What The Hell Is Happening In Turkey?

Tens of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets in more than a dozen cities this weekend following a brutal police crackdown on an Occupy-style sit-in aimed at preventing a popular Istanbul park from being bulldozed:

Protesters lit fires and scuffled with police in parts of Istanbul and Ankara early on Sunday, but the streets were generally quieter after two days of Turkey’s fiercest anti-government demonstrations for years. Hundreds of protesters set fires in the Tunali district of the capital Ankara, while riot police fired tear gas and pepper spray to hold back groups of stone-throwing youths near Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s office in Istanbul.

Istanbul’s central Taksim Square, where the protests have been focused, was quieter after riot police pulled back their armored trucks late on Saturday. Demonstrators lit bonfires among overturned vehicles, broken glass and rocks and played cat-and-mouse on side streets with riot police, who fired occasional volleys of tear gas.

The unrest was triggered by protests against government plans to [demolish Gezi Park and] build a replica Ottoman-era barracks to house shops or apartments in Taksim, long a venue for political protest. But it has widened into a broader show of defiance against Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP).

As of this morning, more than 900 protesters have been arrested and more than 1,000 injured across at least 90 protests throughout the country. Taksim Square remains occupied, although with a smaller group than yesterday. Considering how quickly the demonstrations materialized, Zeynep Tufekci highlights the extensive role social media has played, also noting that while Turkey is no stranger to political protests, she has never seen one this large or spontaneous before. Elif Bauman makes a related point about Turkey’s vibrant protest culture, and why this one seems different:

The feeling of unreality and disconnect is at the heart of the Gezi [Park] demonstrations. Istanbul loves to demonstrate; I can’t remember ever walking through Taksim without seeing at least one march or parade or sit-in, and on weekends there are usually several going on at the same time. Usually, they are small, peaceful, and self-contained, and the police just stand there. For some time now, the demonstrations have had a strangely existential feel. Again and again, people have protested the destruction of some historical building or the construction of some new shopping center. Again and again, the historical building has been destroyed, and the shopping center constructed.

Nearly every slogan chanted on the streets right now addresses Erdogan by name, and Erdogan hasn’t been talking back much. On Wednesday, he told protesters, “Even if hell breaks loose, those trees will be uprooted”; on Saturday, he issued a statement accusing the demonstrators of manipulating environmentalist concerns for their own ideological agendas. It’s hard to argue with him there; there’s little doubt that the demonstrations are less about [Gezi Park’s] six hundred and six trees than about a spreading perception that Erdogan refuses to hear what people are trying to tell him.

In addition, Erdogan and the AKP recently rushed through a law to limit alcohol sales and even targeted kissing in public, moves widely perceived to be theocratically motivated. Regarding the government’s ongoing development plans for Istanbul, Firat Demir explains the outrage:

With no public consultation or discussion, the Erdogan government decided earlier this month to approve a project that would transform Taksim Square into a shopping center, rerouting the traffic that now passes through this vital hub on the European side of Istanbul through tunnels underneath. The news of the project has generated a flood of angry responses from the public, all of which the government has uniformly ignored. Among other things, the proposed redevelopment plan will wipe out one of the few remaining greenspaces in the densely packed area — the latest in a long series of similarly insensitive urban design schemes.

The Taksim plan follows another controversial plan to build a gigantic and spectacularly ugly new bridge on the current site of the Galata Bridge, one of Istanbul’s longest-standing architectural landmarks. The bridge project is the brainchild of Istanbul’s Islamist mayor, an Erdogan ally, who designed it himself. If built, the bridge will completely transform the silhouette of the old city. Apart from the fact that this is the mayor’s sole attempt to dabble in architecture, the complete absence of any public consultation or competition for the project has confirmed, for many Turks, Erdogan’s seeming aspiration to crown himself as the new sultan of Turkey. The ruling party’s misguided ambitions for Galata and Taksim come after a series of demolitions of 500-year-old Istanbul neighborhoods such as Sulukule, Tarlabasi, or Balat that have fed public discontent — particularly since many of those who benefited also appear to have unseemly links with the ruling Islamists. Just to make matters worse, last month the government also finalized a contract for a  new nuclear power point despite mass public opposition to nuclear power throughout the country.

