The real cause of the Turkish protests

They're not about shopping malls or housing but what some believe is an increasingly dictatorial government

Published June 3, 2013 3:15PM (EDT)

ISTANBUL, Turkey — From every corner of this vast city they came to Taksim square, the scene of government attempts to replace a public park with a mall.

The square has become the symbol for Turkey’s broadening protest movement as more and more people from all strata of society are drawn to the demonstrations to express their mounting frustrations with the government.

Thousands arrived at the square on Saturday, every hour and from all directions. There were Greenpeace activists, football fans, supporters of opposition political parties as well as right- and left-wing groups.

The streets were mostly for the young, but there were families and elderly couples, too. Riot police beat back surging crowds using wave after wave of tear gas.

Student doctors and nurses roamed Taksim square, applying a solution of water and sodium bicarbonate to anyone with red eyes.

Paper masks were handed out, though by Saturday evening, many protesters were better prepared and equipped with head-covering latex gas masks.

Calls for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s resignation reverberated around Istanbul’s city streets and by 5 p.m., police were driven from the square by a shower of stones and bottles.

Though most demonstrators left Taksim square overnight, some stayed sleeping on grass patches, keen to maintain control of the area and to savor in what had just been achieved.

More than a shopping mall

The anger in Istanbul runs deep, and today Erdogan is facing the greatest threat to his leadership since being elected 10 years ago.

Bayram Balci, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East Program, said the protests were a tool, a way to express people’s general opposition to “the progressive dictatorship of the prime minister.”

“In the last months the prime minister started to adopt very conservative measures including talk of curbing abortion and limiting where people can drink alcohol,” he said.

“People do not like this intrusion into their private lives and the project of Taksim was a pretext for them to manifest their dissatisfaction.”

Legislation passed by the Turkish parliament on May 24 includes banning all alcohol advertising as well as the sale of alcohol at sports clubs, health centers, student dorms and gas stations. Shops cannot sell alcohol after 10 p.m. or within 100 yards of mosques.

Furthermore, the morning-after pill can no longer be purchased without a prescription.

Many people hold Erdogan solely responsible.

“People feel like they are being put in chains,” said Onus, a sound and light engineer sitting outside an abandoned opposition rally in Kadikoy on Saturday evening. He put his hands together imitating being handcuffed. “People don’t like Erdogan because they feel he has put them in prison.”

Many Turks are also disillusioned by the government’s stance on the war in Syria where Ankara has provided significant support for Syrian Muslim Brotherhood figures in the Syrian opposition.

On May 11, the deadliest terrorist attack in modern Turkish history killed 52 people in Reyhanli, but the incident was largely unreported in the Turkish press following a temporary government court order banning media coverage.

Analyst Balci believes that when Erdogan took office in 2003 he looked to implement important reforms to democratize the country but as his power and popularity grew he stopped consulting and engaging the Turkish people.

He says the anger fuelling those filling the country’s streets and squares is directed at one person, not the broader Turkish government.

“I think this is specifically against him. What is interesting is that President [Abdullah] Gul has presented his apologies as has vice-prime minister Bulen Arinc, but not Erdogan — he has repeated that the project to construct a mall will go ahead.”

Some of Erdogan’s achievements have been lauded.

He has modernized the country’s infrastructure by building modern highways and rail services between Ankara and Istanbul, significantly reducing travelling time between the country’s largest cities.

Turkey’s government is also popular for turning around a failing economy, successfully paying back huge IMF loans and negotiating Kurdish militants to a cease-fire earlier this year.

Furthermore, Istanbul is undergoing a major infrastructure expansion, with the world’s first inter-continental subway line set to open next October. Istanbul is also vying with Madrid and Tokyo to hold the 2020 Olympics — an honor that would perfectly illustrate Erdogan’s vision and legacy for Turkey.

Few think the current protests will force Erdogan to resign, but his political capital has been dramatically damaged.

“If I were his adviser I would advise him to abandon this project,” said Balci. “This is too bad for him. But his problem is that he is very proud — he has a big ego.”

The Turkish government can point to the vandalized shops and banks along Istanbul’s iconic pedestrian Istiklal street as a reason not to bow to demonstrators’ demands. Some protestors also threw rocks and bottles at police lines.

Erdogan can also count on support from other sections of Turkish society, particularly the conservative and rural-living Turks. It is widely thought he could put a million of his supporters on the streets at short notice.

But with protests spreading to more towns and cities every day, Erdogan’s legacy may turn out to be very different from the one he once imagined.

By Stephen Starr

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Asia Europe Globalpost Greenpeace Recep Tayyip Erdogan Turkey Turkish Protests