While CNN reports on violent clashes in Istanbul, and the State Department issues a Travel Alert, I meet my Turkish friend, Elif, on a boat on the Bosporus. As we move through the waters that separate Asia from Europe, she talks about what’s happening in Taksim Square, where most of the protests have been centered.
“It’s complicated,” she says. “Sometimes people are dancing and celebrating, and then outside my high school my friends are being attacked.”
As the song “Thrift Shop” blares on the deck, and tourists dance along, it’s hard to believe that on the opposite shore, the scenes Elif describes are unfolding: the tear and pepper gases, the hospitalization of her high school friend, the chanting for democracy and freedom. She is eager to go to Gezi Park and visit friends who have been camped out in tents there for more than a week. For a quick glimpse of history in action, her father has agreed to escort us.
The protests in Istanbul were sparked by a group of environmentalists who were trying to stop a few hundred trees from being cut down. “It’s about much more than the trees,” Elif scoffs. It’s about the restriction on alcohol, the attacks on women’s rights, the attacks on LGBT rights, the news censorship, the government’s denouncement of PDA, the Islamization of Turkey, Prime Minister Erdoğan’s development-at-all-costs policies…the list goes on and on, and as Erdoğan rouses the police and refuses to back down, it gets longer.
This was weeks before the riots in Egypt exploded, but the turmoil seems to have a common theme: middle-class resistance to religious and autocratic government. In both Turkey and Egypt, the young, the educated and the tech-savvy take to the streets. They are mostly the middle-class, with incomes and democratic worldviews. They may be Muslim or Christian by faith, but they want their government secular and non-authoritarian.
“If you’ve read 1984, that is our situation,” Elif said, referring to Orwell’s chilling vision of a totalitarian world. Teenage hyperbole aside, her fear for the future is palpable.
We disembark the boat, and head for Taksim Square. Shattered glass litters the floor, graffiti covers the walls and people shout into megaphones, waving flags of Atatürk, founder of the Turkish republic. “You’ve got the guns but we’ve got the numbers” is spray-painted on a storefront.
At the same time, Elif runs into her friends who, having staked out their territory and ready for action, are playing cards to pass the time in their tent. Teenagers pose for photos next to barricades and overturned trucks, like tourists in a history exhibit. It’s a strange hybrid—at once and passionate and peaceful. It reminds me a bit of Occupy Wall Street until a siren sounds. A man on a stretcher is rushed past me. Police line up in the periphery. The violence, we understand, happens at night.
That evening, in my hotel room, I can hear echoes of tear gas bombs. On the news, the tents I saw just hours before are being forcibly cleared away.
The same routine has cycled for weeks now with increasing violence. As protests spread to Ankara and other cities, it’s hard to know whether Turkey will reach the intensity of Egypt.
One glance at the fiery photographs in the news, and Egypt really does seem “on the brink of a volcano.” This week, protestors torched and firebombed the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters. Just yesterday, the army issued Morsi a 48-hour ultimatum to share power. Like in Istanbul, the protestors are mainly secular, and feel threatened by the authoritarian instincts and religious dogma of the government. Part of the emerging global middle class, they want religious freedom, opportunity and an end to police brutality.
No one knows what will come next. According to the Wall Street Journal, the middle class “rarely succeeds on their own in bringing about long-term political change. They seldom represent more than a minority of the society.” In Istanbul, despite the graffiti’s claim that “we’ve got the numbers,” Erdoğan remains popular outside the city.
Even if Erdoğan or Morsi quell the riots, they can’t crush the next generation’s determination to shape its future. More than anything, the power of ordinary people has shined through the haze of tear gas. Those eager to change the status quo have taken to the streets, paralyzed their governments and seized the attention of the world. As Elif said, “I feel sad, but very, very proud.”
Photo Credit: Frances McKee