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Scenes from the Gezi Park Protests

In booming Istanbul, the middle class Erdogan helped create has turned on him

Gurcan Ozturk/AFP/Getty Images

On Monday afternoon protesters in Istanbul's Gezi Park, a small green space yoked by urban development, celebrated the park's status as the epicenter of Istanbul's anti-government protests, mostly with beer. Young people gathered on the grass eating triangles of red watermelon and high above their heads someone lounged comfortably in a rainbow-colored hammock strung between two tree branches.

Small groups of protesters—Marxist youth, university collectives, LGBT activists—circled the park, raising banners high in the air. Free food, masks, and bottles of a chalky mix of antacid, milk, and water (to counteract tear gas) crowded makeshift stalls. People joked about the fact that, in the midst of the most significant challenge to his authority since he took office ten years ago, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had left Turkey for North Africa. A sign read: "Dear pilot taking Tayyip to Morocco. You can be a public hero." The festive mood represented a change from the past few days when the area, normally a destination for shoppers and businesspeople, was a war zone between protesters and police.

Only a week ago, Gezi Park had been marked for demolition and the mass protest was a small sit-in with about 100 activists gathering to protest Erdogan's plan to replace the park with a shopping mall. Of course, it was about more than that: Gezi Park is one of the last remaining green spaces in central Istanbul, a city where development has forced disenfranchised locals to live among the construction and traffic of the mega city Ergogan envisions as Turkey's economy expands. Around the park construction crews had already erected an endless line of steel gates. Soon those gates became barricades against riot police.

I spoke to Cihan Baysal, a housing rights activist and one of the original protesters, on the phone. The Gezi Park sit-in was a compromise in the face of a bullying government, she told me. "We could not resist enough. The government was very determined," she said. "So we turned the discourse into saving the trees… four days later we had visitors from all over and from all the opposition groups. I think Erdogan was very successful in getting all these groups to protest together," she laughed. 

At dusk, Gezi Park's revelers pulled on masks in preparation for tear gas. They were dazed. Istanbul is a city of protests—Istiklal Avenue off of Taksim Square is usually full of them—but it is also a city where those protests are strictly contained, ignored, or suppressed. Riot police dispatched like soldiers to enemy lines behave as such. A now iconic photo from the early days of the Gezi sit-in shows a riot policeman aiming a sepia plume of pepper spray directly into the face of a young woman who, judging by her loose hair, red dress, and sandals, hadn't expected a fight.

These frequent protests reflect growing resentment against the government. In recent years Erdogan has grown more authoritarian, making decisions without the input of his colleagues, never mind the population. Some of his measures seemed designed to return secular Turkey to its conservative Islamic roots. He restricted alcohol, vowed to defund public theaters, and condemned an Ankara couple for kissing in public. He has attacked women's rights, calling abortion (legal in Turkey) murder and deeming childbearing (ideally three or more) to be a patriotic duty.

In doing so, Erdogan felt secure in the love of his supporters, who tend to be religious. But the scaling back of individual rights by an authoritarian leader is an infringement on all of Turkey's citizens. Erdogan's base may have voted for a religious party but, just like secular Turks, they assumed that their vote meant they lived in a democracy. Even in Uskudar, the conservative neighborhood where I live, women in headscarves lean out their windows every night at nine o'clock, banging pots in solidarity with the protesters.

In the past, Erdogan has used his economic victories as a shield against criticism. As the protests show, there's an irony to this. By creating a strong middle class—one with wealth and education—Erdogan also created a class of people who are confident enough to speak their mind, and they expect to be heard. In this, he may have also unintentionally strengthened Turkey's dormant left wing, an opposition separate from ultra-nationalists, which was effectively destroyed following 1980's military coup. Monday night, young leftists mingled with members of the old guard, one of whom carried a placard that read, "Revolution is the only solution," and told me he had been to big protests in 1975, but nothing like this.

Murat Paker, a professor of psychology at Bilgi University, is encouraged by this. "The protests imply a strong, but still small, emergence of a new left movement," he told me. "They represent a new type of opposition, not the nationalistic masses who want to go back to the previous regime."

Economic growth has also increased the already existing tension between secular and religious Turks, perhaps leading to the secular portion of the uprising against Erdogan. "The secular middle class thinks they are kept away from the real wealth and power," Mesut Yegen, a professor of sociology at Sehir University, said. "They think the new conservative part of the middle class is being supported by the government."

In prioritizing wealth and development, Erdogan has disenfranchised Turkey's poor. In Istanbul, aggressive gentrification has led to the forced removal of poor, largely minority, citizens. In Tarlabasi—a run down neighborhood on the brink of destruction which borders Taksim—residents joined the protests. Their dismay with the government obscured their ethnic and political differences. 

The list of grievances goes on. Anxiety over Erdogan's murky Syria policy (most Turks are against aiding Free Syrian Army fighters) boiled over when two car bombs exploded in Reyhanli, a Turkish town close to the Syrian border. The names of those killed in the blasts are displayed on the trees in Gezi Park. Erdogan's government severely limits freedom of expression and uses anti-terror legislation to control dissent. A justice system that favors the government over the people is already being tested by the accusations of police abuse in custody (which is widespread and includes the unlawful strip search of protesters, according to Kaan Karcilioglu, a Turkish lawyer representing protesters). Protesters also object to Erdogan's leadership style, a paternalism exemplified in his speeches over the past week. "Erdogan talks to us like we are children," one protester in her late twenties told me.

"There are two images of the government," Yegen said. "One side presents itself as democratic and the other hand it is authoritarian." The democratic side—Turkey as a regional model and an ally of the U.S.—tends to dominate internationally, thanks in no small part to Erdogan's skillful promotion. At the same time, systematic censorship of the Turkish media keep local truth-tellers silent.

In 2012, the Committee to Protect Journalists described Turkey as the "world's worst jailer of journalists," with over seventy journalists in prison. Those who avoid arrest do so by submitting to self-censorship, and the threat of closure or fines has led to the overhaul of local newspapers and television channels, transforming them into government mouthpieces. When these more subtle measures fail, government-mandated media blackouts cut all coverage. Over the past week the local news ignored the protests in favor of documentaries about penguins.

Erdogan has been criticized for defining democracy in terms of votes, not as a system of government that encourages pluralism and debate. "The 49 percent have a voice too," the same 28-year-old woman (who preferred not to give her name) told me. Monday night, the crowd wasn't overwhelmingly diverse—Kurds are missing in large numbers and most of the protesters do seem to fit the profile of secular Turk—but there were plenty of people defying popular assumptions about Turkey. I spoke to an elderly woman, who was wearing a headscarf, and her daughter, who wasn't. Does the headscarf mean she is pro-Erdogan? They laughed. "We are not close to the government," the daughter said. "We are against the racism and discrimination that Tayyip makes… and we are here for women. We are trying to prove to Tayyip that women also exist and that he can't just do and say whatever he wants."

Before he left for North Africa, Erdogan referred to the protesters as "extremists" and "vagabonds" and, in rhetoric reminiscent of the Arab Spring dictators he loudly condemned only two years ago, alluded to an international conspiracy. In an interview with the Turkish TV station Haberturk, Erdogan called Twitter a "menace" and dismissed the protests as puny compare to the numbers he could rally. Last night, while helicopters circled above Gezi Park and clouds of tear gas blew over protesters, the crowd only seemed to get bigger and the chant unified into one short slogan: "Tayyip, resign." Erdogan's arrogance, long criticized but tolerated, is now being called hubris.