No one could have ever imagined that a protest by a small group of environmentalists in Istanbul’s Taksim Square would lead to nationwide anti-government demonstrations in Turkey. The incident started on May 28, when a number of environmentalists gathered in Taksim Square to peacefully protest the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government’s decision to build a shopping mall by eliminating the neighborhood’s only remaining park next to the square, Gezi Park.
The AKP’s construction project in the park, which plans to resurrect the Topçu military barracks from where an Islamist revolt (known as the 31 March incident) started in 1909 against the Young Turk government, alienated liberal and pro-secular Turks as well.
The next day, during the opening ceremony of another of the government’s environmentally controversial construction project, Istanbul’s third bridge, which was named after Yavuz Sultan Selim (a 16th-century Ottoman Sultan who massacred 40,000 Alevis), Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan criticized the protests in Gezi Park by declaring, “Do whatever you want to do, but we have made our decision.”
And on May 31, his government sent the riot police to crush the Gezi Park protesters.
The police’s excessive use of violence, using tear gas and water cannon against the peaceful protesters, was the last straw for the masses, which took to the streets.
People from all walks of life (liberal, pro-secular, conservative, center-left, center-right, leftist, anti-capitalist Islamist, Turkish nationalist, Alevi, white-collar professionals, workers and students) spontaneously gathered together throughout the country to protest the AKP government’s authoritarian policies, Erdogan and his party members’ illiberal political rhetoric, and the AKP-backed police violence against the protesters.
The AKP, which has roots in political Islam, has been ruling the country as the party of government since late 2002. The party increased its votes in three consecutive general elections: from 34.3 percent in 2002 to 46.6% in 2007 and to 49.8% in 2011. Following the 2007 general elections, the AKP placed its candidate into the presidency of Turkey. And the party, particularly starting in its second term, has successfully mobilized against the secular-democratic state by exerting its power in executive, legislative and judiciary branches. As the party increased its votes, the AKP has started to reveal its authoritarian tendencies and has recently started to impose its Islamic values on Turkish society.
During its almost 11-year rule, as Erdogan stated, the AKP government initiated “a silent revolution” in Turkey. The AKP silenced its prominent pro-secular critics and curtailed the media and academic freedom by utilizing the Ergenekon trial – Turkey has become the country with the highest number of imprisoned journalists; increased the power of the police, which Erdogan called “the regime’s assurance”; silenced the secular military by utilizing the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer (Balyoz) trials; redesigned the mandatory education system favoring the Islamist movement’s strengthening and enabling the rise of a “religious and revengeful youth,” in Erdogan’s words; prepared a draft law that would restrict women’s rights by imposing an abortion ban after the fourth week of pregnancy including cases of rape and incest, while severely restricting Caesarean births; ordered each theater and opera house to have a small mosque, and each university to build a mosque on its campus; banned the public’s celebration of national holidays, including the republic’s foundation day; erased the “Turkish Republic” from official buildings; tried to intimidate the citizens, who protested the AKP’s policies, by sending the police over the protesters; and most recently, severely restricted the consumption, sale and advertisement of alcohol, while Erdogan implicitly called Atatürk and Inönü “drunken lawmakers.”
In its third term, the AKP, having a majoritarian understanding of democracy, focused on replacing the secular-democratic values of the Turkish state with its conservative interpretation of Islam. Nowadays, every Turkish citizen can easily see the AKP in every sphere of his/her private life. Erdogan suggests that families should have at least three children and people should not drink alcohol because Islam forbids it, but should drink ayran instead, a traditional Turkish yogurt beverage.
Erdogan, facing the Gezi Park protests, raised the tension by denouncing the protesters as “looters,” who were organized by “extremists” and “foreign elements”; called Twitter, which has become a hub for activists and a major news source, “the worst menace to society”; threatened to “choke” investors if they were caught speculating the bourse; and threatened to send his party supporters to crush the protesters.
Indeed, during the demonstrations there were several incidents in various cities of pro-AKP civilians brutally attacking demonstrators with sticks, with no interference from the police. During the nationwide demonstrations, the police excessively used tear gas, water cannons, rubber bullets and nonlethal sound bombs against the protesters.
However, the government’s policy of intimidating the protesters by applying brutal police force has failed and resulted in the creation of solidarity spirit among the protesters against the AKP’s authoritarian policies. The protests also revealed how the mainstream Turkish media applies self-censorship.
During the demonstrations, CNN Türk was broadcasting a documentary about penguins, while NTV was broadcasting a cooking show.
It seems that the tension will continue as Erdogan maintains his illiberal political rhetoric, and responds to the protests by holding mass political gatherings in Ankara and Istanbul, such as those on June 15 and 16. The state-controlled Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) fined four TV channels on June 12 for broadcasting the Gezi Park protests. And the police detained over 70 lawyers, who expressed their support for the Gezi Park protesters, in an Istanbul courthouse.
The nationwide Gezi Park protests show that even if the AKP wins the 2014 general elections for the fourth time, the party may not be able to maintain the stability it has enjoyed since 2002. A consciousness has emerged among citizens in Turkey, particularly among the youth, that they do not have to remain silent facing the AKP’s authoritarian policies. The US has regarded the AKP as a successful model of democracy for the Muslim Middle East. And since 2002, the AKP government has enjoyed the US support. Yet, the recent mass anti-AKP protests reveal that time has come for the US to reassess its policy toward Turkey.
The writer is an assistant professor at Baskent University in Ankara in the Political Science and International Relations Department. She received her PhD in political science from Brandeis University, where she taught courses on Political Islam and Civil Society in the Middle East as a visiting assistant professor. She is the author of The Mobilization of Political Islam in Turkey (Cambridge University Press, 2010).