The “Arab Spring” uprising was originally intended to oust dictatorships and bring in democracy. Unfortunately it rapidly turned into a nightmarish winter with the rise of Islamists, sometimes through the very democracy that the protestors were demanding.
But could the wave of protests in Turkey, which have grown from a simple urban protest against a planned shopping mall to an anti-Erdogan and anti-Islamist protest, usher in a real Spring for Turkey this time? Certainly Erdogan has been overstepping the mark recently with new legislation banning the sale alcohol as well as starting a new battle against tobacco. He defended these moves thus:
Anti-smoking legislation has saved people from falling victim to second-hand smoking, the prime minister said, adding that this was a topic that received great attention from him even back in the early days of his career when he was working as Istanbul mayor.
Erdoğan said places previously used only by “a certain minority” had now been opened to public use.
“We banned drinking, we banned smoking. These places began to fill up. Our people want peaceful places. There is a tyranny of the minority. It is our duty to protect the lawful acts of the minority as well. The fight against alcohol is constitutional,” Erdoğan said.
Erdoğan said it was wrong to describe the recent legislation as an “alcohol ban.” “Did we ban alcohol? No we did not. We only presented a new framework. This is not an issue of banning anything, but simply drawing a framework for it,” he said.
“What’s essential to us is the benefit of our people. I will not back down from taking steps toward the preservation of my people’s future just because someone’s fun is being interrupted,” Erdoğan added.
Parliament has adopted a highly controversial alcohol bill proposed by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), tightening restrictions on the sale and advertising of alcoholic beverages.
Erdogan has compounded his political mis-steps by back-tracking from the shopping-mall plan in the face of the huge public protests, but then announcing that the Ataturk Cultural Center will be demolished and a mosque will be built instead. One gets the feeling this is not what the secular Turkish public would like.
Erdoğan also said the much debated Atatürk Cultural Center (AKM), also on Taksim Square, should be demolished, proposing to build an opera house and a mosque there instead.
The riots, which began as a local protest at Taksim’s Gezi Park, which was slated to be demolished for the barracks and shopping mall, have spread throughout Turkey to places such as Istanbul and the port city of Izmir:
Turkish protesters clashed with riot police into the early hours of Monday with some setting fire to offices of the ruling AK Party as the fiercest anti-government demonstrations in years entered their fourth day.
Turkey’s streets were calm in the morning after a night of noisy protests and violence in major cities.
In the western port city of Izmir, protesters through fire bombs at AK Party offices overnight and television footage showed part of the building ablaze. Firefighters put out the fire, the Dogan news agency reported.
Bus shelters, paving stones and street signs ripped up by protesters to make barricades that littered a major avenue by the Bosphorus strait in Istanbul where some of the heaviest clashes took place overnight, and graffiti covered walls.
Roads around Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s office in Istanbul were sealed off as police fired teargas to push back protesters in the early hours of Monday.
Erdogan decried the political jumping on the bandwagon of what was originally a civic protest, and he may have a point, but he brought this upon himself with his dictatorial way of governing:
To the root of the matter, Erdogan claimed that the protests had little to do with urban redevelopment, rather hinting at behind the scenes political string pulling.
“It is unfair to label this government anti-green or anti-environmentalist,” he said, “I want my nation to see the game some circles are playing in the country. Nobody has the right to raise tension in this country claiming that trees are being chopped down.”
Regarding claims of Erdogan’s anti-democratic stripe, he said “Everyone should know that Turkey is a country where parliamentarian system fully functions.
“Every method other than elections is anti-democratic. I am not saying the government is not accountable. We are not claiming that the government can do whatever it wants. But, just like the majority cannot pressure the minority, the minority also cannot impose its will on the majority,” he said.
Medics said close to 1,000 people were injured in the clashes in Istanbul on Friday, the fiercest anti-government demonstrations for years. Half a dozen lost eyes after being hit by gas canisters, the Turkish Doctors’ Association said.
The US State Department said it was concerned by the number of injuries while Amnesty International and the European parliament raised concern about excessive use of police force.
Interior Minister Muammer Guler said allegations that police had used disproportionate force would be investigated.
Protests erupted in the capital Ankara and the Aegean coastal city of Izmir late on Friday and there were calls on social media for similar demonstrations in more than a dozen cities on Saturday
Ozturk Turkdogan, the head of the Turkish Human Rights Association, said hundreds of people in several cities were injured in the police crackdown and a few hundred people were arrested. The Dogan news agency said 81 demonstrators were detained in Istanbul.
The protest was seen as a demonstration of the anger had already been building toward Turkish police who have been accused of using inordinate force to quash demonstrations and of firing tear gas too abundantly, including at this year’s May Day rally.
