It started in Gezi Park, the last green space in the heart of Istanbul. A developer’s plan to turn the park into a shopping mall had always been controversial so protestors started a sit-in in case construction crews showed up . . . and sure enough, they did.
On May 31, brandishing fake government ID’s and a construction permit, excavators rolled into the encampment and started knocking down trees. The protestors stopped them, but the truce was short-lived. At 5 AM the next morning, police showed up again with tear gas and water cannons to force the protestors out of the park. They used such a brutal and excessive force that it created panic among protestors, and dozens of serious injuries.
Twitter Strikes Again
What the police did not understand was that the protesters were young and––like their compatriots in other Arab Spring uprisings––equipped with cell phones. In the first 6 hours of the protest, they sent out nearly 2 million twitter messages, according to NYU’s Social Medial and Political Participation laboratory. Their tweets and Instagram photos of the mayhem spread across the Internet and, within hours, thousands of Turkish citizens filled nearby Taksim Square to join the protest. They were there not so much to protect the park as challenge the arrogant response of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who after three terms in office seems determined to impose his will on all facets of Turkish life.
Three Weeks of State Terror
Istanbul is a city of 13 million people and one of the most cosmopolitan in Europe. As the largest city and most prominent secular state in the region, it has been fertile ground for artists and liberal thinking progressives, and its vibrant economy has made Turkey a vital link between Eastern and Western cultures.
Since 1987, the country has been in a slow dance to join the European Union. When Erdogan was first elected prime minister in 2002, the negotiations accelerated. European leaders took note of Turkey’s stable economic growth, but there was always one more hurdle before Turkey could join the club. Now the biggest hurdle may be Erdogan himself.
Over the last three weeks, the protests against him have spread across the country––and state police have responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. At least five persons have died and over 7,500 people have been injured––more then 20 of them critically. Thousands more have been taken into custody. Lawyers who sought to represent them have been arrested in the courtrooms, and doctors attending the wounded protesters have been arrested.
“Revulsion” not “Revolution”
The violence has come to overshadow the original cause of the protest, and Erdogan’s intransigence has stirred opposition from otherwise silent members of the middle class. When Turkey’s economy was resurgent, they were happy to share in its prosperity. The little freedoms they sacrificed seemed a small price to pay; but they now fear Erdogan is intent on tightening his grip their everyday lives.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman came away from a weekend visit to the country believing the Turkish protestors are not engaged in an act of revolution, but one of revulsion. “They aren’t (yet) trying to throw out their democratically elected Islamist prime minister,” he wrote. “What they are doing is calling him out. Their message is simple: “Get out of our faces, stop choking our democracy and stop acting like such a pompous, overbearing, modern day Sultan.”
A Pragmatist and an Islamist
Erdogan has a long history in Turkish politics. The son of a coast guard officer, he was educated in Muslim schools but graduated from college with a degree in business administration. From 1994 to 1998, he served as mayor of Istanbul, instituting a variety of pragmatic programs to solve its sanitation, public transportation and utility needs. At the end of his term, however, state officials turned on Erdogan and sentenced him to ten months in prison (he served four) for reciting a poem about the faithful soldiers of Islam that was deemed by the Turkish penal code to be an incitement to religious hatred.
Erdogan returned to politics in 2001 by founding the religiously inspired Justice and Development Party (better known as the AKP). On the promise of greater tolerance and religious freedom, Erdogan swept into office in the 2002 elections and the AKP captured a majority of seats in the Grand National Assembly. Many Turks were surprised with the success of the AKP after it came to power. Erdogan’s monetary policies allowed Turkey to gain economic power in the region and his regime was soon recognized as a blue print for Islamic democracy.
As democracy took a beating in countries surrounding Turkey, Erdogan’s strong-handed control of his country burnished his image as a regional leader. But his diplomatic skills didn’t sit well with most of its neighbors. He easily won re-election in 2006 and 2010, but as his confidence grew, so too did his appetite for shaping Turkey in the image of his party.
More Police, Fewer Freedoms
Erdogan started building a huge police force. He expanded the budget for the religious affairs ministry (now higher than the educational ministry). He started arresting the journalists –Turkey has more journalists in jail than Russia and ranks 154th in the world for press freedom –and public demonstrations, even things as mild as university students protesting tuition increases, brought arrests and reprisals.
His 2012 re-election gave him control of the election process for judges and allowed him to get rid of generals in Turkish military who raised their voice against his autocratic rule. With parliament’s support, he raised taxes on media moguls who were using their TV channels and newspapers to expose government scandals. Recently, he also has been lecturing citizens on when and where they can drink alcohol, how many children they should have (3), and the need to ban both abortions and Caesarean sections. He has even offered citizens advice on what docudramas they should watch.
The Protest Grows
Erdogan tried to mollify the demonstrators last week with an offer to put the park development up for a public vote in Istanbul, but what happens to the park is now the least of his problems. Violence over the weekend spread to streets throughout Istanbul, the Turkish capital of Ankara and the city of Konya, an AKP stronghold. Besides their twitter accounts, the protestors are now covering their cause through an Internet-based TV channel called ChapulTV; and Turkey’s five largest trade unions – with a combined membership of 860,000 – called a general strike last Monday.
The people of Turkey want their freedom; they don’t want the government to interfere with their lifestyles. So until the AKP leaders understand this, the protests will go on.Her yer Taksim, her yer Direnis (Everyplace is Taksim and uprising is everywhere)