’s leftist Public Workers Unions Confederation (KESK), which represents 240,000 members, says that it will hold “a ‘warning strike’ on June 4-5 to protest over the crackdown on what had begun as peaceful protests.” Already, thanks to a crowd-funding campaign, $60,000 has been raised towards a full-page ad in the New York Times that will call for “democratic action and new dialogue on Turkey” and to “occupy Gezi for the world.”
The protests in Turkey are “bigger than Greece and closer to Egypt” and “already something more than the Turkish version of Occupy,” comments Paul Mason in the BBC.
Writing from Turkey’s capital, Ankara, Binnaz Saktanber notes that the streets have been quiet for the past several hours. On Saturday, Erdogan himself said that “every four years we hold elections … Those who have a problem with the government’s policies can express their opinions.” As Saktanber wryly comments, “What a good idea.”
Photo via resim77/Flickr