Another new bridge has an offensive name:

The prospective bridge [across the northern Bosphorus] was given the name of Sultan Selim the Grim, the cruellest adversary of Alevis and Shiites in Ottoman history. Conqueror of Egypt, the powerful sultan is known for the massacres of tens of thousands of Anatolian Alevis prior to and after his war against Iran. The bridge might have well been named after Rumi, the great Sufi thinker who spread the teaching of universal tolerance from Anatolia, or any other Islamic humanist. It is not hard to guess how offensive the choice of Selim’s name is for the Alevi community – who form about 10% of the population and are still awaiting an official acknowledgement of their religious identity and worship rights.

Stepping back, Murat Yetkin isn’t sure what the unrest will ultimately lead to, but at the very least the protests mark the first public defeat Erdogan has faced as prime minister, and that his rigid refusal to compromise could cost him still further:

To call this a “Turkish Spring” would be over-dramatizing it. It could be, if there were opposition forces in Turkey that could move in to stop the one man show of a mighty power holder. But it can easily be said that the Taksim brinkmanship marked a turning point in the almighty image of Erdoğan.

Issandr El Amrani similarly wonders if this weekend’s uprising will burst the “much-inflated Erdogan bubble that [has] thrived pretty much unchallenged for the last decade.” Meanwhile, Amberin Zaman offers some key analysis:

My overall impression, and it’s commonly shared, is that the Taksim Park project has morphed into a vehicle for popular resentment against Erdogan’s increasingly dismissive and authoritarian ways. Under a decade of AKP rule, Turkey has become the world’s top jailer of journalists. Its interventionist policy in Syria is causing alarm. The systematic and disproportionate use of force against the slightest display of dissent obscures that the AKP was democratically elected and remains the most popular government in modern Turkish history. Yet, egged on by the slavishly self-censoring Turkish media, Erdogan seems increasingly out of touch.

Zaman adds that next year’s nationwide local elections now loom larger than ever:

Erdogan’s political fortunes hinge on how the government handles the crisis. Pulling back the police and allowing the crowds to gather on the second day was a step in the right direction.

Turkey is not on the brink of a revolution. A Turkish Spring is not afoot. Erdogan is no dictator. He is a democratically elected leader who has been acting in an increasingly undemocratic way. And as Erdogan himself acknowledged, his fate will be decided at the ballot box, not in the streets.

A protester-made video compilation of Friday’s violence in Istanbul is here. To go through a raw feed of photographs of the protests, check out this Tumblr. Reuters has put together an extensive gallery as well, including this photo of a woman being pepper sprayed in the face which many are citing as a major catalyst for the outrage. Update from an expat reader in Istanbul:

Just a quick correction to begin with, you mentioned the name of the replacement of the Galata bridge would be the Selim. This is not true – while there are plans to replace the Galata bridge, I do not believe that there are plans to change the name (although I may be wrong about this point). The Selim bridge is not by Galata (over the Golden Horn), but is in fact the planned third bridge to cross the Bosphorus at the northern end of the straits. It will be the third bridge to do so and has caused immense uproar not just for its name (which your post addressed), but also because of ecological and urban density concerns.

Its construction and the construction of the requisite new and improved roads to it will cause incredible amounts of damage to the forest in the northern portion of the Istanbul metropolitan area. Another issue is the heavy-handed, highly-centralized and authoritarian nature of the bridge’s approval. Erdogan rushed it through without an adequate environmental study and with no input from the local community (a fact shared with the Gezi park and Tarlabasi plans). Two additional mega projects that have caused widespread anger are the third airport, planned to be built to the northwest, and a canal to the west of Istanbul connecting the Marmara to the Black Sea. These two plans are similarly highly desired by ‘King’ Erdogan, but have caused a lot of public anger.

While the relative cost/benefit analysis for any of these projects can be argued (and I personally think the 3rd bridge and a new or heavily expanded current airport are necessary), it is Erdogan’s conduct that is the biggest issue. Whatever he decides is right, he rushes through with little opposition internally in the AKP (everyone is terrified of him, except for those protected by President Gul, who has his own faction within the AKP) and no opposition nationally or locally is allowed.

Erdogan’s dialogue since the protests began has ventured into the absurd, calling the protesters marauders, terrorists, extremists. It has frankly been a fairly diverse and peaceful group. There was certainly violence perpetrated yesterday in particular by a small portion of the protesters (my roommates reported reckless destruction of major brandname stores on Istiklal street), most protesters have been peaceful in spite of massive police brutality and the use of CS and CR gas. I have attached some pictures and videos from the protests in the Kadikoy neighborhood from Friday night/saturday morning (taken at 2:30-3:00am). These are not terrorists or thugs, but ordinary citizens.

No one knows where things will go from here, but if Erdogan loses a bit of his luster, it will certainly help.