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
On May 29, thousands of ordinary residents decided that they had had
enough of their government’s way of dealing with dissent.
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
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
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
Despite the popular #occupygezi hashtag, the Gezi protests
have nothing in common with the original Occupy Wall Street
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.
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
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.
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.
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
What we have is a nation deeply divided over its
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 www.igalaciman.com