The Struggle for the Heart of Istanbul

It's becoming clear that it will take more than one chaotic weekend to derail Prime Minister Erdogan's plans.

ISTANBUL — Thousands of anti-government demonstrators gathered in the center of Turkey's largest city on Monday night, preparing to stand their ground against what they feared could be the imminent arrival of riot police.

Roads leading to Istanbul's Taksim Square, known as the "center of centers" in the sprawling metropolis, remained blocked off by gutted vehicles and scraps of wood and metal, which the protesters moved to reinforce. Police pulled back from Taksim on Saturday, and there were few demonstrators in the square during the daylight hours of Monday. But with working hours over and reports of further clashes with the police, the protesters returned to chant slogans against the country's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Two young demonstrators said they had been in Gezi Park, adjacent to the square, when they smelled tear gas wafting up the hill from a road along the Bosporus Strait. Police had moved to disperse demonstrators who were trying for a third night to march on an office used by Erdogan.

"It's going to get messy," one young demonstrator said, as a helicopter buzzed over head. "Please support us."

Would they stay in Taksim even if Istanbul's brutal police force moved up the hill to pour tear gas on the demonstrators?

"We will try," one of the demonstrators said. "Will try for as long as we can."

Small kebab shops remained open, and protesters cheered as fireworks popped off and thousands of people rushed to the square.

Even before protesters reconvened in Taksim, the day brought news of the first casualty of the unrest. Mehmet Ayvalitas died after being struck by a car that drove into a group of protesters. It is unclear if the incident was accidental or not.

A teenage protester sitting next to an improvised barricade in Taksim said he'd come from a faraway neighborhood, "because I hate the government." There had been no sign of the authorities since Saturday, but he believed there was only so much longer that the protesters could stay in Taksim before the police moved in.

Public anger at Erdogan has been building for some time -- and boiled over during the past weekend due to what protesters describe as his authoritarian nature.

"There's never been other protests like this in Istanbul or in all Turkey," said Yaman Kuleli, a 36-year old bank employee.

Like the majority of demonstrators, Kuleli focused his grievances on the prime minister: Erdogan was limiting personal freedoms, such as recent restrictions on alcohol, to promote conservative religious values. He'd bullied the country's media into submission through arrests of journalists, and by intimidating or co-opting media barons -- a fact obvious to anyone with a television set, as most local stations opted to broadcast music and cooking shows rather than covering the protests.

Having won three elections since coming to power a decade ago, each time with a larger percentage of votes, Erdogan appears to believe he has a mandate to lead Turkish society as he sees fit. He is focused only on his supporters, Turks that are "like him" -- Sunni Muslim and nationalist -- Kuleli said. The demonstrators feel that he treats the rest of the country as a minority that should be unseen and unheard in their own country -- a sentiment reinforced by Erdogan himself, who described the protesters as "arm-in-arm with terrorism" and said Turkey's intelligence services are investigating their links to foreign actors.

This mentality, coupled with police brutality against a peaceful sit-in by activists who wanted to prevent the destruction of Taksim's Gezi Park, the last green space in the center of the city, came together to drive thousands of mainly secular Turkish citizens onto the streets for mass protests.

The initial police response was Erdogan's worst enemy. The security forces attempted to push the demonstrators away, firing excessive amount of tear gas into the crowd, some of the canisters hitting demonstrators and journalists in the head. The demonstrators, meanwhile, fled down the pedestrian shopping street Istiklal. A small number threw rocks and pieces of cement at the police, but most remained peaceful. They communicated via cell phone and social media to try to find small streets to push back into Taksim, but were continuously blocked by police.

"The more violent the police got, the more people came," said Betul Tanbay, one of the founders of the Taksim Solidarity Organization, which organized the initial Gezi Park sit-in. "We knew when the bulldozers arrived there would be a huge reaction, because Taksim represents a lot in Turkey."

