It all began with a grove of sycamores. For months a tight band of environmentalists had been protesting against a government-backed project to chop the trees down in order to make room for a mall and residential complex in Istanbul’s Taksim Square. Last week they organised a peaceful sit in, camping, singing and dancing by the threatened trees.
On May 31st, in a predawn raid, riot police moved in. They set fire to the demonstrators’ tents and doused them with pressurised water and tear gas. Images depicting police brutality spread like wildfire across social media. Within hours thousands of outraged citizens began streaming towards Taksim Square. Backed by armoured personnel carriers and water cannons, police retaliated with even more brutish force. Tidal waves of pepper spray sent protestors reeling and gasping for air. Hundreds of demonstrators were arrested, and scores of others injured, in the clashes that ensued. Copycat demonstrations erupted in Ankara, the Turkish capital, and elsewhere across the country. Turkey’s “Tree Revolution” had begun.
In fact the mass protests that are sweeping the country are not just about the trees, nor do they constitute a revolution. They are the expression of the long-stifled resentment felt by nearly half of the electorate who did not vote for the ruling Justice and Development (AK) party in the June 2011 parliamentary elections. These swept Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minster, to power for a third consecutive term.
The wave of unrest was completely unexpected. The protestors cut across ideological, religious and class lines. Many are strikingly young. But there are plenty of older Turks, many of them secular-minded, some overtly pious. There are gays, Armenians, anarchists and atheists. There are also members of Turkey’s Alevi Muslim minority. What joins them is the common sentiment that an increasingly autocratic Mr Erdogan is determined to impose his worldview. The secularists point to a raft of restrictions on booze; liberals to the number of journalists in jail (there are more journalists in prison than in any other country in the world). Thousands of activists of varying stripes (mainly Kurds), convicted under Turkey’s vaguely worded anti-terror laws, are also behind bars. Then there are those incensed by mega urban-development projects, including a third bridge over the Bosphorus, which will entail felling thousands of trees. Scenting the public mood, retailers announced that they had pulled out of the planned arcade in Taksim Square. “This is not about secularists versus Islamists—it’s about pluralism versus authoritarianism,” commented a foreign diplomat.
Mr Erdogan wants to be elected president when the post comes free in August 2014. And he has made no secret of his desire to boost the powers of the presidency “a la Turca” as he put it, spurring accusations that what Erdogan really wants is to become a “Sultan”.
“Tayyip [Erdogan] istifa”, a call for the prime minister to resign, was the slogan most commonly chanted by the protestors. Not that most Turks would have known. Media bosses fearful of jeopardising their other business interests shunned coverage of the protests for nearly two days, opting instead to screen programmes about breast-reduction surgery and gourmet cooking. Faced with a public outcry, the main news channels began broadcasting live from Taksim Square. But pro-government papers continue to point the finger of blame at provocateurs and “foreign powers” bent on undermining Turkey. It seems an odd description of the thousands of housewives leaning over their balconies clanging their pots.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s main opposition, the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP), is scrambling to woo the protestors. “Erdogan is a dictator—it’s time for him to resign,” insisted Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the CHP leader. Yet Mr Erdogan was elected in free and fair elections and remains the most popular leader in modern Turkish history.
For all its recent setbacks, the AK party would probably win again if elections were held today. Like most people, Turks tend to vote with their pockets. A decade of AK rule has brought unprecedented prosperity. Per-capita income has trebled, exports have increased nearly tenfold and Turkish banks are in good health. Mr Erdogan’s bold initiative to end decades of conflict with the country’s Kurds is making good progress. The opposition parties (save the Kurds) remain weak and divided.
Mr Erdogan has grown overconfident, alienating his liberal supporters, and seems increasingly out of touch. The protests are a wake-up call and there are hopeful signs that Mr Erdogan is paying heed. On the second day of the protests he ordered the police to pull out of Taksim Square, admitted that police had overdone it with tear gas and allowed tens of thousands of demonstrators to gather peacefully. And though Mr Erdogan insists that the Taksim project will proceed, he also said that the building might house a “modern museum” rather than a shopping mall.
Above all, the protests suggest that Turkey’s democracy is maturing and that civil society has taken root. The protesters are determined not to allow their movement to be hijacked by mischief-makers. They shun violence, clear the litter after each rally, and have set up hotlines for the injured—cats and dogs included. Restaurants and hotels have thrown open their doors. Pro-secularists seem to have cast off their dependency on the army. A sense of solidarity and confidence prevails. EU-inspired reforms that were rammed through by the AK party helped pave the way. Mr Erdogan may well be wondering whether he is the victim of his own success.
02 June 2013