Tens of thousands of demonstrators flooded the streets of Turkey’s four biggest cities on Sunday, braving tear gas and rubber bullets on the third day of the fiercest anti-government demonstrations in years. They were protesting a violent crackdown by the government against initially peaceful protesters trying to halt the demolition of a park next to Taksim Square – the heart of modern Istanbul – to construct a new shopping mall.
In support of the protests, residents honked car horns and banged pots and pans in several parts of Istanbul and Ankara until late Sunday night as clashes between riot police and demonstrators continued. Turkish TV stations reported that a building of the ruling AK Party was set on fire in Izmir.
More than 1,000 people have been injured since Friday, dozens of them from tear gas canisters fired at close range, according to Amnesty International, which also reported that at least two people have died. Still, protesters of all ages, political affiliations and socioeconomic status, said they would continue.
“Tayyip [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan] is saying, ‘I give you freedom,’ but it’s not true,” said Yasin Keskin, 27, a demonstrator at Taksim Square.
The protests have caught Turkish officials and their international allies off-guard: Turkey, a member of NATO and long touted as a bastion of stability and democracy in the region, is suddenly projecting scenes similar to those seen in Egypt, Tunisia and other Arab Spring countries to whom Mr. Erdogan has offered guidance.
The international image of Turkey’s Prime Minister, champion of the rebels fighting against a brutal regime in neighbouring Syria, is now in question.
While the protests initially began late last week as an Occupy-style movement against the building of a mall and a mosque on Gezi Park next to Taksim Square, the reasons for the mass outrage go back years: Mr. Erdogan’s administration has grown increasingly tyrannical in the past decade and, in recent months, his government has moved to roll back liberties Turks have enjoyed for years.
Many locals are complaining about the “Islamization” of Turkey, which has secularism enshrined in its constitution. Late last month, parliament passed a law severely restricting the sale and consumption of alcohol. At the same time, authorities warned against “immodest” public displays of affection, triggering a nationwide “kissing protest.”
Others express concern that Mr. Erdogan is setting himself up as “leader for life” and increasing a crackdown on dissent while limiting free speech and press freedoms even further. In recent months, a blogger and also a well-known pianist have been convicted of blasphemy for series of tweets deemed “harmful” to Islam.
And Turkey has a particularly bleak record for persecuting journalists: The Committee to Protect Journalists has called it “the world’s leading jailor of journalists” – the country jails more reporters than Iran.
One original reason that drew protesters to Taksim Square is how the government has pressed on with the gentrification of Istanbul’s centre, recently evicting poor Kurds and migrant workers from the historic Tarlabasi neighbourhood close by. It also announced plans to build a third bridge over the Bosphorus, which will fell many trees and harm the environment, urban advocates say.
“The government wants to build up the capital for the bourgeoisie, and to send the workers out of Taksim and the other squares of the city,” said protestor Serkan Gundogdu. “The people have responded against the government and taken Taksim Square for themselves.”
Analysts say that the Turkish government is in a bind. The crackdown on protesters could endanger several important international projects such as Turkey’s accession talks with the EU and Istanbul’s bid to host the 2020 Summer Olympics.
But it is also possible that, as the euro-zone crisis deepens, Mr. Erdogan may be looking in an altogether different direction, soaking in opportunistic Gulf Arab investments and political values.
A financial bubble has been growing in the country in recent years, fuelled by investment redirected to Turkey following the Arab Spring.
And while instability could threaten the Turkish economy, a heavy-fisted approach to the demonstrations could encourage the Arab investors, wary of asset freezes in the West, analysts say privately.
Regardless, Mr. Erdogan, known for his pragmatic and wily political style, backed off the shopping project late Sunday even as he continued to sound a defiant tone, vowing to “bring together” one million supporters of his Justice and Development Party for every 100,000 protesters gathered.
“The problem with Erdogan is that he is essentially calling about 40 per cent of the population marginal,” said Aaron Stein, an analyst at the Center for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies in Istanbul, in a tweet.
The more immediate test, however, is whether Mr. Erdogan will be able to subdue the outrage at home. While most protesters did not believe they would topple the government, the crackdown has also failed to disperse the demonstrators so far.
In contrast to widespread vandalism on Saturday night in Istanbul, an atmosphere of solidarity took hold Sunday, with volunteers removing trash and distributing donated meals to protesters in scenes that hark back to Tahrir Square in Egypt. Some locals are already calling it the “Turkish Spring,” saying its borne out of a deep sense of frustration with Mr. Erdogan and his ruling party.
“It’s a protest against all the things [the government] does – they just say, ‘We want this,’ and proceed to do it but in an undemocratic manner,” said Bak, 42, manning a barricade near the scene of some of the clashes, and who asked his last name not be used.
“I think these protests will grow, grow, grow, like a snowball. It’s the first time that you see such protests here – so many people coming together from so many different parts of society.”