Realizing the protesters would not give up and facing an international outcry over the crackdown, the police ceded the square on Saturday. Protesters soon flooded in: An estimated 100,000 people held what amounted to an impromptu street party, complete with beer and kebab from nearby shops. Some protesters even slept in Taksim and Gezi Park to make sure authorities did not return.

Many pundits have argued that demonstrators were from multiple segments of Turkish society. It is true, to an extent -- but the majority appear to have come from segments of the population already inclined to dislike Erdogan. Most were middle class youth, somewhere between 20 to 30 years old, with liberal sensibilities that clashed with the Turkish government's social conservative bent.

"These are not people who are demanding bread. These are people who are demanding freedom," said Aykan Erdemir, a parliamentarian from the Republican People's Party (CHP), Turkey's largest opposition party. 

"This is what I think the prime minister is missing. What he is doing is in stark contrast to the every day life of [these] youth. You have 20 years of freedom and then you suddenly get a new father who is very authoritarian and abusive."

Socialists and communists were also a major presence in the Istanbul protests -- at night they clashed with police across the city, especially in Beskitas, a neighborhood where Erdogan keeps an office. A large delegation from the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) also appeared on Sunday, waving banners showing the face of Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed icon of the Kurdish movement. They received many glares from the Turkish nationalists and their flags did not stay out for long, but the traditional rivals were able to coexist in Taksim.  

Why did they make the point of being there with the Ocalan flags? "Kurdish people are the most pressured society in this country," said 17-year old Kurd named Baran."We want freedom."

Amid the tear gas and angry, smartphone-wielding crowds, I experienced an unpleasant sense of déjà vu. The protests were similar to demonstrations in Caracas, Venezuela, in 2007, which I had witnessed as a university student. Following Hugo Chávez's decision to close opposition television station RCTV, protesters gathered in a central square and banged loudly with pots and pans at their windows -- the clamor of a minority that felt powerless before the majority. 

Turks raised their windows to bang pots and pans in support of the protesters as well. But much like the Venezuelan protesters, it was quickly apparent that any success would be limited, if achieved at all.

It's going to take more than a few days of protest to stop Erdogan's push to remake Turkey in his own image. On Sunday, the prime minister said that there were no definite plans for the construction of a shopping center in place of Gezi Park -- but, he insisted, "a mosque will be built in Taksim." Protesters also cited the third bridge being built over the Bosphorus Strait as another example of Erdogan's divisiveness: The bridge will be named for Yavuz Sultan Suleiman, or Selim the Grim, a 16th century Ottoman sultan known for massacring members of Turkey's Alevi community, a branch of Shiite Islam. Today, Alevis make up between 10 to 30 percent of Turkey's population.

"Why did you select this name? Is there not other names?" Kuleli said. "The bridge is against the Alevis and the Shia."

The Turkish government's support of rebels in Syria was another major grievance of the protesters. According to a recent poll, only about 28 percent of Turks believe the country's Syria policy is being handled effectively.

Assad might be a dictator, Kuleli said, but "I don't know." More concerning to him was the May 11 car bombings in Reyhanli, a town on the Turkey-Syria border, that Erdogan's government blamed on Syrian intelligence. "52 people are dead. Who killed them? The government's policies."

The unpopularity of Erdogan's Syria policy was echoed by Can Taskiran, who stood in Gezi Park on Sunday with his wife and teenage daughter.  "We don't want pressure on Syria from Obama," he said, pointing out Erdogan's close relationship with the United States.

"We want to protect our environment, our park in Taksim Square," he said. "We want to protect Ataturk's ideas and thinking...Recep Tayyip Erdogan is against Mr. Kemal Ataturk." 

For some Turks, there is no greater insult.



How Not to Win Friends and Influence the Turkish People

Turkey's bombastic prime minister has convinced himself that just because he wins elections, he can govern the country all by himself.

"Where they gather 100,000, I can bring together 1 million."

That was not only one of the highlights of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's initial reaction to the massive protest against his government that shook Turkey in the past weekend. It was also the gist of his problem.

