News Column

Protests Sweep Istanbul, Other Turkish Cities

June 3, 2013

Elizabeth Bloom

It was always about more than just a park.

A small group of Turks joined a sit-in Friday at Istanbul's Gezi Park, just off Taksim Square to protest the development of the city's 94th mall on the last green space in the concrete city center. In responding to the peaceful protest, the Turkish police fired tear gas, water cannons and pepper spray onto the citizens they are tasked with protecting. It was not a particularly unusual response for the police forces, who have been known to use similar tactics against crowds in Turkey's largest city, including as recently as May Day.

But this time was different. Rather than retreat from the police, the protesters grew in number; rather than assess whether the demonstrations would fizzle out, the police responded with increased brutality. Reuters reported that more than 1,000 of the tens of thousands of protesters have been injured in Istanbul, and several hundred more in the capital city of Ankara, in the course of over 90 demonstrations during the past three days.

As the protests expanded, to other neighborhoods in Istanbul and to other cities in Turkey, so did the objective. Turks have come out in the thousands to oppose the Islamist government, headed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, that many believe has threatened the political foundation of this traditionally secular democracy.

As one example, the government recently passed legislation limiting the sale of alcohol after 10 p.m. and has funded various controversial public works projects in Istanbul, from mosques to a bridge across the Bosporus that will be named after a controversial Ottoman sultan.

Now, the feeling in Istanbul is one of confusion, anger and eerie tension. Transportation has been curbed, as whole neighborhoods have turned into combat areas. Turkey has the highest number of jailed journalists in the world, and the press is frequently censored. Turks and witnesses have relied on websites such as Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter to share their observations and experiences, though a crackdown on social media has limited access to these networks. As a result, rumors are spreading as quickly as the protests themselves: that 40,000 people protested on Saturday on one of Istanbul's bridges; that police have used guns and Agent Orange on citizens; that they've fired tear gas into ambulances, taxis and inside subway cars.

These rumors have not been substantiated, but their persistence is indicative of the atmosphere in this city. While the protests have been contained to a few finite (albeit large) areas, Turks are driving throughout the city waving flags, honking horns, banging on cooking pans and marching in solidarity with the movement. Many have called on Mr. Erdogan to resign. But the prime minister is widely popular in the more conservative parts of the country, so his re-electability -- and his continually expanded power -- may not be weakened by the weekend's events.

The police violence, fear mongering and reliance on social media have strong hints of the Arab Spring, events more reminiscent of a dictatorship than a democracy.

Turkey has historically been the most secular country in the Middle East, a strong ally of the United States and a perpetual candidate for European Union membership.

Critics of Mr. Erdogan's party claim that it has been undermining the country's secular political framework for years. The government's response to its citizens' demands will provide insight into whether they are right.

Elizabeth Bloom: Ebloom@post-gazette.com

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