ISTANBUL - For the last two days, Istanbul’s main center, Taksim, and its surrounding areas, have been under siege due to a massive peaceful protest. Thousands of canisters of tear gas have been fired at hundreds of thousands of peaceful protesters throughout the city, together with water-cannons spraying tainted water that burns the skin, all while the protesters screamed in unison, "Erdogan Resign!" While protests, and other forms of dissent, have been met with force in the past, there is no doubt that during the last year there has been a proliferation of the use of teargas, especially following the election of Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for his third term, two years ago.
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While the current protest originally was sparked over an urban renewal project, which included destroying the Taksim’s main park, the only green area in the immediate vicinity, and reconstructing to its former glory an Ottoman armory that once stood there on the park's ruins, the truth must be told that the current protest was much more profound than the campaign to save the seventy-five year-old trees of the park.
When the conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) first came to power in 2002, under the sole leadership of Erdogan, many hashed out exaggerated claims that his party was secretly promoting a radical Islamic agenda; however, the majority of Turkish people never believed this. Not to mention that many Turkish liberals embraced Erdogan as an agent of change, as the one that could challenge the secular military elite, as the one that could bring new freedoms to Turkey. In fact, during the first few years, Erdogan ushered in not only the building of a strong economy, but also a period where civil organizations multiplied, with a genuine sense of change in the air.
Despite the bad record Turkey has had with jailing reporters, long detentions and trials for military officers arrested on suspicion of masterminding a coup d’état, and numerous students detained for years in prison for protesting, many liberals still placed hopes that Erdogan could shape a semi-liberal constitution for Turkey despite his very conservative views; something that in 2010 led Erdogan to a solid 58 percent victory in the referendum over Turkey’s new constitution (still in the works). Just a year later, in the 2011 parliamentary elections, he came very close to securing fifty-percent of the total Turkish electorate.
It was in the 2011 elections campaign that Erdogan clarified his goal of changing the law in order to allow him to transfer new powers to the presidency, and then run for president himself, allowing him to continue to rule in one way or another until at least 2023, the 100th year anniversary of the Republic. In fact, his ambitions are not confined to the issue of state positions; during the last two years, it has become evident that Erdogan is only interested in a one-man show, with him in the center. And having centralized so much power he has made his aims clear: To transform younger Turks into a 'moral' generation, while transforming Turkey into a major regional and world economic powerhouse.
From implementing policies encouraging women to have three children, to his goal to raise a 'moral' generation of youth that will sign up to his interpretation of what a good Muslim is, more and more Turks have become tired of a Prime Minister who promotes policies that interfere with their daily lives. Just before the protest began new laws were enacted aimed at curbing alcohol consumption in the public sphere. It should be clear it is not that so many Turks would be affected by the laws; even if drinking Raki (and beer to some extent) is considered by many as a Turkish pastime, actually a low percentage of them actually drink on a regular basis. Rather, it was in the very condescending way Erdogan related his disdain for those who do drink, inferring that they were all drunks.
Parallel to this, Erdogan’s personal dictation of the policies of urban renewal and of massive infrastructure projects have taken their toll on the Turkish population. It seems that no power is strong enough to stop a project that the Prime Minister supports; whether it is the third Bosphorus bridge, the new mega-airport, or the numerous dams that are flooding cities throughout the Anatolian heartland. In fact, it was due to this very reason that the Erdogan’s obsession to replicate an Ottoman armory, even stressing his wish that it be used as a shopping mall, irked so many, regardless of political affiliation or social background. As high rises replace shanty towns, and shopping malls blossom at the speed of flowers in the spring, the 606 trees at Taksim Park turned into a real issue for many.
Today’s massive protest in that sense were not a revolution; they were not set on overthrowing the government; the protestors' aim was to have their voices heard and to demonstrate that even if Turkey is a democracy according to the books, that a democratic system should ensure rights for all, as well as fostering a climate of debate. This point cannot be understated especially when it comes to the Turkish youth that - to a great extent - does not see eye-to-eye with the government’s conservative outlook. For so many people in their early twenties, the only Prime Minster they have ever known is Erdogan, and they long for a new reality where they can take part, contribute to their society, and not be considered hooligans for simply enjoying a beer. In fact, in the park protest, Turkey showed to what extent its youth want to be a part of making their home a better place.
Lastly, with the protesters now in Taksim Square, once the police barricades were lifted, it has shown Prime Minister Erdogan, and all of his government ministers, that even if they have one of the biggest stockpiles of teargas in the world, it cannot be used to silence those who oppose them. The protests are a strong message to Erdogan that a significant part of his society is frustrated with his arrogance, and perhaps gives him a signal that his wish to become President might not be that easy a feat at all.
Louis Fishman is an assistant professor at Brooklyn College, City University of New York. Ths year he is in Istanbul working on his upcoming book on late Ottoman Palestine, and teaching Middle East history and politics courses at Okan and Sabanci Universities. He has lived most of his life divided between the U.S., Israel, and Turkey. Follow him @IstanbulTelaviv or on his blog: http://louisfishman.blogspot.com