Erdogan, the most popular premier Turkey has seen in the past half-century, believes in what political scientists would call a "majoritarian democracy." In other words, he believes that once he gets the majority of the votes -- which he has done successfully throughout the past decade -- he has the right to make every single political decision in the country. He disregards all opposing views, and, furthermore, employs an overbearing tone to shout them down.

The recent dispute over Istanbul's Taksim Square, which triggered the demonstrations, was a perfect example. Erdogan wants to rebuild the square according to his own vision, so the Istanbul municipality, which is controlled by his political party, initiated a reconstruction project. One of the details is the replacement of Gezi Park, a small green area, with a reconstructed Ottoman military barracks, which, as Erdogan said in passing, can also serve as a shopping mall.

But many Taksim residents want to keep their park as it is, and some founded a civil society initiative asking to be heard. But the prime minister never wanted to listen. Instead, when they launched the "Occupy Taksim" campaign last week, a movement with a similar spirit to the "Occupy" movements in Western countries, Erdogan's government responded in a way one should not see in any democracy -- with a police attack on peaceful demonstrators with tear gas and water canons.

As the news of the crackdown spread quickly on Twitter, thousands gathered in Taksim to help the initially small group of demonstrators. Continuing police brutality only added more fuel to the fire, and in a couple of hours the crowd had already grown into tens of thousands. They were soon joined by masses protesting all across the country. One of the demonstrators, appearing on Al Jazeera, summed up the basic demand: "We just want Erdogan to listen to us."

But listening is not Erdogan's strong suit. Instead, he branded the protesters as "a bunch of looters" guided by extremist elements, and denounced Twitter as "a menace to society" that was spreading lies about what was happening in Turkey. (There were indeed some false tweets about imaginary police atrocities that provoked the crowd, but they were also soon proved false on Twitter as well.)

It should be noted that not every group that hit the streets are as liberal-minded as the initial "Occupy Taksim" group. Erdogan has enemies from all walks of life, including Turkish ultra-nationalists who despise him for granting too many rights for Kurds and initiating a historic peace deal with armed Kurdish separatists. Some left-wing groups despise him for making Turkey too "capitalist," and bash him for opposing the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who they see as an "anti-imperialist" hero. Some of these more ideological protesters also engaged in vandalism in the second day of the protests, including the arson of the headquarters of Erdogan's political party in the city of Izmir.

But still, the overwhelming majority of the protesters were peaceful, and their basic demand was just: a more liberal and participatory democracy than what Erdogan has constructed. They want the government to stop manipulating the media, restrain the police, and try to build consensus with the opposition on major political issues.

The tension between Erdogan's moral conservatism -- which some call "soft Islamism" -- and the more secular part of Turkish society is also a component of this whole story. Erdogan did not turn Turkey into an "Islamic state," and he probably never will impose sharia, or Islamic law. But he asserts religious values and symbols all the time, and recently pushed through a law that places new limitations to alcohol consumption. In a recent TV program, he defended such measures by saying, "I love my nation, and I want to protect them from bad habits." But there are many Turks do not want to live under such a "loving," and imposing, national father.

The big question is where Turkey will head from here. There is no reason to think that Erdogan lost too many votes in the face of these protests -- some even argue that his voting base is even more intact. But he, and his party, should now see that ballots are not the only thing that counts. In the several speeches he made after the beginning of the events, Erdogan remained defiant, while still acknowledging "mistakes" in police behavior. Meanwhile President Abdullah Gul, who comes from the same political camp as Erdogan but has repeatedly proven more moderate and liberal, declared, "in a democracy, elections are not everything" and "the messages [of the protesters] have been taken."

The optimistic view is that these protests will be watershed event that will help shape a more mature Turkish democracy. Erdogan and his political allies will restrain their hubris and seek more consensus than confrontation and imposition. The other alternative is that Erdogan, as his instincts and his hardcore supporters demand, will maintain his intimidating style, turning Turkey into a fully illiberal democracy -- and putting it on the path to be shaken again and again by massive protests.

Sadly, that would result in the destruction of the success story Erdogan has created in the past decade by his own hands.