By Jago Kosolosky
Since May 28 Turkish citizens have been protesting the demolition of Taksim Gezi Park. The Erdogan-run AKP government is planning to build a large shopping mall housed in replica Ottoman-era army barracks on the scene. The Gezi Park protests are quickly evolving into something much bigger and the genie seems to have escaped the bottle as Aljazeera is calling it “the fiercest anti-government demonstrations the country has witnessed in years.”
More than Sycamore trees
Though the protests started from an ecologist point of view, mainly the police’s response has transformed the motivation of many filling the streets of Istanbul. Local activists mention that the fight has now gone beyond saving trees. To them, this is about a government mentality that “not only suppresses but attacks its own people.” The main issue seems to be the increasingly authoritarian and uncompromising tendencies of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan during his third successive term in office.
The law passed just days ago restricting alcohol advertising and sales is said to be another symptom of the Islam-rooted AKP’s autocratic tendencies. Many people also protest the seemingly nonstop building of new mosques and the emphasizing of Turkey’s Islamic past over its Byzantine and Roman legacies.
It is not only the building of mosques which people oppose. The economic policies of the current government have relied heavily on continuous building in Istanbul in order to power economic growth. Though true that due to this construction boom Turkey’s economy has emerged relatively well from the global financial crisis, some analysts worry a US-like bubble might be in the making.
The protest movement also comes amid continued public anger at Turkey’s policy towards neighboring Syria where it supports the rebels. Many Turks fear this will lead to a violent spillover into their country as recent car bombings in Reyhanli, killing dozens of people, seem to prove.
There is a lot of uncertainty among protesters and officials as to what will actually happen to the area. People’s sincere concerns are being “exploited by misinformation” regarding the Taksim Gezi Park demolition, causing “unpleasant reflections” in the city, Istanbul Mayor Kadir Topbaş said Friday at a press conference set up after the police crackdown on protesters earlier that day. He claims a necessary enlargement of the sidewalk is the only reason the trees are to be removed.
For now, a district court has ordered a temporary stop on any construction at Taskim Gezi Park after protesters have been peacefully protesting and taking action in a very original way; reading books and novels to the police in order to “educate them.” Another stealthy trick is the changing of a sign saying “There is construction going on in Taksim Square, use alternate route.” Change one letter and the beautiful Turkish language Nazım Hikmet once wrote in allows you to state there is a battle going on in Taksim Square.
None of this however is shown to the Turkish public as media channels are said to be censored. Harun Acar, a young research assistant at Kocaeli University’s Faculty of Economics and Administrative Sciences said: “Local television stations aren’t airing anything. Is this democracy?”
Harun is furious: “I wrote a scientific article about Syria recently which will be published this summer. I state there that the people of Syria have the right to resist to the leader Bashar al-Assad is. Now I am saying the same for the people of Turkey. Although the government has the majority, they are no longer legitimate.”
The police have been using teargas and, according to the protesters, “clear excessive force.” Thursday night a Kurdish member of parliament is said to have been attacked and hospitalized. And though it is impossible to confirm at this time, there are rumors of two deaths already.
Police forces attacked Taksim Gezi Park protesters Friday at dawn with tear gas and violence in a renewed attempt to disperse crowds. In total over a hundred people were injured, sixty were detained and two were to be hospitalized with head injuries. The most severe case however is that of a Turkish national of Palestinian origin who had to undergo brain surgery after fractures to her skull, though she is doing well in intensive care, according to Istanbul governor Huseyin Avni Mutlu.
Several protesters in Istanbul were injured when a wall they climbed collapsed during a police chase, and a prominent journalist was hospitalized after being hit in the head by a tear gas canister, the private Dogan news agency reported.
All this has turned the center of the city into a battle zone at the height of tourist season. The interior minister pledged on Friday that claims of excessive force would be investigated yet this does not suffice for protesters now enraged due to the violent crackdown. Harun: “People are furious in Taksim but I think the majority of the Turkish people don’t even know what is going on or think we are the ones who attacked the police.”
One of the few green areas left in the center of Istanbul, the park can be found in Taksim Square, Istanbul’s equivalent of Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Though the protests have turned into an informal referendum on recent Turkish government policies, it is doubt worthy whether the Arab Spring is coming to Turkey.
Harun: “If you ask me whether the Arab Spring is coming to Turkey, I have to say no. The regime still has the majority behind them, but this does not sit well with international human rights standards. This is a call for help. If we cannot have the support of western societies we are lost.” It is most unlikely the cry for help will receive an answer any time soon with the major powers of the world tangled up around Syria and still looking at Erdogan’s Turkey as a role model for the region.
Protests however are growing and have spread to the capital of Ankara and two areas of the coastal city of Izmir where tear gas was used as well and many were injured. In Ankara the police found itself trying to disperse people trying to reach the headquarters of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). While trying to contact local protest leaders, we were told “to call back at another time because there is a huge protest going on.” One cannot claim they are in it for the media attention.
The government however, has made clear it will go ahead with the planned project. “They can do whatever they want. We’ve made our decision,” Erdogan said Wednesday, according to the semi-official Anadolu news agency. He emphasized the importance of the rebuilding of the Ottoman barracks as a matter of having “respect for history.” Critics disagree however, stating that the project is an easy way of making profit from the sale of real estate in Istanbul’s main commercial district. Only the future will show which side is right.