What began as an outbreak of protests over the redevelopment of Istanbul’s Gezi Park has rapidly escalated into widespread anger at what protesters view as the Turkish government’s overly conservative and authoritarian agenda.
“This is not an Arab spring,” one protester, Melis Behlil, told journalist Mark Lowen in Istanbul on Tuesday. “We have free elections here. But the problem is that the person elected doesn't listen to us.”
I was just in Taksim Square a few weeks ago, and have watched in surprise as a brutal police crackdown on protests just two weeks ago has swelled to a tumultuous moment in Turkey’s history.
Day after day protests have spread throughout the country, reaching parts of Istanbul, Ankara and beyond. Police have been cracking down on protesters, firing tear gas and water cannons with some protesters firing back with stones and petrol bombs. More than 5,000 protesters have been injured in the violence and five people have died.
Amid the growing government crackdown, the White House released a statement Thursday calling on Turkey to uphold freedoms of expression and assembly.
“Turkey is a close friend and ally of the United States, and we expect the Turkish authorities to uphold these fundamental freedoms,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
The European Union, too, has weighed in on the issue, passing a non-binding resolution on Thursday that “deplores the reactions of the Turkish government and of Prime Minister Erdogan, whose unwillingness to take steps towards reconciliation, to apologize or to understand the reactions of a segment of the Turkish population have only contributed to further polarization.”
Late on Thursday Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan agreed to meet with the protesters for the first time, though he announced his meeting in the form of an ultimatum.
“Our patience is at an end. I am making my warning for the last time,” he said. “I say to the mothers and fathers, please take your children in hand and bring them out ... Gezi Park does not belong to occupying forces but to the people.”
Istanbul Governor Huseyin Avni Mutlu too offered to meet with protesters, tweeting on Tuesday, “For those who want to talk face to face tonight, from midnight we will talk in groups, if necessary until morning.”
Following his meeting with Erdogan, Tayfun Kahraman, a protest group leader, told reporters that there was a positive result to the encounter.
“The prime minister said that if the results of the public vote turned out in a way which would leave this area as a park, they will abide by it,” he said.
“His comments that the [development] project will not be executed until the judiciary makes its decision is tonight's positive result,” he added.
While both parties concluded the meeting on a seemingly positive note, there is still some question as to whether or not protesters encamped in Taksim Square will leave, or whether the police will forcibly remove them.
Meanwhile, analysis of the tumult in Turkey varies widely.
Graham E. Fuller, former vice chairman of the CIA’s National Intelligence Council cites Erdogan’s vast accomplishments in terms of transforming his country’s economy – now the 17th largest in the world – and solidifying its place not only as a U.S. ally but a geopolitical player in its own right.
But he says that Erdogan’s success might be fading.
“After a decade of accomplishments, Erdogan may be running out of steam, sowing the seeds of his own destruction through an impulsiveness and arrogance that has cost him much support — symbolized in his ill-conceived plans to ‘develop’ Gezi Park in Istanbul, now a symbol of many grievances,” he writes in a recent op-ed in the New York Times.
Journalist Mark Lowen in Istanbul says he believes larger changes must take place to satisfy what is now a growing contingent of Turkish citizens.
“I have spent days in Taksim and Gezi Park and have met mainly young leftist Turks enjoying a largely festive atmosphere here,” he says. “The petrol bomb-throwers are the fringe.”
Lowen adds that Turkey is in “deep crisis, unsure of the path ahead.” He says that “a large section of this population feels alienated from the government and won't be cowed by tear gas.”
In light of Erdogan’s meetings with protesters, it’s hard to say what the next chapter of Turkey’s tumultuous episode might be.
Lowen says that in his mind, one thing is certain.
“One of the world's key Muslim democracies is now in dangerous waters,” he says.
Kristin Wright is a columnist and contributing writer at ReligionToday.com, where she focuses on global human rights issues. Kristin has covered topics such as bride trafficking in North Korea, honor killings in Pakistan, and the persecution of members of minority faiths in Iran. She has visited with religious minorities in Pakistan, worked with children at risk in Mumbai's “Red Light” district, and interviewed individuals on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Kristin recently returned from Turkey and the Syrian border, where she covered the plight of refugees fleeing the conflict. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Publication date: June 14, 2013