As a former Istanbul resident I would have never posited that the Park of
Excursion, or Gezi Park as it is widely known in Turkey, would provide the spark
for mass riots against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and
Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi – AKP).
across the globe argue that the ongoing protests are the initial steps in a
Turkish version of the Arab Spring. In light of the AKP’s democratic election
and referendum victories, I would like to stress caution in using the term
“Turkish Spring.” Unlike the Arab states swept up in the tumult of the Arab
Spring, Turkey was and is capable of holding democratic elections. As a result,
the AKP and Erdogan enjoy a certain legitimacy that the deposed Arab dictators
were never afforded.
However, many in Turkey and abroad strongly believe
that Erdogan has accumulated excessive power through the elimination of the
Turkish Armed Forces from the political arena and the weakening of the judicial
system in favor of executive powers, after the 2010 constitutional reform
Having reduced Turkey’s internal check and balances
system to a shell of its former self, Erdogan began making radical political
moves. Solving the Kurdish question, the demilitarization of Turkish politics
and the reduction of the nationalist element in “Turkishness” were long on his
agenda and were inevitably among the radical steps he has
After the existence of the Oslo talks with the Kurdistan
Workers Party (PKK-Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan) became known, both sides began to
agree on certain cease-fire terms that were not clearly explained to the Turkish
public and have apparently resulted in a shift toward the reduction of the
As a consequence, Erdogan began to uproot the very
prominent symbols and pillars of Kemalist Turkey, for example enacting
regulations that restrict celebrating Atatürk Remembrance Youth and Sports
Holiday in stadiums and prohibiting celebrations of the most important secular
holiday, Republic Day, in the former Turkish Parliament plaza.
did not rest on these “achievements.” To quietly de-nationalize the state,
without attracting public attention, he erased the initials of the Turkish
Republic (Türkiye Cumhuriyeti – TC) from some governmental offices. This
resulted in the first important social media trend, as Facebook users added TC
to their names.
IN PARALLEL to his political manuevering, Erdogan began
acting as the social engineer of the Turkish Republic. While explaining his
grandiose ambitions for the Republic’s 100th anniversary in 2023, he openly
appealed to Turkish women to give birth to at least three babies. Moreover, he
has asked to restrict abortions and make it more difficult to have cesarean
sections, a procedure that impedes a woman’s ability to give birth to more than
Erdogan social engineering is affecting young couples as
well. For example, just two weeks ago, young couples who were traveling in
Ankara’s subway were warned by subway personnel that they must act according to
“ethical rules.” Alarm bells quickly rung in the minds of secularists across the
The penetration of Erdogan’s social policies into secular
Turkish life was only exacerbated by the alcohol regulations recently approved
by parliament – banning the sale of alcoholic beverages after 10 p.m. and
putting in place many other restrictions on beverage companies and their
consumers. In an interview with Habertürk’s Fatih Altaylı, Prime Minister
Erdogan called regular wine drinkers “alcoholics.” Moreover, he accused those
protesting the new alcohol regulations of being followers of the “two heavy
drinkers,” in a reference to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and his comrade Ismet Inönü,
the first and second presidents of Turkey, respectively. Despite the public
outcry, Erdogan has not admitted that he targeted Atatürk and Inönü.
of the most important factors behind the outbreak of the Gezi Park/Taksim Square
protests is the project to build a third bridge over the Bosphorus. After the
construction of the first and second bridges, Turkish green movements learned
that the accompanying highways led to the spread of urban sprawl – hence the
protests by many environmentalists against the decision to build the third
Another element causing public anger is that this bridge has a
Neo-Ottoman dimension. Erdogan named it after Selim I, Yavuz Sultan Selim, the
first Ottoman caliph. To Turkish Alevis, a minority community, Yavuz Sultan
Selim is known as the butcher of 40,000 Alevis.
insensitivity to a minority in the name of glorifying the Ottoman past has
caused an outrage amongst the Alevis of Turkey.
Following the bridge
issue, Erdogan has continued to act as “mayor of Turkey” instead of its prime
He initiated a project in the Taksim Square area where the main
roads were transferred to underground tunnels.
However, by the time this
grandiose project could evoke any controversy, it was overshadowed by the
decision to destroy Gezi Park.
As a direct consequence of Erdogan’s
Neo-Ottomanist tendencies, he wants to destroy Gezi Park, and rebuild an Ottoman
artillery battalion fort that was demolished by the secularist Republican
People’s Party (CHP) which will be used as a shopping mall.
movements organized a peaceful demonstration against the decision, which was
brutally suppressed by Turkish police.
This event triggered an outburst
in civil society. Many youths, coordinated via Twitter and Facebook, organized
shows of support for the protesters in the park. Ultimately, the
disproportionate use of force by Turkish police inflated the number of
protesters until the green protest was no longer the focal point of contention
against Erdogan's government.
The protests have turned into a larger
communal protest against Erdogan’s interventions in the daily lives of Turkish
people. In other words, his harsh policies, combined with police brutality,
created an opposition that no one, not even the opposition, could have
The green movements, CHP, the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party
(Barıs ve Demokrasi Partisi – BDP), nationalists, leftists, socialists,
communists, women’s rights activists and the main workers unions (DISK and KESK)
furnish a large share of the demonstrations.
Yet the most intriguing
party to the protests consists of fans of rival leading Istanbul soccer clubs:
Fenerbahçe, Galatasaray and Besiktas.
While clashing with the police,
fans organized an alliance, calling themselves “Istanbul United” in an
Instragram picture, pointing to a common interest to protect their secular
lifestyles and regime, despite their fierce differences of opinion about
Erdogan has yet to soften his stance. He even scolded journalists
on his way to Morocco for “a planned visit.”
Many argue that Erdogan’s
trip to Africa will give the AKP the time and opportunity to clear the masses
from Taksim Square. Time will tell until if “Istanbul will remain
The writer is a doctoral candidate at the Graduate School of
History in Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University.
is a junior research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and