It’s neither Zuccotti, nor Tahrir – it’s Taksim

Analysis: The prevailing sentiment among Turkish protesters is that Erdogan's gov't has grown increasingly authoritarian.

June 5, 2013 03:49
Turkish protester in Istanbul's Taksim Square

Turkish protester in Istanbul's Taksim Square 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)

ISTANBUL – In recent years, Istanbulites have become all too familiar with the sudden feeling of asphyxiation, the stinging in the mucous membranes and the nausea that come with inhaling tear gas. “The police must be dispersing a political gathering again somewhere nearby,” they say, lately almost every day.

On May 29, thousands of ordinary residents decided that they had had enough of their government’s way of dealing with dissent.

The Taksim Dayanısması (Taksim Solidarity) movement, organized by a small group of environmentalists, was initially meant to stop the city government from demolishing the last remaining green space in Istanbul’s city center. The group started a peaceful sit-in at the Gezi Park on Tuesday, May 28, holding a banner against the demolition of the park in front of a few plastic tents. At 5 a.m., the riot police raided the park with pressurized water and tear gas and set all the tents on fire as the protesters ran away. Bulldozers then entered the park to uproot the trees.

When the protesters returned to the park in the evening, the police intervened even more heavy-handedly, this time spraying mace directly into some of the protesters’ faces – images of which spread like wildfire over the online social media, resulting in thousands of young people rushing to the park in solidarity.

The police ordered a shutdown of public transportation leading to the area, refused to let anyone into the park or the surrounding Taksim Square, and dispersed the crowd with more tear gas and pressurized water, which resulted in numerous injuries. Within hours, the new wave of protesters numbered in the tens of thousands, and soon the protests spread around the country.

In its June 2 statement to the Turkish government, Amnesty International referred to the “disgraceful use of excessive police force in Istanbul,” while Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament, remarked that the “severity with which the police responded is completely disproportionate and will only lead to expansion of the protests.” In response, various members of the Turkish government promised a thorough investigation into police practices.

Yet interviewing various protesters, one quickly understands that the crowd has already moved past the trees and even police practices. The prevailing sentiment among protesters is that the AKP government under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has grown increasingly authoritarian over the years, with most protesters voicing opposition to incessant crackdowns on their lifestyles regarding issues ranging from alcohol consumption and abortion to fine arts and public displays of affection.

Turkey is one of the strictest censors of the Internet and also boasts the highest number of journalists in prison of any country in the world, according to Reporters Without Borders.

Recently Turkish courts have delivered jail sentences to internationally acclaimed, atheist pianist Fazıl Say and Turkish- Armenian writer Sevan Nisanyan for insulting Islam.

Primed by events such as these, the secular stratum of Turkish society quickly seized on the momentum to turn the issue from uprooting trees in Gezi Park to a struggle over Turkey’s identity – which, under AKP rule, has steadily evolved from a secular, Euro-centric stand to an Islamic and Middle Eastern one.

Despite the popular #occupygezi hashtag, the Gezi protests have nothing in common with the original Occupy Wall Street movement.

Gezi protesters have no qualms about the economy, nor about the widening income gap. In fact, the Turkish economy has trebled in size over the last decade, and both inflation and unemployment have gone down.

“An important segment of Turkish society rejected trading democracy, liberties and pluralism for economic growth,” wrote Kadri Gursel, a self-styled press freedom activist and a political columnist, on June 3.

His words echo a larger sentiment.

Here, most protesters are employed or in school, and they are going back and forth between their daily jobs and protesting on the streets at night. They cut across all professions and political persuasions.

Erdogan has dismissed much of the criticism, calling the protesters “a bunch of looters. ” When the “looters” remark vibrated through the social media, protesters staged a massive “clean-up protest” after the clashes subsided in Taksim, cleaning up the park and streets for hours to showcase that they were civilized citizens. To counter the “looters” label, a large number of artists, journalists and academics issued statements in support of the movement, pointing out the high representation of students and businesspeople among the protesters.

Seyla Benhabib, a Turkish-Jewish professor of political science and philosophy at Yale University and a senior fellow at the Transatlantic Academy, has been one such supporter within the Turkish intelligentsia.

“This moral micro-management of people’s private lives comes amid an increasingly strident government assault on political and civil liberties,” Benhabib said. “Turkey’s record on journalistic and artistic freedoms is abysmal; rights of assembly and protest are also increasingly restricted.”

Now, after a week of protests, the demands of the protesters are unclear. Some of them, mostly the young, vow to continue the protest until Erdogan steps down. The unions and non-governmental groups want to open a dialogue with the government on issues ranging from green public space to alcohol use, while others, including business executives such as Piraye Antika, former chief executive of HSBC Group in Turkey, suggest that these protests could swiftly lead to the formation of a strong political opposition movement in Turkey.

So, is Taksim another Tahrir? Definitely not. While the popular protests are about political rather than economic issues, the two cases are quite different. Unlike Mubarak, Erdogan is an elected leader with a politically active, large support base. Taksim is the expression of discontent from only half of society, a half that is united in its dislike of Erdogan’s rule but otherwise comprises different ethnic and socioeconomic groups. Meanwhile, the other half strongly supports the AKP’s conservative agenda.

What we have is a nation deeply divided over its identity.

The increasingly polarized rhetoric in politics and violent confrontations on the street reveal that the two identities might be hard to reconcile, unless the Turkish political elite can enact democratic reforms aimed at increasing constructive dialogue between two opposing groups. 

Igal Aciman is a business development executive and a free-lance journalist. His blog can viewed at

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