As night descended on Istanbul Tuesday, the protests that have spread to over 60 Turkish cities in the last two weeks escalated. So much for the lower-intensity demonstrations of the past few days, as Turkey awaits a planned meeting between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the quasi-leaders of the Occupy Gezi movement set for Wednesday.
The world has been watching live images of the protests in Taksim Square rapidly escalating. Riot police and protesters have engaged in a back-and-forth game of wills after police raided the area Tuesday. They flattened tents and barricades, tore down signs that read “Tayyip, Istifa!” (Tayyip, Resign), and forced out occupiers.
Now protesters continuously retreat under the annoyance of tear-gas canisters, only to come back and charge police while shooting fireworks and other incendiary devices horizontally at them. Powerful hoses hurl pressurized water from armored police vehicles that resemble a gun turret atop a tank on a battlefield. Police have also deployed rubber bullets against those Erdogan has previously referred to as “looters” and “terrorists.” Some protesters have responded with an arsenal of Molotov cocktails that have started numerous fires in the square.
The anti-Erdogan feeling is not reserved for Turks in major cities. People all over the country are feeling the pressure of Erdogan’s peculiar and increasingly authoritarian reforms. A diverse array of groups that predate the original Gezi Park occupiers have set up shop in Taksim Square.
One source on the ground reports that organizations with names like the “Turkish Communist Party,” the “Revolutionary Labor Union,” and other pro-Kurdish independence groups are now amidst the Taksim occupiers. He reports that these more militant groups aren’t hijacking the original cause of the demonstrations, but are using the revolutionary ardor to insert their agendas for change into the protests, as well as inspire youth to clash with police.
Until Tuesday, the protests in Turkey didn’t fully resemble those in Egypt or Tunisia. Now they do. Angst on the part of Western leaders is morphing into worry and genuine fear.
Today on MSNBC, Howard Fineman of the Huffington Post highlighted Turkey’s strategic importance, calling it “absolutely indispensible” to stability in the region. Turkey borders eight countries, including Syria, Iran, and Iraq. On Turkey’s borders are numerous violent clashes over the fault line between Shia and Sunni Islam. Within Turkey, the seemingly timeless struggle between conservative Islamic authoritarianism and secular democracy is being played out in the streets.
Israel and the U.S. are both becoming more wary of the situation. The White House again called for calm from protesters and police, as an already bad situation quickly becomes worse.