Turkey is the latest country faced with a series of upheavals that have transformed the political landscape across the Middle East and North Africa over the past two-and-a-half years. As countrywide demonstrations enter their third week, all eyes remain fixed on the already democratic country in hopes that the worst is over.
The anti-government protests began after a group of concerned citizens occupied Gezi Park on May 28. The collective of environmentalists and academics physically blocked government plans to build an Ottoman-replica barracks over one of Istanbul’s few remaining green spaces. Thousands took to the streets after a brutal police raid on the demonstrators, quickly transforming the sit-in into an energetic solidarity movement that has since spread to major cities.
Two people have been killed and thousands more hospitalized or jailed in the most significant protests in the country’s recent history. The reaction from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP administration has been mixed. Erdogan called the protesters looters and terrorists, even going so far as to say some were agents of foreign governments. Erdogan’s initial defiance further angered the demonstrators, inspiring more to protest out of unease over increasingly Islamist and authoritarian state policies.
Those calling for Erdogan’s resignation are angered by his heavy-handed style of rule. Many Turks have grievances with the AKP’s jailing of dissident journalists, as well as certain initiatives that include a ban on the sale of alcohol between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., changes to the constitution that would allow Erdogan to stay in power for at least another decade, and predatory policies designed to feed a burgeoning Turkish economy at the expense of the environment.
One former high-ranking government official, speaking off the record out of fear of government reprisal, said that the root of the anger directed at Erdogan stems from, “a gradual Islamisation of Turkish society, his eccentric obsession with Ottoman times, and what is perceived by many to be a general policy-driven affront to the secularization of government and opening of society under modern Turkey’s founder and hero: Mustafa Kemal Ataturk”.
As the de facto leader of an otherwise leaderless uprising, the “Taksim Solidarity Platform” (led by the original Gezi occupiers) has demanded that the government halt plans to redevelop Taksim Square, restrict police from using tear gas on demonstrators, release all detained protesters, remove officials responsible for the crackdown from office, and loosen restrictions on freedom of assembly and expression.
As tens of thousands around the country continue to call for Erdogan to step down, it remains unlikely that the confrontational leader will meet all of the TSP’s demands. Doing so would mean significant administrative backpedaling and adherence to public will — two things the AKP and Erdogan are not used to doing.