Turkey has been swept by demonstrations against the Islamist regime of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The uprising, as it has become, began after police assaulted peaceful protestors opposed to the environmental degradation of Istanbul. By Monday, June 3 – the fourth day of clashes – the clamor against removal of trees from Gezi Park, adjoining the great city's main Taksim Square, had also spread to the Turkish capital, Ankara, and the country's symbol of its past urban diversity, Izmir. A civic action with an ecological message had become a mobilization of Turkey's disaffected secular masses.
Police have fired tear gas at the growing crowds, numbering in the hundreds of thousands; the protestors have reacted in some places by setting up barricades and throwing stones. The police use of gas was especially prolific in the Beyoglu and Besiktas neighborhoods of Istanbul on June 1. Other citizens have taken to the balconies of their homes and apartment buildings, banging on empty pots to express their discontent with Erdogan. The people are chanting for the resignation of "dictator" Erdogan, and warning him, "Tayyip, see our strength." Containers of building materials intended for the "reconstruction" of Gezi Park have been burned.
Some 500 people were arrested in Istanbul early Monday, along with 300 in Izmir. Previously during the weekend, according to Interior Minister Muammer Guler, 1,700 citizens were detained in 67 towns to which the confrontation had spread. The Turkish Medical Association has reported that about 3,200 people have been injured. Courageous medical personnel, often the real heroes in such street battles, have rushed to their aid, setting up an emergency clinic. Two participants in the protests have been killed. Mehmet Ayvalitas, 20, was struck by a car that drove into the demonstrators in Istanbul on Sunday, while Abdullah Comert, 22, received a fatal head injury during a protest in Antakya near the Syrian border. One woman was admitted to hospital with a fractured skull. Lawyers were recruited to defend the arrested.
Erdogan has threatened the people with his customary rhetoric, describing the demonstrators as "looters," accusing them of alignment with terrorists, charging opposition politicians with provocation, and warning that the national intelligence services will identify "internal and external" enemies. "We will settle accounts with them," Erdogan declared crudely. By his manner, this Islamist betrays both his lack of civility and his pretensions to absolute power.
It appears, however, that the citizens of the Turkish Republic are "settling accounts" with Erdogan.
Erdogan held to his plan to depart the country on an official tour of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. This flight from a political challenge is evidence of weakness, not confidence. The leadership of Erdogan's administration and his "Justice and Development Party" (known as the AKP) is divided. President Abdullah Gul defended the protestors' rights on Monday. Gul stated, "Democracy does not mean elections alone. There can be nothing more natural for the expression of various views, various situations and objections through a variety of ways, besides elections." Erdogan's former Culture Minister, Ertugrul Gunay, explained that the people seeking to protect Gezi Park wanted no more than to preserve one of the few green areas remaining in Istanbul.
Nothing could better illustrate the depth of the social crisis in Turkey than the split at the top of the power structure. Protestors fear Erdogan's authoritarianism and Islamist ideology. Political differentiation has extended to the business class. Erdogan intended to transform Gezi Park into a shopping mall, but Turkish fashion designers said they would not open outlets in the proposed structure.
In the past, the prime minister's uncompromising stance was successful. But now the angry populace, among the most worldly in Muslim countries, has caused its failure. The ruling AKP has arrested students unhappy with increased tuition fees and journalists accused of "terrorism." Turkey has more journalists in jail than any other country. Then came a ban on alcohol, which, although conforming to Islamic religious principles, has been rare in Muslim lands.
Erdogan was revered like an idol for his perverse form of modernization. The economy grew. Turkey bid for recognition as a regional power. The conflict with the Kurdish revolutionary movement was, at least formally, brought to an end.
But rage was building among secular citizens, liberals, and the left. They are dissatisfied with a political leader who ignores human rights. The Turkish media do not report on the situation clearly and accurately. Eyes are closed while people are victimized.
The world needs to open its eyes and perceive the danger of Recep Tayyip Erdogan for regional stability and pluralism. Erdogan has overreached; a new Turkish revolution may have begun. On Tuesday, the Confederation of Public Workers' Unions, known from its Turkish name as KESK, called for a two-day strike against Erdogan's "fascism." The people of Turkey have promised to resist Erdogan's authoritarian ambitions until victory is achieved.