Although the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul’s Taksim Square conjure memories of Cairo’s Tahrir Square, there is a great distance – both geographical and ideological – separating the two. The protests in Istanbul were sparked by a government decision to turn the pleasant park into a huge commercial center, and to construct a new system of roads meant to assuage some of the terrible traffic jams and transportation difficulties that characterize Taksim square. The park, however, is the spring and summer setting for thousands of families to enjoy themselves, and for young people to meet – all of them looking for respite from the city’s heat and humidity. The protests have also been apparently adopted by environmentalists – opposing the removal of a natural landscape, and the increasing hold of tycoons on the city.
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But what started a few days ago as a local environmental protest quickly spread to other cities as it developed into a comprehensive political protest against what has become known as Prime Minister Racep Tayyip Erdogan’s “sultan-like tyranny.”
Public rage was fueled by the brutal- and, so far, unsuccessful- way in which the police have attempted to disperse the protests. Using, among other means, batons, tear gas, and water hoses to disperse the protests, police have injured dozens. In addition, Erdogan’s response that the project in Gezi Park will continue as planned, did not help to lower the flames of protest.
Erdogan is currently at the high point of his three consecutive terms. Turkey is in excellent economic shape, the nation is popular with the west due to its important geopolitical status – based on its importance in the Syrian crisis, and the Turkish decision to sponsor the rebels. The plan meant to settle the Kurdish dispute which Erdogan initiated is advancing well. He managed to extract an apology from Israel’s prime minister, and at this point, there is no real political opposition that could threaten his rule.
But these successes are unappreciated by some portions of the population, specifically liberal secularists, which see them as a reflection of the prime minister’s tyranny. What is regarded as a direct attack on the media is joined by legislation seemingly aimed at advancing a religious agenda, like prohibitions on the sale of alcohol and the forbidding of May Day protests in Taksim Square- moves perceived by some as dictatorial.
On the other hand, Erdogan has a strong political base, and enjoys the support of many important businessmen, who, like a large portion of the middle class, are happy with his economic policy, which has overseen a drastic increase in quality of life and availability of jobs.
If the struggle over the fate of the park is not forgotten within the next couple of days, Erdogan will have to decide how to act. Large protests and images of their suppression published in global media outlets have already prompted some large brand-name companies to state that they will not open branch locations at the planned commercial center. Human rights organizations in Turkey and around the world are calling for investigations into police activity at the protests, and the European Union has already shown apprehension over planned discussions of the possibility of admitting Turkey as a member.
Erdogan has already proved in the past that he knows how and when to retreat, and he is likely to manage to find a roundabout way to complete the project. Clues can be seen in the remarks of Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc, who criticized the use of tear gas, stating "It would have been more helpful to try and persuade the people who said they didn't want a shopping mall, instead of spraying them with tear gas."
Arinc also expressed satisfaction with the court’s decision to suspend the project – and it’s likely that the court will provide the government with an escape route out of this whole ordeal – as a meeting is scheduled for Saturday between Istanbul municipality officials, the park project managers, and the architectural society, aimed at finding a solution to satisfy all sides.
Erdogan will likely come out of this challenge unscathed, but it will teach him an important lesson regarding the limits of his power.