Fear And Loathing Grips Turkey As Anti-Erdogan Protests Gather Pace
Beneath the trees of Istanbul's Gezi park, a group of students was debating the tumultuous events of the past six days. Their unprecedented protest against Turkey's prime minister, Tayyip Erdogan, wasn't exactly a revolution, they agreed. So what was it: an awakening, a renaissance or a citizen's revolt?
What started last week as a small protest against Erdogan's plans to demolish the park has morphed into something much bigger: a non-political mass movement, driven by popular outrage at brutal police tactics. Erdogan has abrasively dismissed his opponents as looters, marauders and bums. On Tuesday his deputy Bulent Arinc struck a more emollient tone, apologising for earlier police violence. He also offered to meet their leaders.
But in reality, the thousands who gathered spontaneously again in Istanbul's Taksim Square, next to the park, do not have an ideology or party political identity. They are non-led. What they share is a keen sense of grievance against Erdogan personally. They accuse him of, among other things, bad ruling habits and developing increasingly pharaoh-like tendencies.
"As prime minister he's supposed to unite our country. In fact, he's doing the opposite," Tamar Tamar said, standing next to the square's statue of Mustafa Kemal Attaturk, Turkey's secular founding father, now draped with red banners and the slogan: "The people to the trenches". Tamar added: "He's dividing Turkey and has been doing it for a long time now."
Tamar's friend Bora Samman said he was unimpressed with Erdogan's majoritarian argument: that having won three elections – with an increased turnout and increased majority each time ââ€“ he was entitled to do what he wants. Before flying off on a four-day trip to Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, Erdogan this week angrily asserted that his ruling Justice & Development party (AKP) enjoyed a huge mandate, and that he could bring out even bigger crowds if he willed it.
"His understanding of democracy is you vote and that's it. But that's not how democracy works," Samman said. He added: "There was a protest by a few true-huggers not wanting another shopping mall being built. The police met his with huge force. Suddenly these pent-up tensions building for a long time exploded."
Just around the corner from the Attaturk monument, a group of volunteers had set up a makeshift clinic in front of Starbucks. A notice on the wall read: "Thanks Starbucks for letting us use this space." The clinic offered milk and lemon, used for treating protesters gassed by police, as well as free soft drinks. Nearby, demonstrators posed in front of a graffiti-plastered yellow van that belonged to a pro-Erdogan Turkish TV channel. The van had been trashed.
Asked what the protests were about, Omer Argun answered that they were an affirmation of decency and basic human values. Argun, 32, a computer programmer from Istanbul, said: "Erdogan doesn't respect us or treat us in a civilised way." The spirit of the anti-government movement, by contrast, was something pure, he suggested, even ethereal: "It's a pure feeling, a good emotion. And the people of Istanbul love us."
Many said they were against what they perceived as Erdogan's neo-Islamist agenda and his clumsy attempt to interfere in personal lifestyles. Mervenur Erol, a 21-year-old student, said she had been revising in the park last week when the police charged in. "I was reading my English literature books," she said.
Erol said she was unhappy with new restrictions on the sale of alcohol – outlawed between 10pm and 6am, aand banished from the vicinity of schools and mosques. "In my view, he's trying to turn us into a totalitarian Islamist country like Saudi Arabia. Next he's going to forbid the morning after pill," she said.
"In the past, the army would step in if the government abandoned secular values," another protester, Onur Ã–zgen, said, referencing the Turkish military's earlier practice of staging undemocratic coups. "They can't do it any more. Most of the generals are in jail. So people have realised they have to voice their own concerns. There is no other way to change [things] than ourselves."
Undoubtedly, the protests have a strong anti-capitalist dimension too. Almost all of the banks in Taksim Square and neighbouring streets have been daubed with graffiti. Much of it is playful: "No to Tayyip! Yes to sex!". One slogan offers a devastating pun on the prime minister's name, rendered as Recop (baton in Turkish) Tayzik (water canon) Gazogan (tear gas). Others advise Turkey's leader to chill, put on some music, and enjoy a nice glass of wine.
Despite clashes between riot police and protesters just down the road, the scene in the park was bucolic for much of Tuesday, with episodes of joyful bacchanalia. About 50 people chanted: "Hey Tayyip! Look at us! Count how many we are!" to a noisy drumbeat. They then set off in a large human conga, weaving in the dusk through the trees, and past stalls selling water melon and an impromptu kebab stand. "Maybe this is a dream. I'm not sure," Dygu Kosel, a 26-year-old English teacher said. "But I feel the touch of something."
Others criticised Erdogan's foreign policy. They said he had misread the Arab spring and the uprising in neighbouring Syria, arguing it would be more appropriate for Turkey to have an isolationist stance, rather than backing the rebels. A frequent refrain was that the prime minister was an American stooge; several posters depicted him as a puppet held by Barack Obama.
Veterans of political struggle detected the whiff of Paris in 1968, when another youthful generation took to the barricades. After almost a week of disturbances piles of debris block access to the square. "It reminds me of the May protests in France," Cengiz Aktar, a well-known professor of political science said. He added: "Erdogan's social policy is based on a very primitive paradigm: consume these wonderful goodies and shut up."
Aktar continued: "Mr Erdogan has been ruling this country in a very personal manner for 11 years. In Istanbul it's even longer since he was mayor between 1994-1999. Now he's started this social engineering project to meddle in the lives of individuals – don't wear lipstick, don't drink etc. It'ss backfired, really. The youngsters who are 20 have only known one prime minister their entire lives. Now they started to understand things."
Would Erdogan seek compromise? "I know the style of this fellow. He never backs down."