There is also resentment from mainly pro-secular circles toward the prime minister’s Islamic-rooted government and toward Erdogan himself, who is known for his abrasive style. He is accused of adopting increasingly uncompromising stance and showing little tolerance of criticism.
As mentioned above, there were many reports of police brutality during the demonstrations, which in turn triggered further demonstrations around Turkey:
Istanbul residents on Saturday posted photos and videos of bruised and bloodied protesters, of civilians wearing gas masks and surgical masks to protect them from police offensives and of security forces using pressurized water and tear gas to keep them in check.
The protesters, meanwhile, held up signs denouncing Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government. “Tayyip is a dictator,” read one sign, while another read “Turkish Spring.” Yet more signs read “Support Gezi Park” or “Occupy Gezi.”
One of the last few green spots left in the center of Istanbul, Gezi Park was once part of the city’s Armenian cemetery. It was confiscated in the 1930s and made into a park. In recent years, Erdogan has expressed his intent to demolish the park, possibly in order to build a mosque there. Earlier this year, he announced that the urban park would be destroyed; on its ruins, a shopping complex and replica of Ottoman-era barracks would be built by a private contractor.
On Friday night, thousands marched from the central, trendy Taksim Square on the European side of Istanbul to Kadikoy on the Asian side, crossing one of the Bosphorus bridges en masse to protest both the demolition of the park and the crackdown on the peaceful sit-in dedicated to saving it.
If Facebook is any indication, the riots are to become daily occurrences, with over 30,000 people pledging to attend demonstrations until the first of September.
In preparation for a three-month-long series of protests and police retaliations, the demonstrations have been ironically titled the Istanbul Gas Festival, so named after the method used by Istanbul police to disperse them.
Here are more very dramatic and graphic pictures of the demonstrations.
Loth as I am to compare Turkey to Israel, the demonstrations in Turkey have triggered worldwide solidarity protests:
Spontaneous protests broke out worldwide Saturday in support of a series of anti-government demonstrations in Turkey, originally ignited by a call to preserve a recreational area in Istanbul which is scheduled to be demolished in order to construct a shopping mall in its place. Hundreds of protesters in Vancouver, Amsterdam, London, and Berlin, as well as many other cities across the globe, gathered to express outrage at the heavy-handed tactics which Turkish police used to break up a peaceful sit-in at Istanbul’s main Taksim square on Friday.
Boaz Bismuth in Israel Hayom writes that these protests are a warning to Erdogan:
Will Taksim Square become to the Turks what Tahrir Square was to the Egyptians? It is too early to tell and the chances are high that the answers to both questions will be no. But Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, drunk with power following electoral victories in 2002, 2007 and 2011, has been dealt a serious blow by the worst unrest since he took power.
The massive protests, in which a wide range of ideological groups have taken part, are a warning to Erdoğan. It is unclear whether the protesters will save the trees in Gazi Park (Istanbul’s equivalent of Central Park in New York), but they already have given Erdoğan a lesson on the limits of power. His dream of becoming president in 2014, after a constitutional reform to replace Turkey’s parliamentary system with a presidential one, no longer looks as certain as it did before Friday.
How ironic is it that Erdoğan, who lectured Arab leaders about morality during the Arab Spring, let his security forces use excessive force in dispersing protestors? This is the same Erdoğan who in 2011 called on his former friend Syrian President Bashar Assad to deal gently with protesters. Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoabi, another of the “righteous” from our region, expressed sympathy for the Turkish people on Saturday, saying they “don’t deserve all this violence” from Erdoğan. What a happy neighborhood.
This is also the same Erdoğan who recommended that Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi separate religion and state. But it was in fact Turkey that passed a new law last week restricting the sale of alcohol, another step meant to change the face of Kemalist Turkey.
In a speech on Saturday, Erdoğan said that Turkey is a democracy (even though the local media blackout of the unrest proved the opposite) that will not give in to the tyranny of the minority. But the minority in Turkey (49 percent) showed that it knows how to raise its voice. The tyranny of the majority is not what concerns the minority, but rather the tyranny of Erdoğan…
A stable Turkey is very important to the region, particularly in turbulent times like these. But this is now a card that the U.S. does not have in the poker game in Syria. At this rate, Iranian Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will suddenly present himself as a responsible adult.
Which brings us to the final delicious irony. Syria, of all the countries in the world, has issued a travel advisory against travel to Turkey because of the violence.
The Syrian foreign ministry warned its citizens about the deteriorating security situation in several Turkish cities, and the escalating protest violence between the Turkish government and Turkish protesters.
Syria even called on Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan to stop the violent repression of the protesters, and if he can’t, then to resign.
How they wrote this and kept a straight face is a mystery.
Sadly the violence in Turkey is not a laughing matter. Our thoughts are with the good people of Turkey. May the forces of Islamism be defeated without any more violence.