It started out small, but has taken on a life of its own. Last Monday, a handful of peaceful protesters occupied Gezi park on Taksim Square, one of the few green spaces in Istanbul, in protest against plans for its redevelopment into a mall. They were having a sit-in, reading books, planting trees to replace those already ripped out by municipal workers. On Wednesday, the police attacked them with teargas and burned down their tents. Elsewhere in the city, the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was announcing plans to push ahead with a third Bosphorus bridge despite the critical response to the project by environmentalists.
With a mandate from 50% of voters at the last election, no real challenges to his increasing authoritarianism, and a media that largely self-censors, Erdogan had every reason to be confident. Just weeks ago, protests against the destruction of a historic cinema for yet another shopping mall were silenced with brutal police attacks, but there was no public outcry. Recent restrictions on the sale and consumption of alcohol, the morning-after pill and abortion, and public displays of affection; the rejection of a draft bill supporting LGBT rights; the bombings in Reyhanli near the Syrian border, and the death of Kurdish civilians after a Turkish military air strike in Roboski all came and went without uproar. Would people then revolt over a small park? Well, they did. This issue has become the catalyst for the most widespread civil unrest in Turkish history.
Turkey, with its history of coups, is no stranger to mass demonstration. But what makes this one special is that it has not been organised by trade unions or political parties. There are no institutional leaders or co-ordinators. People from all walks of life are involved, despite Erdogan’s claims that the protests are ideological, organised by the secular Republican People’s party (CHP) and attended mainly by the upper middle classes or kaymak tabaka (crème de la crème), as he put it.
On Thursday night, some apolitical friends – the most organised things we ever did was to go to dinner together – called to see if I was going to Gezi park. On Friday night I was in Ankara. At the protests there, I saw many childhood friends whose political views differ greatly from mine. Deputies from the CHP who came to greet us were ignored or booed. Later, we met two people from the poorer neighbourhood of Çinçin. We shared a cigarette, our resentment towards the government, and notes on recuperating from teargas. “This is us,” one said, “we are the same after all.” The cab driver who took me home said: “I voted for Erdogan, but this is too much. Why are you gassing us, are we bugs?” My friend Yasemin, an architect who wears a headscarf, tweeted criticising police brutality and called on Erdogan to “swallow his pride and listen to the protesters”.
On Saturday the crowds grew bigger. Generic slogans such as the ironic “Cheers Tayyip!” were replaced by “Government resign!” the first concrete demand to be voiced. People carried signs saying, “We are not activists, we are the people”. Although the police withdrew from Taksim Square in Istanbul, they reappeared in other parts of the city. Chaos in Ankara and other cities continued.
As I write, there is relative calm. The streets have been cleaned by protesters. But whatever the next 24 hours bring, this is the first time in a long while we have felt that our voice has been heard. Expecting Erdogan to resign is foolish, but it is safe to assume that his plans to run for president with enhanced powers are shattered. Meanwhile, we can actually follow his advice. In a televised speech on Saturday, the prime minister said: “Every four years we hold elections … Those who have a problem with the government’s policies can express their opinions.” What a good idea.
Binnaz Saktanber is a Turkish blogger and political scientist.