The Struggle for the Heart of Istanbul

It's becoming clear that it will take more than one chaotic weekend to derail Prime Minister Erdogan's plans.


ISTANBUL — Thousands of anti-government demonstrators gathered in the center of Turkey’s largest city on Monday night, preparing to stand their ground against what they feared could be the imminent arrival of riot police.

Roads leading to Istanbul’s Taksim Square, known as the "center of centers" in the sprawling metropolis, remained blocked off by gutted vehicles and scraps of wood and metal, which the protesters moved to reinforce. Police pulled back from Taksim on Saturday, and there were few demonstrators in the square during the daylight hours of Monday. But with working hours over and reports of further clashes with the police, the protesters returned to chant slogans against the country’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Two young demonstrators said they had been in Gezi Park, adjacent to the square, when they smelled tear gas wafting up the hill from a road along the Bosporus Strait. Police had moved to disperse demonstrators who were trying for a third night to march on an office used by Erdogan.

"It’s going to get messy," one young demonstrator said, as a helicopter buzzed over head. "Please support us."

Would they stay in Taksim even if Istanbul’s brutal police force moved up the hill to pour tear gas on the demonstrators?

"We will try," one of the demonstrators said. "Will try for as long as we can."

Small kebab shops remained open, and protesters cheered as fireworks popped off and thousands of people rushed to the square.

Even before protesters reconvened in Taksim, the day brought news of the first casualty of the unrest. Mehmet Ayvalitas died after being struck by a car that drove into a group of protesters. It is unclear if the incident was accidental or not.

A teenage protester sitting next to an improvised barricade in Taksim said he’d come from a faraway neighborhood, "because I hate the government." There had been no sign of the authorities since Saturday, but he believed there was only so much longer that the protesters could stay in Taksim before the police moved in.

Public anger at Erdogan has been building for some time — and boiled over during the past weekend due to what protesters describe as his authoritarian nature.

"There’s never been other protests like this in Istanbul or in all Turkey," said Yaman Kuleli, a 36-year old bank employee.

Like the majority of demonstrators, Kuleli focused his grievances on the prime minister: Erdogan was limiting personal freedoms, such as recent restrictions on alcohol, to promote conservative religious values. He’d bullied the country’s media into submission through arrests of journalists, and by intimidating or co-opting media barons — a fact obvious to anyone with a television set, as most local stations opted to broadcast music and cooking shows rather than covering the protests.

Having won three elections since coming to power a decade ago, each time with a larger percentage of votes, Erdogan appears to believe he has a mandate to lead Turkish society as he sees fit. He is focused only on his supporters, Turks that are "like him" — Sunni Muslim and nationalist — Kuleli said. The demonstrators feel that he treats the rest of the country as a minority that should be unseen and unheard in their own country — a sentiment reinforced by Erdogan himself, who described the protesters as "arm-in-arm with terrorism" and said Turkey’s intelligence services are investigating their links to foreign actors.

This mentality, coupled with police brutality against a peaceful sit-in by activists who wanted to prevent the destruction of Taksim’s Gezi Park, the last green space in the center of the city, came together to drive thousands of mainly secular Turkish citizens onto the streets for mass protests.

The initial police response was Erdogan’s worst enemy. The security forces attempted to push the demonstrators away, firing excessive amount of tear gas into the crowd, some of the canisters hitting demonstrators and journalists in the head. The demonstrators, meanwhile, fled down the pedestrian shopping street Istiklal. A small number threw rocks and pieces of cement at the police, but most remained peaceful. They communicated via cell phone and social media to try to find small streets to push back into Taksim, but were continuously blocked by police.

"The more violent the police got, the more people came," said Betul Tanbay, one of the founders of the Taksim Solidarity Organization, which organized the initial Gezi Park sit-in. "We knew when the bulldozers arrived there would be a huge reaction, because Taksim represents a lot in Turkey."

Realizing the protesters would not give up and facing an international outcry over the crackdown, the police ceded the square on Saturday. Protesters soon flooded in: An estimated 100,000 people held what amounted to an impromptu street party, complete with beer and kebab from nearby shops. Some protesters even slept in Taksim and Gezi Park to make sure authorities did not return.

Many pundits have argued that demonstrators were from multiple segments of Turkish society. It is true, to an extent — but the majority appear to have come from segments of the population already inclined to dislike Erdogan. Most were middle class youth, somewhere between 20 to 30 years old, with liberal sensibilities that clashed with the Turkish government’s social conservative bent.

"These are not people who are demanding bread. These are people who are demanding freedom," said Aykan Erdemir, a parliamentarian from the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Turkey’s largest opposition party. 

"This is what I think the prime minister is missing. What he is doing is in stark contrast to the every day life of [these] youth. You have 20 years of freedom and then you suddenly get a new father who is very authoritarian and abusive."

Socialists and communists were also a major presence in the Istanbul protests — at night they clashed with police across the city, especially in Beskitas, a neighborhood where Erdogan keeps an office. A large delegation from the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) also appeared on Sunday, waving banners showing the face of Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed icon of the Kurdish movement. They received many glares from the Turkish nationalists and their flags did not stay out for long, but the traditional rivals were able to coexist in Taksim.  

Why did they make the point of being there with the Ocalan flags? "Kurdish people are the most pressured society in this country," said 17-year old Kurd named Baran."We want freedom."

Amid the tear gas and angry, smartphone-wielding crowds, I experienced an unpleasant sense of déjà vu. The protests were similar to demonstrations in Caracas, Venezuela, in 2007, which I had witnessed as a university student. Following Hugo Chávez’s decision to close opposition television station RCTV, protesters gathered in a central square and banged loudly with pots and pans at their windows — the clamor of a minority that felt powerless before the majority. 

Turks raised their windows to bang pots and pans in support of the protesters as well. But much like the Venezuelan protesters, it was quickly apparent that any success would be limited, if achieved at all.

It’s going to take more than a few days of protest to stop Erdogan’s push to remake Turkey in his own image. On Sunday, the prime minister said that there were no definite plans for the construction of a shopping center in place of Gezi Park — but, he insisted, "a mosque will be built
in Taksim." Protesters also cited the third bridge being built over the Bosphorus Strait as another example of Erdogan’s divisiveness: The bridge will be named for Yavuz Sultan Suleiman, or Selim the Grim, a 16th century Ottoman sultan known for massacring members of Turkey’s Alevi community, a branch of Shiite Islam. Today, Alevis make up between 10 to 30 percent of Turkey’s population.

"Why did you select this name? Is there not other names?" Kuleli said. "The bridge is against the Alevis and the Shia."

The Turkish government’s support of rebels in Syria was another major grievance of the protesters. According to a recent poll, only about 28 percent of Turks believe the country’s Syria policy is being handled effectively.

Assad might be a dictator, Kuleli said, but "I don’t know." More concerning to him was the May 11 car bombings in Reyhanli, a town on the Turkey-Syria border, that Erdogan’s government blamed on Syrian intelligence. "52 people are dead. Who killed them? The government’s policies."

The unpopularity of Erdogan’s Syria policy was echoed by Can Taskiran, who stood in Gezi Park on Sunday with his wife and teenage daughter.  "We don’t want pressure on Syria from Obama," he said, pointing out Erdogan’s close relationship with the United States.

"We want to protect our environment, our park in Taksim Square," he said. "We want to protect Ataturk’s ideas and thinking…Recep Tayyip Erdogan is against Mr. Kemal Ataturk." 

For some Turks, there is no greater insult.

Justin Vela is an Istanbul-based journalist. Follow him on Twitter @justinvela.